Originally published in Business Digest, September 1997

Paddle Your Own ... Kayak?

by Kathryn Trudell

The hollowed-out log that once shouldered its way through lake chop is a fading memory. Birchbark, sealskin and sinew remain only in the far north. Although the spirit of traditional paddling lives on at Canoe Imports on Dorset Street in South Burlington, contemporary canoes and kayaks are made of space-age materials, such as polyethylene, Kevlar, lightweight aluminum alloys, and carbon fiber. (Yes, it is still possible to purchase classic wooden canoes, although only a few customers do so.) "Paddle craft are very traditional, yet thoroughly modern," says Bob Schumacher. "This is a blend that works today when people want to have fun in a natural environment in a craft that is dependable and requires little or no upkeep."

Schumacher and his wife, Barbara, owners of Canoe Imports, channeled their love of the outdoors into a living when they purchased the business from its founders, George and Ellen Saunders, in 1975.

"George started Canoe Imports as a wholesale import business, hence the name," Bob says. "He was importing British, Italian, and German paddles, including kayak paddles, but he sold almost no kayaks. He didn't move into retail sales until the 1960s. As an interesting sidenote," he adds, "what Americans call a kayak Europeans call a 'canoe,' and what Americans call a canoe the Europeans label a 'Canadian canoe.' That's changing, but it was certainly true in 1957."

[photo] As a student at UVM, Bob Schumacher began working for the founder of Canoe Imports. In 1975 he and his wife, Barbara, purchased the business. " I can remember when the customers' choices of canoes were limited to red, green and aluminum," Bob says. (Photo: Jeff Clarke)

Canoe Imports marked 1997 as a milestone year with a celebration of the 40th anniversary of the business and the move to a new location in South Burlington. The Schumachers offered a gala week of classes, demonstration clinics, videos, speakers, and special events in July to thank the community and customers for their support.

But Bob still recalls 1975 vividly. "What a year that was!" he says. "We purchased Canoe Imports and our daughter Penny was born -- in the same year. We were straight out, but we were young and tireless then, and we just did it. I recall only one year -- I think it was back in the late 1970s -- when we didn't grow at all. Except for that year we have experienced slow but steady 10 to 20 percent growth since we bought it. This year, because of the move to our new location, we will probably experience our biggest growth, 25 to 30 percent."

The move from Shelburne was a business decision the couple has contemplated for years. "The business was 20 years in Burlington in a carriage barn, 20 years in Shelburne in an open-air garage attached to our home, and now hopefully a minimum of 20 more years in South Burlington," laughs Barbara. "After 40 years, our business finally has heat and air conditioning!"

The Schumachers met at UVM in the '60s and were married in 1971. Bob was born in New Haven, Conn., and moved with his family, first to Poughkeepsie, N.Y., then to Essex Junction. Barbara (Knapp) was born in Vancouver, Wash., and lived in Pennsylvania and Massena, N.Y. "Bob and I moved to Vermont and never left," she says. She majored in geology; Bob studied civil engineering. They met at the UVM Outing Club, where George Saunders, the owner of Canoe Imports, was the club's advisor, offered Bob a part-time job.

"George started Canoe Imports in a carriage barn on South Willard Street in Burlington," Schumacher recalls. "The business consisted of George, his wife, and one part-time employee, myself or someone else. I worked as a part-time salesman and jack-of-all-trades. We didn't do repairs, just sales. We mostly stocked Grumman aluminum canoes, Old Town wood, canvas or fiberglass canoes, Canadian Cadorette canoes, paddles, life jackets, and car racks. We sold almost no kayaks, even for whitewater. People ran whitewater in canoes back then."

Although Schumacher graduated from UVM and spent the next five years working for the state as a civil engineer, he maintained his friendship with the Saunders, sometimes looking after their business when the couple was on vacation.

"How did I end up owning Canoe Imports? Sometimes I still wonder about that myself. One day George told me he and Ellen were thinking of selling the business, and they wanted to know if I was interested in buying it. Even now, I don't know where I got the courage or the money, but Barb and I decided to make the leap. I quit engineering and here we are, 22 years later. It wasn't very logical then," he chuckles. "I was just plain interested in canoeing and kayaking. We jumped in with both feet."

Founded as a seasonal, wholesale import business, by the time Canoe Imports changed hands in 1975 the business was almost 100 percent retail and was no longer involved with the wholesale or import markets. In 1977 the Schumachers moved the business to Shelburne and set up shop in a large, open-air garage attached to their home. They hired one full-time employee and usually had five or six part-time people as the shop evolved from a seasonal to a year-round business.

The current staff consists of four full-time, year- round employees, five seasonal part-time employees, and one person working at the former Shelburne location cleaning boats and doing minor repairs. Retail sales to the general public account for 60 percent of the sales volume in the business, while institutional catalog sales account for 40 percent. More than 3,000 copies of the company's Pack Paddle 'N Sail catalog are mailed each year, and orders start arriving in April. "We do not sell most of our institutional catalog items in the retail store, but in the future we would like to include more variety in that direction," Schumacher says. "Now that we have hired Kevin, I hope to concentrate on increasing institutional sales."

Kevin Walters joined the business in the spring to manage the retail store. With previous experience in bicycle shop management, Walters notes that although many of the responsibilities and functions are similar, he is concentrating on thoroughly mastering Canoe Imports' product line. "I was hired in May, so I just plunged into the incredibly busy summer season. This is a growing business, and Bob knows it incredibly well. I'm getting a wonderful education from him."

Most of the 4,000 square feet in Canoe Imports' new building is devoted to the retail floor. Between 75 and 80 canoes and kayaks are displayed on vertical racks, dominating the shelves of accessories and the rows of paddles. The store stocks slightly more kayaks than canoes. There is a warehouse on Brownell Road in Williston where additional boats are stored.

"I classify myself as a small business, but sometimes people think we are a lot smaller than we really are," Schumacher explains. "In addition to retail sales, 40 percent of our business is selling to camps, schools, the outdoor touring business, and resorts. Our warehouse in Williston holds a normal inventory of anywhere from 150 to 300 boats during our busiest season, May through August. We will do about a million dollars in sales this year."

Kelley and Bette Mann, owners of the Mannsview Inn and Smugglers' Notch Antique Center in Jeffersonville, also operate Smugglers' Notch Canoe Touring. Kelley purchased his first two canoes from Canoe Imports 10 years ago, and has been a continuing customer. "Being in business myself, I can appreciate the dedication and hard work it takes to make a go of a small business in Vermont," Mann says. "Bob and Barbara are dedicated to their customers and products, their prices are competitive, and I have been continually impressed by their expertise. I think this move to Dorset Street is a great step for Canoe Imports."

Schumacher notes that in recent years the popularity of kayaks has overtaken that of canoes. "The sport has certainly evolved. For example, 20 years ago aluminum was 60 percent of the canoe market. Now it's about 2 percent. Today 99 percent of sport and recreational kayaks are made of polyethylene, as are many sea kayaks. We sell a lot of aluminum canoes to summer camps. The kids can beat on 'em, bang on 'em, abuse 'em, and they'll last forever, but adults prefer other materials. Wood is a very small part of the market now.

"I can remember when the customer's choices of canoes were limited to red, green, and aluminum," he laughs. "Now kayaks outsell canoes, and you have many choices for either type of boat." Families are the number one purchasers of both canoes and kayaks, excluding whitewater kayaks. "The average age of someone purchasing a first sport or recreation kayak is 35 to 45 years of age --- older than most people think. Women purchase almost 50 percent of our kayaks, and more than 50 percent of our canoe sales are initiated by women. People often stereotype kayaking as exclusively a whitewater sport for macho 20-year-olds, but it isn't.

"We sell maybe 15 or 20 whitewater kayaks a year. The kayak market is mostly a solo market --- everyone paddling his or her own kayak. With canoes, it's just the opposite. Canoes tend to be a tandem market. People like to paddle a canoe with a partner."

The Schumachers sell with an eye for the best match of boat and owner. The purchase of a sea kayak entitles the customer to a free lesson in basic paddling skills, safety orientation, and rescue skills. "No matter what type of boat we sell, we spend time talking with the customer to make sure they have life jackets, and paddles that match their ability and size. As far as we are concerned, anyone who climbs in a canoe or kayak should be wearing a life jacket, whether you are running rapids or paddling on flat water."

To help customers select the most appropriate craft, Canoe Imports allows customers to demo various craft at specified times. In June they sponsor a large-scale demonstration day at Oakledge Park, bringing in hundreds of small craft and even reps from many of their suppliers.

The Schumachers are members of the American Canoe Association, Vermont Paddlers Club, and the Champlain Kayak Club. The business is a member of the American Camping Association and Christian Camping International, and participates in numerous trade shows sponsored by the two camping organizations. In 1996 Barbara handled most of the shows by herself. Normally she and Bob share the responsibility.

"During our busiest season I work 70 to 80 hours per week because that's when we are delivering to summer camps," Schumacher says. "We have a 35-foot enclosed trailer which holds up to 80 kayaks for delivery anywhere, a trailer that hauls 20 canoes, and several smaller trailers as well. It's a very short, intense time for us because all the camps need their products at the same time, one to two weeks before they open. Most camps are open by the last week of June, which is also our busiest retail month. We might have $300,000 worth of products being delivered everywhere from Wisconsin to New England, all at the same time."

Nancy Frankel is director of outdoor education with the Swift Water Girl Scout Council in Manchester, N.H., which operates a summer camp for girls in Thetford. Canoe Imports has supplied the camp with canoes, kayaks, spray skirts, paddles, small sailboats, and miscellaneous waterfront and camping equipment for several years. "We continue to do business with Canoe Imports because of their very competitive prices and because they provide terrific personal service. Their service includes repairs and continuing consultation, and goes well beyond the initial purchase and delivery," Frankel says, adding, "Bob and Barb are just such nice people to work with."

Schumacher grows reflective. "Barb and I have both done everything there is to do in this business at one time or another for the past 22 years. About a year from now, I will be taking on more of the bookkeeping from Barb so she can work part-time and have more time for herself. I will continue to manage the overall business and concentrate on the institutional sales while Kevin manages the retail store. Barb will do bookkeeping part- time."

If all these plans fall into place, the Schmachers hope they just might be able to get away from the business more to paddle their own canoe.