Stand-up paddleboards are among the fastest-growing segments of the paddle sports industry.
Not surprisingly, there is a Minnesota company capitalizing on the outdoor trend.
“The beauty of our industry,” said Stu Lee of Exe Corp., “is that all of our customers love what they do.”
Versions of the paddleboards, commonly called SUPs, are available for surf, touring, recreation, fishing, racing and water yoga.
Lee ran Exe Corp., which owns Accent Paddles and Cannon Paddles in Minneapolis, from 1982 to 2012, when he sold the company to his son, Stuart. A mechanical engineer by training, he still owns a minority stake in the company and at 82 is still a regular visitor to the shop.
Cannon, which has been around since the 1940s, makes a variety of injection-molded paddles for canoeists, SUP uses and touring kayakers.
Accent — a leading manufacturer of premium paddles for kayaks and SUPs started by Stuart Lee in 2004 — this year introduced a new line of SUP racing paddles.
Stuart Lee started working at Cannon when he was 13. He would have never taken a break. However, his father encouraged his son to gain more experience elsewhere.
“My father said go get a real job, and if you don’t like it you can always come back,” Stuart Lee said.
So Stuart Lee went to the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, earned a health care administration degree in 1991 and became a nursing home administrator.
In 1997, he returned to Cannon Paddles. By then the company had developed a specific niche providing injection-molded plastic paddles primarily for entry-level canoeists and kayakers.
In 2004, Stuart had a chance encounter at the Outdoor Retailer industry trade show with paddle designer Lee Bonfiglio and later that year founded Accent Paddles to manufacture high-end paddles.
Together, Exe’s two brands have 12 employees and annual revenue of about $2.5 million. Earlier this month, Stuart Lee was boxing an order bound for Switzerland, one of 11 countries where the company’s products are sold.
Paddle sports are a growing segment of the outdoor industry, according to a report sponsored by the Outdoor Foundation, a nonprofit organization based in Washington, D.C., that promotes active outdoor participation in the U.S.
The survey found SUP was the fastest-growing outdoor activity between 2012 and 2015, with participation growing 26 percent, and kayak fishing was the third-fastest-growing segment during that time, up 17.4 percent.
To keep pace with the sports, Stuart Lee has invested in new paddle designs and new space.
In January 2014, the company moved from a warren of cobbled-together spaces on Cedar Avenue to the Minneapolis warehouse district, just across West River Road from the Mississippi River.
The new location offers bigger and more efficient space, and new production software helps Lee keep track of job orders and inventory.
As kayaking and SUP have grown, Cannon and Accent have come up with new paddle designs and innovations for the specific applications.
For example, kayak fishermen want something different out of their paddles than sea kayakers, and SUP racers want something different from recreational paddlers.
This year Accent introduced its first race-specific paddles for SUPs, designed by Bonfiglio.
“We came out with three different models that range from 13 ounces to 16 ounces; there is a lot of engineering that goes into that,” Stuart Lee said. “Three or four ounces can really add up in a race that might be miles long.”
Accent’s super lightweight SUP paddles are made of carbon-fiber and come in fixed lengths or with an innovative internal adjustable system that allows racers to instantly extend the handle length up to six inches.
At the start of an SUP race, paddlers use quick and short power strokes to get off the start line and then convert to longer, more efficient strokes once up to race speeds. Accent’s adjustable paddle allows racers to change the paddle’s length while on the move.
Accent makes and assembles all of its own paddles except for some components on its newer models.
“The race market is a niche market. I’m not going to be able to sell 10,000 race paddles,” Stuart Lee said.
As a result, Accent imports some parts from China made to its specifications. All final assembly is done in Minneapolis.
Producing a premium race paddle also draws consumer attention to Accent’s and Cannon’s other offerings.
“It helps our brand to be able to offer a strong paddle that competes against any race paddle in the world,” Stuart Lee said.