Picture This, July 2013 ââ¬â Back Paddle

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Picture This, July 2013 Back Paddle

Back paddle

One of the world's leading manufacturers of kayaks returns to the river that inspired its launching.

He shared a love of kayaking with its founders, but Boyce Greer’s role in the creation of Liquidlogic went beyond the Green River of western North Carolina. He often paddled its waters with Shane Benedict and Woody Callaway, kayak-makers who wanted to start their own company. One night, Callaway asked Greer, a banker, where they could find investors. “Boyce said, ‘Well, what are you thinking?’” Benedict recalls. “We told him, and he said, ‘I’m in. I’m your financing.’” Greer pumped several hundred thousand dollars into the startup, which is now part of Fletcher-based Legacy Paddlesports LLC and one of the most prominent brands in the world.

That was more than a decade ago and a pivotal point in the history of Legacy and Liquidlogic, which are settling into a $4.5 million, 130,000-square-foot factory near where the Green River plunges hundreds of feet in less than 2 miles. “We started out near here, and getting back was a really important part of the business for us,” Benedict says.

Benedict, 47, a Knoxville, Tenn., native, began kayaking at 14 at The Mountain, an adventure center in Highlands. He eventually joined the staff, creating its kayaking program. He graduated to the Nantahala Outdoor Center in Bryson City, where he led trips to Chile, Nepal and elsewhere for eight years. He spent a decade on the U.S. Freestyle Team, twice winning world medals. He also fiddled with designs and materials, getting noticed by Greenville, S.C.-based Perception Kayaks Inc., which began sponsoring him and hired him to its research and development department. Benedict worked there until it was bought by venture capitalists. “It became a gigantic operation, run by people who weren’t paddlers.”

In 2000, he and a staff of about 10 design, customer-service, marketing and sales employees began Liquidlogic in a cabin near Saluda. Greer, who later became director of institutional investments at Boston-based Fidelity Investments LLC, was their principal backer. In 2001, Liquidlogic moved to a farmhouse in Flat Rock and outsourced production. Six years later, it merged with Legacy, which made Native and Heritage brand kayaks in Greensboro. The increased output made expansion necessary, as did a different Greensboro shortcoming: lack of good kayaking waters.

The result is the new plant it leases in Fletcher that opened in February. More than 100 employees manufacture more than 50 models — from 6 to 16 feet long — that retail from about $500 to more than $2,300. The factory produces about 20,000 boats a year but is capable of making as many as 60,000 Liquidlogic, Native and Heritage kayaks for flat-water paddling, fishing and touring as well as competition models able to withstand incredible abuse. For example, top paddlers started targeting waterfalls in the mid-’90s. The highest one they’ve run so far? More than 180 feet. “That’s nearly as high as Niagara Falls,” says Benedict, head of research, design and development. The material capable of withstanding such punishment is polyethylene plastic. “We just did a test with a white-water kayak in which we filled it with about 700 pounds of water and dropped it from 20 feet directly on end,” Benedict says. “It crumpled as intended but didn’t break.” Liquidlogic and its other brands are sold by outdoor and adventure stores worldwide and are proving recession-resistant, though the company doesn’t release sales figures. The passionate kayaker whose initial investment helped launch Liquidlogic never got to see the new plant. Greer died in a kayaking accident in Idaho in 2011. But his legacy survives — the Boyce Greer estate is the company’s largest shareholder. — Edward Martin 

— Edward Martin