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Out of troubled waters

For a while it looked like Sawyer Paddles & Oars was up the creek without, well ... a paddle.

The venerable outdoor recreation firm founded in 1967 by canoe racing hall-of-famer Ralph Sawyer nearly got swamped by a bad business deal, then plunged into Chapter 11 court protection before reaching calmer waters.

An ill-fated strategic alliance with Grants Pass furniture maker Roguewood in 2014 led to a string of legal and financial battles in 2015 that sent the company into bankruptcy in February 2016.

"We've been through the gauntlet," Sawyer President Pete Newport said. "It felt like we were in Class VI rapids, and now we're in Class III riffles, ready to surf the wave."

The company emerged with Newport — joined by Zac Kauffman, sales and marketing vice president; Israel Ramirez, production manager; and Shyne Tourville, quality control manager — overseeing an employee-owned firm. They embarked on a course to halt low-end, low-margin paddle production, expand high-end business-to-business distribution globally, and boost e-commerce sales.

In the process, Sawyer has put together back-to-back years of profitability.

The biggest benefit from navigating the troubled waters, Newport said, was the cohesion it built.

"It really is a magical thing," he said. "The whole team went through that trying time together. Knowing things like that can come up in your business does teach you to rely on each other's skills. It keeps your morale up, and you appreciate the people you work with."

Newport, who acquired the company from former owners Bruce and Mary Bergstrom in 2011, said other lessons were learned, as well.

"Any time you are doing turnaround projects with old companies, there are risks to any idea you try, from new products to new machinery to new technologies," he said. "In the case of working with Roguewood, we were making some pretty dramatic changes — and it backfired. Had it worked, we would've been through the turnaround years sooner."

As a result, according to Newport, the next step was reassessing everything and making significant changes.

"We're taking smaller risks, rather than big risks," he said. "That requires hundreds of little changes to come up with a significant improvement. But we're at peace with the hundreds of little changes, and that's our plan moving forward."

The company builds and markets 800 products. Rather than making wholesale changes from one year to the next, Newport said that 20 or 30 new items are added and another 20 to 30 are discontinued.

While the end-users range from youngsters to octogenarians, there is a tendency for customers to want to have the latest and greatest.

"When we launch a new product that is slightly better than previous versions, it creates a spike in demand," Newport said. "We've found people want something a little lighter, a little more flexible, or a little tougher."

Nonetheless, some customers have an affinity for their gear.

“I’m amazed how often Sawyer customers will invest more than the price of a new paddle to have us restore their 20-plus-year-old paddles,” Tourville said.

Another change involves equipment. Instead of buying a $100,000 piece of machinery and then seeing how it fits with production, the firm may acquire second-hand equipment. It recently bought a used compressor for $50,000, he said.

Sawyer continues to sell out of its Gold Hill headquarters, while manufacturing in Talent.

The company has 20 employees, up from a decade ago, but down from six years ago when the paddleboard boom mushroomed demand.

In 2015, according to bankruptcy court documents, the company's revenue was more than $2.1 million despite curtailed production, but lost $568,000.

Newport declined to reveal figures for the past two years, but said revenue grew 10 percent in 2016 and 2017.

"The biggest thing is that we've been able to lower our costs by 20 percent," he said.

— Reach reporter Greg Stiles at 541-776-4463 or gstiles@rosebudmedia.com. Follow him on Twitter at www.twitter.com/GregMTBusiness or www.facebook.com/greg.stiles.31.

Newport moves a boat around the floor at Sawyer Station. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]
Pete Newport, president of Sawyer Paddles & Oars, at Sawyer Station in Gold Hill. [Mail Tribune / Andy Atkinson]