Kelley Woolsey has joined Hobie as Vice President of Global Sales, Service and Marketing, bringing more than 30 years of watersports and lifestyle brand experience to the company.
Woolsey began his career in the surf apparel business under the mentorship of Jack O’Neill, a legendary surfer-turned-entrepreneur best known for bringing wetsuits to the masses. From there, Woolsey moved into executive leadership roles at some of the biggest players in the paddlesports business. He served a decade with Confluence Watersports (now Confluence Outdoor) as their EVP of Marketing and Sales, before moving to a similar role with Quebec-based Pelican International. Most recently, he worked with Bonafide, YakAttack and Big Adventures as Vice President of Marketing and Sales.
We caught up with Woolsey in Hobie’s Oceanside, California, offices, where he’s been settling into his new role since February 5.
Paddling Business: Catch us up. How did you land at Hobie?
Kelley Woolsey: I left Big Adventures at the beginning of May , so I’ve been taking it easy and looking around, kind of observing and planning what I would do next. This is the second time I’ve taken a lot of time between jobs. After I left Confluence, I took about four months and went surfing in Hawaii before joining Pelican.
PB: Were you looking to stay in the paddlesports industry this time around?
KW: No, not at all. But I was looking to land with a brand like Hobie. A brand that has staying power, that’s an industry leader. Because I’m not going to make more anymore stops in my career.
PB: I’m reminded of the famous scene in the Godfather, where Michael says, ‘Just when I thought I was out, they pull me back in.’ How did Hobie lure you back into the life?
KW: It was the guys. It was Mike, Tasso and Aaron. [ Hobie’s ownership group, Mike Suzuki, Tasso Sofikitis and Aaron Stewardson, who bought the company just over a year ago. —eds. ]
In my history with companies, I worked for Jack [O’Neill], which was family-owned and it was great. Then I went to work for Confluence, which was V.C.-owned, by guys who I’ll leave nameless. That was probably one of the more challenging things in my career and I wouldn’t wish that experience on my worst enemy. Then I got a chance again to work at Pelican for the Élie brothers, and they were incredible. Again, a family-owned company.
PB: Hobie’s ownership group is a tight-knit group, but they’re also private equity.
KW: It was an easy decision because of the people and what I know about Hobie. The whole courtship this time was a fantastic experience, and in my former life dealing with V.C. folks it hadn’t been.
And the cool thing for me is that when I was working at O’Neill where I started my career, one of Jack’s good friends was Hobie Alter. I was fortunate enough to work for a guy like Jack, who was fortunate enough to have friends like Hobie. So for me, it’s kind of coming full circle.
PB: I was going to ask if you knew Hobie, because his innovations really laid the groundwork for the company’s success. The Mirage Drive fueled Hobie’s rise in the kayaking business. Even though that wasn’t a Hobie Alter invention, it followed the pattern of innovation he set.
KW: Hobie was a real, sophisticated tinkerer. It started way back with surfboards. He became a pretty good friend of Grubby Clark, who was the guy who came up with the foam blanks that changed the development of surfboard shaping and designing. So Hobie was in the forefront of that, and then he said, ‘Hey, let’s do something cool for sailing,’ and he designed the Hobie 16 and it became sailing.
When they first came out with the drive we used to go to OR and every time we got to the Hobie booth we’d look at this dumb mannequin sitting on top of the boats. We’d all sit and laugh. Well, guess who had the last laugh?
That drive system has taken kayaks to a whole different level than any of us ever dreamed of. It’s kind of funny because we always call it paddlesports. Not anymore. Now you’d better start calling it kayaking, because pedal is a pretty important part of kayaking.
One of my missions will be to make innovation an even bigger part of who we are.
PB: Without giving away any trade secrets, does that mean we can expect to see some new products coming to market soon?
KW: For sure. The thing we all have to remember is we’re coming out of this pandemic. It’s been a challenge to make sure we can deliver the boats we have sold, and to take care of the dealers that we have orders from so they can take care of the consumers that they have orders from. Because of the whole supply chain thing, it’s been the hardest two years of my career. Just dealing with this pandemic and how it’s changed our lives and how we do business and how we go to market. And we’re still not done yet. The big thing in the pandemic is how do we re-imagine our business, and how can it be sustainable and meaningful to consumers? So, we’re going to focus very hard on what makes us unique. A big part of that is innovation, for sure.
PB: Have you had an opportunity to do a sort of listening tour with dealers? A lot of these folks are people you’ve known for decades. What are they telling you?
KW: We’ve kept my coming here really close to our chest, so I didn’t have the opportunity to say a whole lot beforehand. I’ve been here three weeks. People say, ‘Hey Kelley, are you going to make a bunch of changes?’ And I go, ‘Really?’ When you take a company like Hobie, who is the gold standard in our category, they’ve done a lot of things right. So, if I do make changes, it’s going to be to help make the company stronger, better, more efficient. I’m not going to come in here and make change just to make change, especially with this company because of who they are.
“When you take a company like Hobie, who is the gold standard in our category, they’ve done a lot of things right. So, if I do make changes, it’s going to be to help make the company stronger, better, more efficient.”
PB: I don’t think it’s any secret that deliveries have been a sore point with dealers, for Hobie as well as other manufacturers. Is there an end in sight, and what does it look like?
One of the big things is that we have three times the inventory to start the season as compared to last year. So we’re already three times ahead of the game.
PB: What’s the denominator? Does that mean the warehouse in Oceanside is full to the rafters and ready to ship, or just that there’s less floor showing?
KW: We’re almost to the point where we’re busting at the seams. Not quite, but before when you came in you didn’t see any inventory. Now you see a lot of boats everywhere. We’re getting closer to being the supplier that people have become accustomed to when dealing with Hobie. We’ve still got a ways to go to get back to where we want to be, but we’re three times further than we were last year.
PB: How are you set with specialty parts? I know some dealers have had a tough time getting things like seats, even if the hulls were available.
KW: It’s been a little bit of a challenge, but in some ways, parts and accessories haven’t quite been as big of a challenge because we make a lot of them here. So we’re maybe a little ahead of the game with parts and accessories as compared to kayaks.
I think most of our dealers will tell you we’re doing a pretty good job with getting them parts and accessories as they start to get boats. Now remember, we’re just at the end of February, so a lot of people are just starting to get their 2022 model year product in. There’s a lot of stuff happening as we speak.
PB: Are you now in a position to meet all orders?
KW: We’re still allocating. People aren’t getting all the boats yet that they want right when they want them. We’re getting there, but we’re still not quite there yet.
PB: But you’re confident you’re going to get there?
KW: Yes, for sure.
You know if we go back in time, none of us knew what to expect in March 2020. We didn’t know if our businesses were going to go away. We didn’t know if we’d have jobs. We didn’t know what was going to happen. Then at the end of 2020, we go, ‘That wasn’t bad. We were pretty good.’ Then we get to 2021, and it’s still going. So now that we’ve kind of worked through 2020 and 2021 and all the issues with supply chain, the question is whether the business is going to be there. That’s where we are now. We got all of our preseasons in and we’re looking great. So now the consumer is going to dictate.
PB: It almost sounds like we’re about to get back to normal.
KW: I hope it stays where we’ve been, because we’ve been far above normal. I don’t think any of us have a crystal ball yet. Things should get a lot clearer in March and April, and even part of May. Canoecopia and all the boat shows and fishing shows are happening. So everything leads me to believe that we’re going to stay on a roll, but I want to see what happens with people coming into dealers in March and April, and what happens at Canoecopia. That’s always a good precursor to what’s going to happen in the year.