Dale Kicker’s idea of building a better, more durable canoe paddle started with high hopes in a lowly two-car garage in North St. Paul in 1982.
His angle: Add a piece of nearly indestructible urethane on the tip of paddle blades to protect them from rocks, and also offer recreational canoeists more-efficient bent-shaft paddles, which had been used by racers.
The idea took off like a runaway canoe in white-water rapids. Kicker’s company, Bending Branches (named for those bent-shaft paddles), blossomed into one of the biggest canoe and kayak paddle manufacturers in the world. Now based across the St. Croix River in Osceola, Wis., the company’s 50 employees make more paddles than anyone — more than 160 different types.
“We turned the market upside down,’’ said Kicker, 55, an avid paddler who grew up in North St. Paul and now lives upstream of Osceola at St. Croix Falls, Wis. “It’s a lot of fun. The best part of the industry is the people: Outdoor enthusiasts are good, wholesome, fun-loving, honest people.’’
The company ships paddles to about two dozen countries around the world. “If they’re paddling, we have paddles going there,’’ Kicker said.
Kicker and partner Ron Hultman first put Kevlar on the tip of a paddle, then discovered urethane worked better. They called the hard plastic edging Rockgard, and the innovation helped launch the company. Timing is everything, and Kicker said the introduction of his paddles piggybacked on the growing demand for the then-new lightweight Kevlar canoes that were being introduced.
“And baby boomers were really active and having families and wanting family recreation,’’ Kicker said. Canoe and paddle sales took off. Kayaking became popular in the late 1990s, opening up another paddle market.
Now, as boomers age, canoe paddle sales are declining, but sales for paddles used for paddle boards — boards that people stand on while paddling — are surging.
Hultman, who still makes paddles at the plant, sold his share of the company to Kicker years ago. In 2001, Kicker sold the business to entrepreneur Mark Kravik.
But as one of the founders, Kicker remains at Bending Branches working on new product development, and continues to be passionate about the company and paddling. And he’s seen his vision flourish into a multimillion-dollar firm.
“I had no idea it would get this big,’’ he said.
Tapping the market
When they first started, Kicker and Hultman made about 30 paddles a week. “We couldn’t make them fast enough,’’ Kicker said. Then the growing company made 30 a day. Now, employees crank out hundreds of paddles daily.
“It took about 2.5 hours to make a paddle when we first started,’’ he said. “Now it takes about 20 minutes because of automation.’’
And while wood canoe paddles are the company’s bread and butter, the company now makes carbon composite and plastic kayak paddles, too, under the Aqua-Bound brand the company acquired in 2008.
The company’s canoe paddles range in price from $60 to $240, and kayak paddles from around $60 to $400.
To make wood canoe paddles, layers of either basswood, butternut, maple, red alder or black willow — or a combination of those — are laminated in block form. A space along the blade edge is carved out for the liquid urethane to be injected. Once glue and urethane are hard, a machine cuts out the final shape of the paddle, and turns the square shaft round. Employees using sanding machines give the paddles their final shape, and then they are dipped in polyurethane. While composite paddles are lighter, many paddlers covet the warm beauty and tradition of wood paddles.
But few businesses navigate only in calm waters. Today, Bending Branches (formally Branches LLC) and other North American paddle-makers are facing a new challenge: China.
China got into the paddling craze in the late 1990s, and Kicker said the impact on the industry has been dramatic. Because of low wages and production costs, it’s difficult for American companies to match prices with the Chinese.
Nowhere have the Chinese made more inroads than in paddles for stand-up paddle boarding, the hottest trend in paddling today. There are more Chinese stand-up paddle makers than domestic manufacturers.
Still, Kicker is optimistic.
“There’s a surge back to U.S. manufacturing,’’ he said. “And there’s a leveling of the global market. China is no longer the lowest cost [in wages].’’
Meanwhile, sales of paddles for stand-up paddle boarding have surpassed canoe paddle sales, Kicker said. The allure of stand-up paddle boarding: “You can see the world, and you can see into the water,’’ he said. “It really gives you a different perspective than sitting in a kayak.’’
Said Andrew Stern, the company’s marketing specialist: “It’s more of a workout, the cost to enter the sport is less, and it’s easier to transport a board [than a canoe or kayak.]’’
A new sport that should propel paddle makers.