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Oar, paddle maker is poised for boom

TALENT — Sawyer Paddles & Oars president Pete Newport's second career is rapidly surpassing his first.(Clarification: Details about the award have been added to this story.)

Newport grew a Bend guitar maker from four employees to 60 in 11 years before selling the firm at 39 and dancing down the road. In just more than two years at Sawyer Paddles, Newport has helped put the company on track for unparalleled growth, acquiring two vendors along the way.

The 43-year-old Newport anticipates the company's modest $5 million revenue and 23-person staff (plus two openings at the moment) will grow to between $10 million and $30 million in the next five years, with the employee count growing to between 40 and 60.

"Our mission is to become the world's favorite paddle and oar company," he said.

"Our two acquisitions put us in position to do that, and we have other suppliers and competitors we would like to acquire."

Newport's entrepreneurial skills landed him a spot on the dais at next month's Oregon State University Alumni Association's Celebration of Excellence in Portland.

Newport will receive the Distinguished Early Career Business Professional award from the Oregon State University College of Business.

After selling Breedlove Guitars, Newport took time off, "played and traveled the world."

Then he stumbled onto a concept that led him back to the Rogue Valley for the first time since he was an undergraduate at Southern Oregon University before heading to Corvallis.

"I was looking for direction, reading a bunch of books, and I read to be truly happy as an entrepreneur that you can design your dream customer," he said.

Faster than a Disney animator, he was filling up white boards and pondering companies that fit with his aims. Sawyer Paddles kept working its way up the list.

He phoned his old mentor, Bruce Bergstrom, in May of 2011.

"I called Bruce and said: 'It's Crazy Pete, teach me how to run the company and I'll help you retire,' " Newport said.

"We'll need some beer," Bergstrom replied.

Bergstrom, who acquired the company in 1987, had thought about succession and was more than willing to talk.

"But I really didn't have a clue how to do it," he recalled.

The future of one of the world's foremost paddle and oar manufacturers was worked out over ale at Standing Stone Brewery in Ashland.

"We sat out of the way where we could spread paper all over the place and sat there for hours," Bergstrom said. "I'm surprised they didn't kick us out."

Within two months the deal was done.

"I figured I would be at it for another four or five years," Bergstrom said. "It was incredibly fast and scared the hell out of me."

By Labor Day, Newport had the keys to the executive washroom.

He wasted little time in reshaping the 47-year-old firm started by canoeing legend Ralph Sawyer.

Last year, the company posted a record year and refined its process, making 100 improvements and tweaks.

Soon after taking command, Newport began courting Profile Composites, a Canadian firm that had relocated to Bremerton, Wash., in pursuit of aerospace contracts.

"Over the last two years, I visited them seven or eight times so I could get a better understanding of their process," Newport said. "Each visit, I told them I would love to buy your company."

When Profile Composites, one of the industry's largest carbon fiber suppliers, began to put more emphasis on its aerospace projects, Newport stepped up his pursuit.

It paid off late last year, he said.

"The ninth time I visited, they said, 'OK, let's do this.' "

On Dec. 15, the deal was closed.

A couple months earlier, Sawyer Paddles bought out DK Router Works and made its owner, Daryl Knowles, production manager.

The company is now the largest oar manufacturer in the world and fifth-largest paddle maker behind Werner Paddle Co. of Sultan, Wash.; Bending Branches of Osceola, Wis.; a German firm; and Kialoa Paddles of Bend.

Propelled by the mushrooming popularity of stand-up paddling, which according to industry figures adds 41,000 adherents daily, Sawyer Paddles' growth should continue for some time. Without being specific, Newport said his acquisition wish list includes a corresponding water-sports line.

"My dream is to build a $100 million revenue group of companies and have them based in Gold Hill," he said. "We're planning on getting involved in the community and whitewater center going in there."

Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or business@mailtribune.com.Follow him on Twitter @GregMTBusiness, friend him on Facebook and read his blog at www.mailtribune.com/Economic Edge.

Paddles are shown Wednesday at Sawyer Paddles & Oars, which is gearing up for significant growth in the next five years.