There’s no perfect road map to becoming a successful business owner, but some routes are less traveled than others.
Simon Coward was introduced to whitewater on a trip to New Zealand when he was 18, and then spent his formative years raft guiding and chasing whitewater around the globe. By his own estimate, the Australian-born paddler has dipped blades in at least 25 different countries.
In 2005, Coward’s rambling river life led him to Canada, where he took a job as the kayaking director at Aquabatics, a Calgary-based whitewater retailer. Four years later, Coward purchased the 10-year-old business, plunging headlong into the murky waters of paddlesports retailing.
“I didn’t have a university degree and didn’t know what I was going to do,” said Coward. “So, I figured it was probably as good a bet as any.”
Under Coward’s leadership, Aquabatics became a dirtbagger’s utopia. The staff spent days creeking together, locals came in to talk shop, and community outreach efforts included grassroots events and instructional paddling programs helping grow Calgary’s local paddling community.
“If Aquabatics disappeared tomorrow, I think it would be a big void in the local paddling community,” said Coward. “Not just from a product standpoint, but connectivity.”
Coward’s investment in strong community ties and developing a dedicated staff—including six full-time, year-round positions—has produced a healthy return. In the past decade, the company’s revenue numbers have tripled, and this past spring, Coward opened a second store in Edmonton.
While the dirtbag vibe remains, the revenue spike is the result of long hours devoted to the analytics-driven process of business management. While correctly forecasting next season’s trends is always a daunting task, Coward’s crystal ball is a little less hazy when he gazes south.
“We just need to watch the U.S. very closely and see what’s going on there,” Coward says. “I feel like the Canadian market is a good three to four years behind the U.S.”
While whitewater had always been the shop’s bread and butter, Coward has seen steady growth in the recreational and touring markets. Last year, Aquabatics saw “unpredictable” growth in kayak fishing sales.
This year brought a softening in the fishing market and a rise in inflatable kayak sales. “It’s a bloody roller coaster,” said Coward. “It’s up and then it’s down.”
But Coward isn’t one to cry about it. While offering car racks and snowboards has helped bolster sales in the off-season, he’s currently busy trying to crack the latest puzzle stumping the paddling industry: How to not only survive, but capitalize on the rise of cheap boat sales at big box stores.
“I’m a firm believer that retailers are really whiny as a group,” said Coward. “I think we all talk a lot about the big box bit, but we don’t actually look at the opportunity that more people are being exposed to paddling than ever.”
The river teaches you to accept the challenge and always look for an opportunity. It seems this lesson was not lost on this paddling dirtbag.
Photo: Pierre-Luc Cormier