After nearly 47 years of manufacturing, Eddyline Kayaks founder Tom Derrer and his wife Lisa Derrer are retiring. We caught up with the Derrers and Eddyline’s new president to look back on four-and-a-half decades to a time before there was a kayaking industry and then into the future for one of kayaking oldest brands.
How Eddyline Kayaks got its start
Adventure Kayak: Tom, you were only 29 in 1971 when you started Eddyline.
Tom Derrer: I had a passion for whitewater kayaking at a time when there were no kayaks commercially available, unless you wanted to go to the expense of importing one from Europe. Of course at that age I had no money. I had just finished college, it was summertime, I had a passion for whitewater boating, and I needed to figure out a way to make enough money so I could go paddling… and I didn’t want to get a job.
AK: Is this a guy in a garage start-up story?
TD: Yes, pretty much. I started in the backyard of my house in Colorado which was not bad because it didn’t rain very often. There was a company in Denver where I’d buy fiberglass and they had a number of molds that they would rent. One of them happened to be a whitewater kayaking mold. It worked okay, people kept showing up at my house and saying, “Would you build one for me?” That went on pretty well for the summer and then that fall a roommate got interested so we rented a building in Boulder and moved indoors for the winter. It was really fun, but we were doing the old stinky fiberglass stuff in those days and everybody got kind of sick of it after a while and come spring they wanted to be outside.
AK: How did you end up in the Pacific Northwest?
TD: I called Werner Furrer, Senior, a good friend of mine in Washington State where I had lived for a while when I was going to school, Of course, you know, his son is the founder of Werner Paddles. His kids were pretty small then so he was designing boats for his family and he had nice whitewater boats at the time. I called him up and asked, “Hey, I’d like to move back to Washington and I was wondering if you’d be interested in me building your boats?” He was delighted. We moved back here and started Eddyline in Washington in 1974 in a building in Seattle.
AK: Do you ever look back and wonder why you didn’t just become a teacher or doctor, or something?
TD: Sure… the irony of this is that I started a business. When I was in college, if I met people who had business majors— remember this was the ‘60s—I would think, “How could you, that is the root of all evil?” And there I was starting a business. I knew nothing about business. I took care of the technical end of building kayaks. We began vacuum bagging and were making some pretty cool 13- to 15-pound slalom boats, which was unprecedented at the time.
A changing industry
AK: How did Eddyline transition into producing touring kayaks?
TD: It came about in ’74 when Werner designed a touring boat and we started building it. We made a couple marvelous discoveries. One, we went sea kayaking and that was pretty wonderful. Two, we discovered a completely different clientele. Instead of the young whitewater paddlers that didn’t have any money and would dicker with me over every nickel and would then take the boat out and crack it up on rocks, the sea kayak customer was older, more mature, more established, they didn’t argue about price and they would take their boats home and polish them and love them instead of beating them up.
AK: In 1971, a gallon of gasoline cost 40 cents and a movie ticket was $1.50. How much was an Eddyline kayak?
Lisa Derrer: In 1971, they were somewhere around $150. By 1974, a whitewater kayak was $265 and a touring kayak was $325.
AK: In almost 47 years how many different models have you produced?
TD: Probably between 30 and 40, if you count all the Werner boats. The first boat I designed was called the Orca. The Falcon 18, which is a model we are not building anymore, was one of my favorite boats. The boat that comes closest to it is our Fathom.
AK: Eddyline is known for user-friendly, high performance designs like the Fathom. Any mad scientist brilliant ideas that you loved but that just didn’t fly?
TD: There was one boat that did particularly poorly. I didn’t listen to Lisa on the esthetics. It was called the Phoenix. She didn’t like the look of it. It wasn’t a bad boat to paddle; it just didn’t have style, for lack of a better word.
AK: Tell me a bit about the challenges of being the first at thermoforming kayaks?
TD: The first was getting the technology accepted. Eddyline went from building vacuum-bagged fiberglass kayaks to plastic kayaks and everyone’s experience with plastic kayaks was rotomolded polyethylene. Our thermoformed boats were more expensive than polyethylene because they were more comparable in material cost to composite boats we’d been building. Education was probably the biggest challenge but we got over that pretty quickly.
AK: How did you transition to thermoform?
TD: We were building fiberglass decks and hulls faster than we could build the seats, bulkheads and the cockpit rims so we had this big backlog of unfinished kayaks. Then one day we realized these parts didn’t need to be made out of fiberglass. So we built a small thermoforming oven and started building them out of plastics. We didn’t have to do that for very long before we thought to ourselves, “Geez, this is nice. Why are we doing boats the old way?” There was a great amount of experimentation that had to go on, but that’s what started us making that leap.
LD: That original thermoform machine we called the Dream Team Machine because it set the dream in motion. We donated it last year to a local community college. Hopefully it will set some other dreams in motion.
Plenty to be proud of
AK: Do you have a part of running this business for so long that the two of you are particularly proud of?
LD: Two things I think are very important to us. One is employee retention. We have a lot of employees who have worked here for a long, long time. It’s a nice place to work. It shows in the quality of work they do. The other is the customers’ response to the products. We have a lot of happy customers and lots of dedicated repeat customers.
AK: In the last ten years Eddyline has tripled production.
LD: The answer is having top-notch products, products that satisfy wide range of paddlers. And standing behind our product 100 percent. And, not trying to grow too fast. We had steady, consistent growth but we kept it sustainable.
AK: You won best in show at the 2015 ICAST tradeshow? Tell me about Eddyline’s entrance and success in kayak fishing?
TD: It started with our entrance into sit-on-tops, which we avoided for a long time. There are so many sit-on-tops on the market that are cheap. We didn’t know if we could compete with a higher quality, lighter-weight thermoformed sit-on-top. To our delight we found that there is a very distinct market. Our first two models we made for kayaking and then realized that our customers really enjoyed fishing out of them, so we started adding fishing accessories. The C-135 YakAttack Edition was our first stand-up fishing kayak. It was a very complex development process during which we consulted with fisherman from all over the country.
Looking forward to some peace and quiet?
AK: Why has it taken you two so long to retire?
LD: We realized 10 years ago we had to get the focus off us being the face of Eddyline. It had to be about the product itself so that the brand could continue when we weren’t there in the consumer’s eyes.
AK: What advice have you given the new owners about the future success of Eddyline?
TD: Since I’ve been in this industry, I’ve seen a lot of acquisitions of kayak companies. Almost inevitably the quality of the product goes down, the plant is moved, sometimes the brand literally disappears. That was something Lisa and I decided we didn’t want to see happen to the company we’ve spent most of our lives building. The nice thing about the new team is that they have already been running the company. Scott Holley is joining Todd Keane who is the vice-president of production, Tom Remsing has 20 years in sales and marketing with the company and Janet Sutton is our vice-president of operations. My advice is, if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it. I think the team we’ve selected to put into place really respects and appreciates that and wants the same thing.
AK: So what will you do now?
TD: I’m going to hang around here and keep these guys in line until they lock me out.
LD: We also want to do a lot of travelling. We’ve been doing business with a lot of really wonderful people whom we’ve never met. We are going to visit many of the dealers we have relationships with but have never seen their faces.
Scott Holley: What I’ve told them is that the title of founder of Eddyline is irrevocable. We’re going to be looking for as much support as we can to make sure that the legacy that Tom and Lisa have created goes forward. The legacy of quality, design, craftsmanship and customer service is what attracted me to this company in the first place and it is critical to the success of Eddyline. We hope Tom and Lisa stick around the company for a long time.
AK: Is there anything you would have done differently?
LD: I would have liked a little more business experience in addition to an art degree.
TD: I would have started thermoforming kayaks a hell of a lot sooner than I did. That was the most wonderful transformation we ever made in this company.
What the future holds for Eddyline Kayaks
AK: Scott, as the new president of a four-decade-old kayak company, what’s the future of Eddyline?
SH: Coming into a company that has been growing as quickly as it has, I was surprised to see just how much opportunity is still out in front of us. We have in mind a go-forward plan, which has us continuing to launch new kayaks within the touring, recreation and fishing categories. As Tom said, “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it.” One thing we may be looking to do is add to our production capacity, this is something you’ll probably see in the next two to three years.
AK: Why are you so excited about taking over as president of Eddyline?
SH: This is one of the most talented management teams that I’ve ever had the privilege of working with and I’m beyond thrilled to join them as managers and as owners of a great company.
AK: In your crystal ball, what do you see for the future of kayaking?
SH: Recreational kayaking will continue to grow. Fishing kayaks are evolving and there is a lot of growth there as fisherman continue to look to kayaks to get on the water. Generally, I think we’ll see increased participation rates of younger generations and I think that bodes well for the next 47 years of this company.
Eddyline Kayaks’ old and new management team. Left to right: Scott Holley, Tom Remsing, Tom Derrer, Lisa Derrer, Janet Sutton and Todd Keane. | Feature Photo: Eddyline Kayaks
——Official Company Press Release——
EDDYLINE KAYAKS COMPLETES TRANSITION OF OWNERSHIP
Management Team acquires company, Founder Tom Derrer to retire after nearly 47 years
(Burlington, WA) Eddyline Kayaks, a leading manufacturer of kayaks, paddles, and related accessories, has been acquired by its management team. Founder Tom Derrer and his wife Lisa are retiring nearly 47 years after forming the company. As part of the acquisition, Scott Holley is joining current managers Todd Keane, Tom Remsing, Alex Stoeffl and Janet Sutton as President.
“From Eddyline’s earliest days, we have been at the forefront of innovative designs and processes, culminating with the industry’s first thermoformed ABS kayak. This transition is the result of several years of discussion and careful planning. We are thrilled that our legacy of “legendary designs” will be entrusted to this unparalleled team.” said Tom Derrer, founder and President of the company. “While Lisa and I have looked forward to retirement, it was important that the company we love would continue with people we’ve known for many years, and who we trust to carry on the legacy we’ve created. I’m pleased that the company and its employees will stay right here in the Pacific Northwest. We will continue to be supportive of the Company’s ongoing success under the new ownership team.”
“The management team has been in place for several years, and in that time we’ve experienced significant growth, tripling our production output in the last ten years alone” said Tom Remsing, VP of Sales & Marketing. “Managing that growth while preserving the level of quality Eddyline is known for has been our primary focus. Going forward we’ll put a renewed emphasis on innovation while preserving Tom Derrer’s legacy of user-friendly, high-performance design.”
The Management Team brings plenty of experience to the table. Todd Keane, who will continue to serve as VP of Production, has been with Eddyline over 21 years. Tom Remsing is in his 20th year of affiliation with the company, first as the Northeast Regional Rep and later in his current role heading sales and marketing. Janet Sutton, VP of Operations, joined the company in 2014 after 18 years in the recreational boating industry. Scott Holley, Eddyline’s new President, joins the company after a successful career in consulting and transaction advisory work. “I’m thrilled to join the Eddyline team,” said Scott. “Together with the current management team, we have developed a plan to continue as one of the industry’s leading paddlesport manufacturers; recognized for quality, customer service, and innovative designs.”
About Eddyline Kayaks Founded in 1971 in a small shop in Boulder, CO, Eddyline Kayaks is a manufacturer of premier kayaks and paddles. In 1996, Tom Derrer and his staff changed the industry when they first introduced thermoformed kayaks to the paddlesport market. Eddyline has always been a family business, focused on quality rather than quantity. Our designs are a direct reflection of Tom Derrer’s 50+ years of paddling experience and our philosophy of constant improvement, lean manufacturing and superior customer service.