Old Town Canoe Company

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Old Town Canoe Company

35 Middle Street
Old Town, Maine 04468

Telephone: (207) 827-5513
Fax: (207) 827-2779
Web site: http://www.oldtowncanoe.com

Wholly-Owned Subsidiary of Johnson Outdoors, Inc.
1902 as Robertson and Old Town Canoe Company
Employees: 250
Sales: $30 million (2004 est.)
NAIC: 326199 All Other Plastics Product Manufacturing; 336612 Boat Building; 81149 Other Personal and Household Goods Repair and Maintenance

The Old Town Canoe Company is one of the world's leading manufacturers of canoes and kayaks. It is a key part of Johnson Outdoors Inc.'s Paddlesports division, which also includes the Ocean Kayak and Necky Kayak brands. Old Town's canoes are sold at about 900 dealers throughout the world, most of them specialty stores. While the company has pioneered modern materials use in personal watercraft, a few canoes are still made using wood-and-canvas construction techniques that date back to the 19th century.

Old Town Origins

Old Town, Maine, was known for its watercraft even before loggers plied the Penobscot River with their wooden bateaux in the 1800s. The Old Town Canoe Company traces its origins to 1900, when it was formed to make a different type of boat, the wood-and-canvas canoe. This was evolved from the birch bark canoes of the local Penobscot Indians, a connection Old Town Canoe would feature in its advertising. According to one report, there were 15 other canoe factories nearby at the time.

Then called the Indian Old Town Canoe Company, the new enterprise was backed by members of the entrepreneurial Gray family, who had ventures in logging, hardware, and owned a wildly successful salve for horses called Bickmore's Gall Cure (the latter would also endure for more than 100 years). George and Herbert Gray hired Alfred E. Wickett to run the canoe operation (he left in 1914).

The first few canoes were made behind the Grays' hardware store, but within a few months fabrication moved into two floors of an industrial building. Strong demand prompted several other moves to increasingly larger facilities.

Old Town built about 250 canoes in its first year. The company aimed for a wide market from the beginning, advertising in recreation publications as well as producing an annual catalog. According to Susan Audette's thorough history of the company, the distribution network for the horse salve was easily tapped for canoe sales. Audette notes that ready access to rail service was another factor in the firm's success.

Early models often featured sails. Sponsons, or floats, were also popular additions. Buyers had the choice of different designs and three grades of materials and finish. Soon the company was offering rowboats of canvas-covered construction as a lightweight alternative to traditional all-wood models.

The company was incorporated as Robertson & Old Town Canoe Company in 1902, establishing a partnership with Auburndale, Massachusetts, canoe maker John Ralph Robertson. George and Herbert Gray held most of the shares, while the latter served as president. Robertson, who already had his own popular business based on the Charles River, left Old Town in 1903 and it was reincorporated without his name. (He later lent his expertise to building racing canoes and even the wood-and-canvas shell for record-setting Stanley Steamer automobile.)

Sales were about $25,000 in 1905. The company was soon making between 200 and 400 canoes per month. The product line was expanded to include shorter (15-foot) and longer (34-foot) models. The latter were called "War Canoes" and were designed for several people. By 1908 Old Town was also selling motorized models.

It was the largest canoe manufacturer of more than a dozen in the area, employing 50 people. The crafts were already being sold as far away as Europe and South America. Carleton Canoe Company, a supplier of cedar planks to Old Town, was acquired in 1910 (and would be consolidated with Old Town in 1934).

While the logging industry dwindled, New Englanders were taking to the woods, and the water, by the thousands. Old Town was expected to sell 6,000 canoes in 1914 before World War I intervened. As men went to war, noted Audette, the company tailored advertising to the women who started working, and earning money. The company also supplied the military with paddles.

A Square Stern model was introduced in 1917 specifically to accommodate new outboard motors. In 1923, Old Town became the first distributor for the Johnson Motor Company.

Sales exceeded $500,000 in 1927. Sam Gray became company president following his father's death in 1928. Sam Gray is described by Audette as a tireless and creative marketer. He began the enduring practice of giving away four-foot canoe replicas as promotional gifts to dealers who ordered complete railcars of 40 canoes. Those who ordered two railcars had the option of an eight-foot version. These models were highly prized and credited with boosting sales considerably.

In 1931, Old Town was able to produce about 1,600 canoes, about half the state of Maine's total, in spite of the Great Depression. Its products were available in more than 50 different colorful designs in the 1930s.

The company found itself scrambling for workers and materials with the arrival of World War II. This led Old Town to conduct its own logging operations until 1956. The plant was unionized during the war.

New Materials After World War II

The postwar years saw several different models introduced to encourage a newly affluent society to get out on the water. There was an emphasis on speed, noted Audette, with more powerful outboard motors available. Old Town's all-wood motorboats were among its strongest sellers in the 1950s and 1960s. Sam Gray died in 1961. By then his sons Braley and Deane were at the helm.

Technological advances extended to the industry. Grumman Corporation, a maker of aluminum-hulled warplanes, began making metal canoes by the thousands. Old Town saw production crash to a mere 200 canoes a year in the early 1960s, noted Audette, when Grumman was making almost ten times as many.

Old Town eschewed the use of plywood, unlike some of its competitors, but began working with fiberglass in the mid-1960s after acquiring the talents of pioneering designer Walter King, who helped develop the company's first large motorboat, the 24-foot Atlantis. Fiberglass and other new materials helped Old Town regain its lead against aluminum craft.

The company's vessels have made man extraordinary voyages. One enterprising sailor crossed the Atlantic in a 13.5-foot Old Town sailboat in 1965.

Another new material, Royalex (a brand of ABS plastic) was added in the 1970s when Old Town designer Lew Gilman developed new methods for producing molds with it. Though expensive (upwards of $350 at the time), the Royalex kayaks became popular for their durability. Old Town had introduced its first kayak in 1940, but interest in whitewater sports did not explode until the 1970s.

Large motorboats, which cost up to $11,000, were dropped from the product line in the mid-1970s due to increasing competition and dwindling demand in the face of oil shortages. Old Town was then selling 5,000 canoes a yeara healthy number, but one-quarter of the production of Coleman, which dominated the low-end market.

1970s80s: New Ownership and Profitability

Old Town Canoe was acquired by Johnson Diversified in December 1974. Sam Johnson of S.C. Johnson Wax fame had been building a portfolio of outdoor-related companies.

The substantial corporate backing allowed the company to modernize its back office functions, marketing, and production methods. At the same time, there remained a place for traditional wood-and-canvas canoe construction.

Old Town began distributing Lettmann and Prijon kayaks in 1979, and for a few years stopped selling kayaks under its own brand. Old Town's Discovery line of canoes was introduced in 1984. These employed a three-layer polyethylene hull developed by Lew Gilman. The strong, affordable, lightweight canoes were popular enough to return Old Town to profitability for the first time in ten years, noted Audette. Old Town became the world's largest producer of canoes as aluminum canoes fell out of favor. According to Rhode Island's Providence Journal, Old Town had more production space (181,000 square feet) than all other canoe makers in the United States combined. At this time, Old Town was also selling kits, complete with wood, for buyers to construct at home.

Old Town acquired the White Canoe Company in October 1984. Formed in 1888, White predated Old Town by ten years and had been a training ground for some of its top talent.

In 1989, the Wall Street Journal reported Old Town was peddling more than 22,000 canoes a year, accounting for one-quarter of industry sales. Grayling, Michigan's Carlisle Paddles Inc. was acquired in 1990.

Company Perspectives:

In today's technology-crazed, disposable world, the hallmarks of Old Town Canoe Co.heritage, innovation, quality and craftsmanshipstand out. The world's largest and oldest manufacturer of canoes and kayaks, Old Town successfully blends the performance of modern materials and design with the time-honored look and feel of traditional paddle craft.

Kayaking Grows in the 1990s

In 1990 Old Town began distributing the Dimension brand of sit-upon kayaks for Quebec's Plastiques LPA, Ltd. Old Town bought the company in 1997. With the canoe market flat, in 1995, Old Town again began selling its own brand of kayaks. By 1998 they accounted for 40 percent of sales. Old Town was distributed through 800 outlets worldwide, most of them specialty stores. The L.L. Bean catalog was among its largest retailers. Canada, Japan, and Germany were top markets. Other acquisitions in the late 1990s extended Old Town's product line further. These included Leisure Life, Ltd., maker of pedal boats, and West Coast manufacturer Ocean Kayak.

Old Town Canoe celebrated its 100th anniversary in 1998. Some of its earliest wood canoes were still in service. The company had become one of Old Town's leading tourist attractions. Its 200,000 square foot factory was a focal point of the city's riverfront redevelopment. Old Town's canoe business had outlasted several other once-prominent local industries: logging, shoes, textiles, and pie plates.

The company bought New Zealand's Pacific Kayaks around 2000. Old Town continued to work to meet the booming demand for kayaks at its home plant. It soon began making them out of fiberglass for weight savings.

Old Town Canoe was a key part of the Johnson Outdoors Paddlesports division, which also included Ocean Kayak and Necky Kayaks. Together, they offered an array of choices for different types of paddlers: recreational for the majority of users as well as sit-on-top, enthusiast, touring, and whitewater models. Old Town began its one-millionth boat in 2003 and 2004, an 18-foot, wood-and-canvas OTCA (Old Town Canoe Model A) destined for display at company headquarters. For 2005, it introduced a new production model of its 1903 Charles River canoe using modern materials.

By this time, the market for kayaks had peaked, reported the Portland Press Herald. One analyst told the paper that Old Town typically accounted for more than one-third of Johnson's watercraft revenues, which were about $80 million a year. Growing European sales, though a small portion of the total, prompted Johnson Outdoors to open a distribution center in France. There were plans to eventually move production into a modern manufacturing plant in the United States.

Key Dates:

The company's first canoe is built behind Gray hardware store in Old Town, Maine.
Carleton Canoe Company is acquired.
Sam Gray becomes company president following the death of his father, George Gray.
Sam Gray dies, leaving the business to sons Braley and Deane.
Johnson Diversified acquires Old Town.
Affordable Discovery canoes revitalize sales; White Canoe Company is acquired.
Carlisle Paddles Inc. is acquired; Old Town begins selling Dimension sit-upon kayaks.
Ferndale, Washington's Ocean Kayak is acquired.
The Old Town factory is expanded.
Parent company Johnson Outdoors Inc. is organized.
Old Town builds its one millionth boat.

Principal Competitors

Confluence Holdings Corporation.

Further Reading

Audette, Susan T., and David E. Baker, The Old Town Canoe Company: Our First Hundred Years, Gardiner, Maine: Tilbury House, 1998.

Bloch, Jessica, "Old Town Turns 100; World-Renowned Builder to Mark Anniversary with Special Line," Bangor Daily News, January 2, 1998.

Bongartz, Roy, "Wood Canoe Holds Fast in Changing Times," Providence Journal, May 12, 1985, p. T10.

Brownstein, Andrew, "Old Town Reviving Riverfront; Canoe Maker Anchor of Project Catering to Outdoors Enthusiasts," Bangor Daily News, July 31, 1998.

, "Old Town Ups Canoe Incentives; City Approves TIF to Make Way for Firm's Speedy Expansion," Bangor Daily News, September 1, 1998.

Gray, S.B., "How We Built New Markets for an Old Product," System: The Magazine of Business, January 1927, pp. 5658.

Hauger, Nok-Noi, "Old Town Floats Milestone; Canoe Maker Marks Centennial; Millionth Boat the Crowning Event," Bangor Daily News, July 31, 2003, p. A1.

Ingrassia, Paul, "Today It's Possible to Sail a 'Freighter' and Call It a CanoeIn the Paddle-Pushing Market There Are Models Galore; Some for Canoodling, Too," Wall Street Journal, July 24, 1989,p. 1.

Levy, Michael, "Canoemakers Change Course to Stay in Mainstream," Buffalo News, June 26, 1994, p. B9.

"More Enjoy Lighter Side of Paddling; Technology Trims Ounces But It Comes with a Higher Price," Portland Press Herald, April 15, 2001, p. 6D.

"Old Town Canoe CompanyOne of the Most Phenomenally Successful Industrial Enterprises in Eastern Maine," Old Town Enterprise, March 3, 1905, p. 1.

Shaw, Dick, "Old Town Canoe Co.'s First Century Chronicled," Bangor Daily News, March 4, 1999.

Stettner, Morey, "Turn Employees into Innovators," Investor's Business Daily, June 13, 2005, p. A13.

Taylor, Rod, "Peddling Premium Paddling," Promo, June 1, 2004, p. 7.

Turcotte, Deborah, "Old Town's Kayaks Outsell Canoes," Bangor Daily News, August 8, 2000.

Turkel, Tux, "Course Correction; Manufacturing Methods That Have Sustained Old Town Canoe for a Century Are in Dire Need of Modernizing," Portland Press Herald, September 7, 2003, p. 1F.

Frederick C. Ingram

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