Osceola, Wisconsin – Ed Vater, Osceola resident and business owner, is retiring after an impactful 20 years at Branches – commercially known as Bending Branches and Aqua Bound. In the 15 years prior to joining Branches in 2002, he was one of the top managers at Laser Machining, Inc. in Somerset.
Branches started in 1982 in a St. Paul garage, when founders Dale Kicker and Ron Hultman invented a tip protection material for their canoe paddles. Trademarked “Rockgard”, this technology is still leveraged by Bending Branches today, and has become the industry standard for canoe paddles. Forty years later, Branches has expanded into every segment in paddlesports and sells on a global scale; but still embodies the spirit of a family-owned business and manufactures their products in Osceola.
Ed credits much of the early success of Branches to the founders, who moved the business from St. Paul to Osceola in 1994. He also said that he and the employees are deeply grateful for the strong commitment, financial support, and guidance from Osceola entrepreneur, Mark Kravik, who bought the company in 2001, hired Ed to run it, and then in turn sold it to him in 2015.
On his retirement, Ed said, “I have worked alongside so many wonderful people over the last 35 years. From the trade coalitions, to the retailers, to our employees – the whole industry is such a uniquely warm and welcoming environment. It is one that I’m glad to have played a part in.”
But according to Vater, it is the Branches culture that developed during his time that means the most to him. “Anyone can buy a tin building and put machines in it, but it’s the people here that make the difference. Our culture has helped develop not only our company, but also our community, into a wonderful place to work, live and play. That is rare, and something I’m immensely proud of.”
For those that have had the pleasure of interacting with Ed, he is received as genuine, thoughtful, deliberate and patient. Commonly, Ed leans on his many years of experience and knowledge before delivering an articulate piece of advice. Amongst peers, he is a valued member of the (Twin Cities based) Paradigm Executive Leadership group and a board member of the Paddlesports Trade Coalition (a unity of industry leaders). Closer to home, Ed is active in many local groups and community engagements. Most notably, he is an active member in the Osceola Chamber of Commerce, is on the board of the Osceola Industrial Development Corporation, and is a supporter of the local boy scouts, the area schools, the industrial park and so much more.
Ed’s retirement marks the end of an era at Branches, taking the company from financial uncertainty to record sales, and becoming the world’s largest paddle manufacturer. Some of highlights over the past two decades include: introducing lean manufacturing, discontinuing hockey sticks in pursuit of kayak paddles (now over 80% of the business), acquiring Aqua Bound (formerly a major competitor), winning the ‘Manufacturer of the Year’ from the Twin Cities based Manufacturers Alliance, introducing key new products in canoeing, kayaking, kayak fishing, and stand-up paddles, and creating a winning team and culture at Branches.
Given the pandemic-driven demand for outdoor recreation, Ed and his wife, Kay, had many options for selling the business. After careful consideration, they prioritized what was best for their employees, customers and the local community, and sold the business to three members of their own leadership team.
Jason Eccles, Brian Boyea, and Cory Novinska, all local residents, will be taking over as the new owners. Eccles, the former Operations Manager with 20 years himself at Branches, has taken over as President. The plans for future growth and community engagement will continue as Branches looks to remain one of the top employers in Western Wisconsin.
Ed plans to spend his retirement with family, traveling, paddling, working in community development, improving his 1948 International Harvester rat rod, and offering management and consulting services to local businesses on a part-time basis.