By Laurie Petersen
You won’t find a river running behind the factory of Confluence Outdoor in Greenville, South Carolina—but you will find something just as dear to any watersport enthusiast’s heart. Tucked behind the building is an industrial chain-link fenced enclosure, overflowing with 100 kayaks and canoes in almost every shape, size and color the company makes.
This is the “boat shop” where the company’s 425 workers can sign out boats of their liking for as long as they want. They can venture out on the waters of the Reedy River, a 15-minute drive away, or as far as their paddles will take them.
On Friday afternoons, it’s a mad scramble. A parade of vehicles exits the parking lot with kayaks strapped to roofs and others with canoes jammed into the back seat with the bows poking out the windows.
It’s a scene that makes sense to Sue Rechner, who took over as CEO of the company nearly seven years ago. She knows Confluence is filled with diehard paddlers. They get paid to make the kayaks and canoes they love to play in. “Because a lot of them are outdoor enthusiasts and a lot of them are kayakers, all of that passion comes out in the product that they create,” she says.
These overgrown, but experienced, kids who race to hit the boat shop every Friday have the same gratitude and respect for Rechner. She’s turned their company around and has set a course for the company that could make it a world leader not just in kayaks, but also in the larger outdoor recreation industry.
When Rechner arrived at Confluence in December 2007, it was headed in the wrong direction and losing “buckets of money,” she says. While the exploding popularity of kayaking meant sales were steady, the company lacked discipline and had lost significant credibility with retailers, suppliers and partners.
Over the years, Confluence had brought eight brands under one roof. The move had led to manufacturing confusion and slips in quality as molders and assemblers had to learn new models.
Rechner was ready for the challenge of fixing Confluence. She loved resurrecting heritage brands. At Victorinox Swiss Army, where she was CEO before joining Confluence, she had successfully re-launched the declining Swiss Army watch business and added apparel to the product line.
Confluence was much smaller and the career move was a lateral one. But it was a place where she could find meaning in a job that combined her love of the outdoors with a company desperately in need of her leadership skills.
Rechner knew the key to the company were those diehard paddlers, who made up the devoted and knowledgeable workforce. Instead of overhauling the entire management team, she brought in just two colleagues from outside the company to help her.
Fellow New Jersey native Shelly Moore took over sales and Cheri McKenzie came on to lead marketing. The three women had worked together at Swiss Army, and Rechner and Moore had worked together at the Movado watch brand.
The first thing Team Rechner did was make sense of Confluence’s eight brands, which had been brought together over more than 40 years of acquisition by several different companies. Confluence was born out of these companies in 1998 and included well-known boat brands such as Perception, Wilderness Systems and Mad River Canoe.
Rechner defined the brands precisely. Perception, created in the early 1970s, is for stillwater paddling and is great for beginners and families. Wilderness Systems is for sea kayaking and Wave Sport caters to the daredevil sport of whitewater kayaking.
The next step was fixing the manufacturing process. She needed to keep costs down, maintain the best boat quality and increase the number of boats that are made in what is lovingly called the “boat bakery” at Confluence’s 453,000-square-foot factory—a former Hitachi television tube factory—that it moved into three years ago.
The “boat bakery” nickname comes from the process of building a kayak. They all start as colorful resins poured into more than 200 different aluminum boat molds to cover Confluence's extensive range.
They are baked in specialized ovens, constantly rotating, for short periods of time. Then, when the temperature drops they are removed from their molds to cool. The insides are stuffed with inserts to keep their shape and then they are trimmed by hand. The factory floor is often covered with long, loose strings of colored plastic shavings. These are recycled, dyed black, and used to make other parts.
Chad Trotter, who manages the molding process, started mixing resins at Confluence in 1990 right out of high school. Back then, he says, they could bake about 32 boats during a good eight-hour shift. Today with Rechner’s improvements and better technology they put out hundreds.
To hit that number, or even higher, under Rechner’s watch a boat is always in prep, another’s in the oven, and a third boat is cooling at all times. The brand logos are now included in the molding process, a change that shaved two full days off the manufacturing time because boats don’t have to cool down before the logo is applied.
Assembly lines to finish the boats once served single product lines. Now, any boat can move down any line, eliminating assembly down time.
Boats are produced on machines called turrets. A small single turret can produce 12 boats in an eight-hour shift.
All those changes drew the attention of the private equity firm J.H. Whitney, based in New Canaan, Connecticut, which bought Confluence this past April. But before signing the deal, the firm’s managing director Paul Vigano says he had Rechner and her management team commit to staying with the business.
“Sue has the skillset to run a billion-dollar business,” Vigano says. “She’s really passionate about the outdoors. The industry really needs people like her.”
While Rechner, Moore and McKenzie brought business skills to Confluence, they know they wouldn’t have succeeded without the many paddlers who have spent much of their lives working on the brands and boats they love to use themselves.
Scott Byers was a college student in 1995 when he took a side job to make some extra cash working at the company when it was still called Perception.
“Everyone in the area knew it was there,” he recalls of the old factory that had kayaks on its roof. “It had a mysterious aura. Kayaking (on the whitewater falls) seemed like something only crazy people would do.”
Byers started in the shipping and logistics office. About six months later he moved into molding and inventory control and started mixing resins. He’d also started borrowing kayaks through the employee loaner program and something clicked. He became one of the crazy ones. “Once you grab onto it, you’re stuck. It’s in your blood,” he says. “I fell in love with the industry.”
Boating gave Byers the direction he needed. Within two years, he was working in research and development and design. This wasn’t just a side job anymore. It was his career.
Byers never finished college, but Rechner calls him a “Google search engine for all things kayaks and canoe.” This knowledge propelled him into customer service as a technical support rep for retail customers. By 2010 he’d taken over all of customer service and was given free rein to shape the department. His philosophy: Hire nice people who love the sport.
In 2013, Byers officially became director of customer service, overseeing a nine-person team. He may run the only customer service department where some people have stayed for more than 10 years.
“It’s talking about kayaking. It’s who we are,” he says. “Once you connect with our community, you don’t want to lose that connection.”
Creating that connection isn’t hard for Byers. “To this day I get excited walking through the warehouse,” he says, breaking into a huge grin. He can’t keep his hands off the boats and doesn’t stop talking as he rattles off the distinctive name of every color blend, all while demonstrating the patented three-position suspension fishing seats on a kayak.
“We don’t make trash cans. We make toys," he says.
David Maughan has designed 40 boats for Confluence, and on a cool fall day in mid-October his Wilderness Systems brand Thresher 140 is rolling off the line.
The boat is designed for the kayak angler market, the fastest growing segment in the kayak industry. An experienced fisherman, Maughan has probably spent 50 hours in the water testing the various prototypes that led to the new release.
“It’s hard for a lot of us to separate what’s work and what’s fun,” he says. “I get to go to work with a briefcase and a swimming suit.”
The new Thresher needs to be stable in extreme weather conditions, so it has flared sidewalls. More dry storage is built in because these boats will be used for longer trips. There's also a paddle park that makes it easy to grab a paddle to go after “a big one” quickly.
To create the new kayak, Maughan tapped into a community of kayak anglers who provide a direct line of feedback on product design. Using computer-guided cutting machines he took their ideas, put them into the design, and created prototypes they themselves could test.
It used to take six months for Confluence to create a prototype, built by hand using wood strips, fiberglass, and foam. “Some of those earlier models looked like we were building a Frankenstein kayak, borrowing pieces from other boats and making up the rest,” he recalls.
With the machine Maughan uses today, prototyping takes just one day. A solid slab of foam is inserted in the machine and sensors detect the proper size and shape to carve the boat based on Maughan’s designs. He also uses 3-D printers to make smaller parts.
This speed allows Maughan and the other boat designers to launch more models each year. A few days after the 140, the Thresher 155 goes public. It is 15 inches longer and can support 50 pounds more than the 140. This flexibility and attention to detail gives Confluence a market advantage.
“This is the smartest group of people I’ve ever worked with,” McKenzie says.
“People are drawn to the opportunity to say, ‘I was able to make something great.’”
With support from the new owners, Rechner expects to see the company quadruple in size as it expands to give paddlers everything they need for the outdoor lifestyle, whether it’s for camping, hiking or fishing.
Lest anyone forget, it’s everyone’s job to make that happen—the company’s work t-shirts serve as a constant reminder.
“Dream it. Think it. Do it,” each shirt reads, and that’s just what Rechner and her band of diehard paddlers intend to do.
Laurie Petersen is editor-in-chief of Aol Jobs. She paddles in the Hudson River and volunteers with the Hoboken Cove Boathouse.
Photography and videography by Corey Messer.