Wenonah Canoe Inc.
Noteworthy: Maker of handcrafted canoes
Employees: Approximately 70
In the Land of 10,000 Lakes, is there a business more Minnesotan than a canoe factory? Family owned and based in Winona, Wenonah Canoe is a nationally respected brand that’s been a strong industry player for decades. But when the pandemic first hit, sales started sinking.
Revenue dropped more than 25 percent in the second quarter of 2020, says Bill Kueper, Wenonah vice president. “There were very scary days in early May because we didn’t know what was going to happen.”
As it became clear that Covid-19 would persist but the world was not going to end right away, demand surged. Sitting in a canoe offers “inherent social distancing,” Kueper says.
“The retailers this year—if it floated, they could sell it. We were replenishing their shelves from our warehouse faster than we could refill our warehouse,” he says. “The entire paddle sports industry globally was embraced like never before.”
Wenonah manufactures canoes, kayaks, and accessories. Avid paddler Mike Cichanowski founded the company 54 years ago in his dad’s garage. “He still comes in every day,” Kueper says. As business boomed last summer, Wenonah hired 20 more workers in its factory and an additional staffer in the office.
But there’s no time to celebrate. Kueper says it’s important to focus on long-term business stability.
Kueper’s advice on taking the long view:
Don’t overhire, even when business is good. “Since we are family owned, we want to give the employees sustainable employment,” says Kueper. “As this paddle sports market ebbs and flows, we just don’t want to overstaff and [then] have to lay off great people.”
Focus on turning short-term gains into long-term business. The pandemic “brought a lot of health and new vigor to the outdoor industry that we haven’t seen for a while,” Kueper says. “We’ve been given this great opportunity; we’ve engaged with new [customers]. Now we have to retain them.”