Tar Heel Tattler - May 2006

Kayak manufacturer: I'm back in the paddle again
By Arthur O. Murray

No man ever steps into the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.” The Greek philosopher Heraclitus said that in the sixth century B.C. Now, a High Point man who founded a kayak factory that left the Triad last year will embody the old Greek’s saying by opening another one there this spring, thanks, in part, to the newfangled notion of economic incentives.

Andy Zimmerman, 49, says he’s different — more experienced in the ways of business — from the man who started Wilderness Systems in 1986. After a series of buyouts and mergers, it became Confluence Holdings Inc., which moved from Trinity to Easley, S.C., last summer. These are certainly different times: Paddling was about to boom then, while growth these days is modest. And he hopes for a different — though still successful — outcome.

Earlier this year, he bought controlling interest in Bristol, R.I.-based Heritage Kayaks and renamed it Legacy Paddlesports. He has $121,000 in incentives from Guilford County commissioners and in mid-April was optimistic that he soon would get about $380,000 more from the state.

If he does, Zimmerman plans to employ up to 75 initially and increase that to 250 within three years. He has an option to lease part of a DaimlerChrysler Commercial Bus Division plant in Jamestown and hopes to be in full production by August, when the industry holds its major trade show in Salt Lake City.

Why move the business to the Triad? “It’s a great place for central distribution for the Northeast and the Southeast,” he says. “But the big thing is the trained work force that got left behind” by Confluence.

He started Wilderness Systems in his backyard. Trouble was, he had to take on too much debt — which lenders converted to equity — to pay for acquisitions. After three years as CEO, he departed because he couldn’t see eye-to-eye with his investors. He moved to Jackson Hole, Wyo., to snowboard and manage his investments. He kept a small stake in the company and stayed on its board until severing ties after Confluence bought Easley-based WaterMark Paddlesports in May 2005. “I knew they were going to move it.” About 120 lost their jobs when the company departed in August.

Zimmerman believes Legacy will find success with kayaks aimed at fishermen. He says he won’t let his business slip out of his control this time. “I’ve got the benefit of experience. We don’t want growth for growth’s sake.”