People - April 2007

He'll do more than just peddle paddling
By Chris Richter

At 27, Sutton Bacon has been a consultant for Coca-Cola and Holiday Inn. Now he’s CEO and president of Nantahala Outdoor Center Inc. He took over the Bryson City business’ top job Jan. 1 from Payson Kennedy, one of its founders 35 years ago. Kennedy, 74, had run NOC since except for 1998 to 2004, when it went through three chief executives.

Despite his youth, Bacon has been paddling the Nantahala River 17 years. He's also president of nonprofit American Whitewater, a Cullowhee-based advocacy group. “I like to think I come in with a real, genuine authenticity among the NOC staff. I’m a kayaker.” That’s not all he is. A singer, he spent five years in the Atlanta Symphony Orchestra Chorus and was part of four Grammy-winning performances. He quit last year. He’s also an entrepreneur, having started two businesses.

The center operates cabins, a 10-room inn and three restaurants. In addition to trips down the Nantahala River, it also takes rafters and kayakers down the Ocoee in Tennessee and the Chattooga in South Carolina and offers other outdoor activities. About 100 work there year round and 600 during summer. Kennedy and his family are the largest shareholders of the employee-owned business, which had $15 million revenue last year.

But many of the baby boomers who drove the growth of whitewater sports now are looking for more low-key rafting, perhaps something they can share with grandchildren. The Nantahala is perfect for those, he says. Younger kayakers want more excitement and might be better served on the Ocoee.

Bacon grew up in Rome, Ga., and first went down the Nantahala at age 10 in a canoe. While attending Emory University in Atlanta, where he got a bachelor’s in music and comparative religion in 2002, he developed Web sites. He and two friends then started Atlanta-based Revolution Partners, a marketing consultant. He sold his stake when he took the new job but not before helping to develop new looks for Holiday Inn rooms and for two-liter bottles of Coca-Cola.

He believes his youth is a plus. “Internally, at NOC, this succession is being viewed as the passing of the torch to the next generation, to the younger generation, to run with the business and fulfill Payson’s visions and strategies and goals to ensure NOC stays relevant.”