CHARLESTON'S 'UNFOLDING' BUSINESS SUCCESS STORY
Spend just a few minutes with a Folbot kayak owner and youll soon see that Folbot paddlers are a loyal bunch. This Charleston-based folding kayak company has developed a cult-like following since its founding in 1933. Its a unique story that unfolds as easily as their kayaks.
Whats a Folbot?
Basically, a Folbot is a folding boat in a bag, says company president Phil Cotton. Using light, but durable, metal framing and puncture- and abrasion-resistant fabric, Folbots pack into one or two bags (depending on the model). They generally take just 15-20 minutes to put together or take apart, though veteran owners can do it in much less time, Cotton continues.
This folding feature means Folbots travel very well. They can be checked as luggage, making a kayak trip easier and cheaper than renting boats once there.
Currently, there are four basic Folbot models: the Aleut, the Yukon, the Kodiak, and the Greenland II. The Aleut is the perfect single-seater for daytrips or moderate expeditions, while the Yukon is a larger version of the Aleut thats ideal for bigger paddlers or loads. The single-seater Kodiak is more of a performance model for full expeditions. Finally, the Greenland II is Folbots most versatile kayak, with room for two full-sized adults (and a child or pet), as well as adjusting to a single-seater.
The kayks are light and easity handled by one person. All models come as complete kits in either a standard or expedition option. The standard package includes the kayak, paddle (two for the Greenland II), carrying bag (or bags), patch kit, and two safety bladders that help with flotation. The expedition kit comes with everything from the standard package, plus a foot rudder kit, spray skirt (to keep out water), padded lower longerons (to help cushion the hull), extra deck rigging (to carry gear outside the kayak), and a wilderness repair kit. All of the models come in yellow, red, blue, green, or tan decking, with black hulls.
Folbot also sells lots of accessories to their loyal owners. Some of the options include upgraded paddles, boat carts, paddle leashes, very popular baseball caps and T-shirts, and much more.
A unique thing about Folbot is that they only sell factory-direct. While most kayak companies sell through dealers and stores, Folbot sells directly to customers--eliminating middlemen and typically shipping the bagged kayaks by UPS.
Folbot History Unfolded
Folbot was established by Jack Kissner in London. The folding kayaks he made were generally similar in style to the ones made by Folbot today, though the materials have changed dramatically. Folbot soon gained a reputation for being sturdy and stable, with the company garnering lots of followers and several paddling records--including the first circumnavigation of the United Kingdom in a folding kayak.
Kissner felt that North America was a largely untapped market for folding kayaks and moved his company to New York City in 1935, from where he successfully sold kayaks across the continent for the next 20 years. In 1955, he moved Folbots headquarters to Charleston, searching for a less harsh business climate and, more than likely, less harsh weather and better paddling conditions.
Kissner continued to run Folbot until his death in 1982, when his daughter Olivia Smith took over the business. In 1983, Cotton and a few other silent partners bought Folbot from her, keeping all of the long-time staff in place. With a degree in product design and many years in the textile industry, Cotton saw an opportunity to implement many of his ideas concerning composite materials.
Besides being the president, Cotton is also the chief design engineer. His design for the Greenland II, introduced in 1989, was a radical departure for the company and the folding kayak industry. He also designed the Aleut and then the Kodiak.
Folbot has been continuously producing folding kayaks longer than any other company in the world. As of Folbots 70th anniversary this year, the company has sold more than 250,000 boats, with about 25% going overseas today and the rest evenly distributed across North America (except for Alaska, which is a huge Folbot market). In addition, Canada is quickly growing for Folbot, thanks to two French-speaking women there who are introducing Folbot to paddling-crazy Canadians.
The Folbot Factory
Folbots headquarters and plant are located in an industrial park in North Charleston. The plant is actually situated in an old World War II tuberculosis hospital. Today, Folbot kayaks are essentially made-to-order, with buyers calling or using the Internet to choose their Folbot, which is typically in less than two weeks.
More than 15 employees typically work at Folbot, with many of them showing loyalty thats similar to Folbot owners. For instance, Dorothy Saab, Carol Nelson, and Sammie Richardson, have all been with Folbot more than 40 years. In all, more than 10 have been with the company at least a decade.
Cotton says Folbot has developed such a loyal following because they make a great boat, but they also follow that up with great customer service before and after the sale. Whenever you call Folbot, you get a real person that knows paddling and boats.
When you buy a Folbot directly from the factory, they have a guarantee thats remained the same since 1933: Money back if you decide not to keep it; backed for life if you do. More than half the people who buy a Folbot havent been in one before, but less than 1% actually decide to return their boat. For their owners, Folbot sends out about $5,000-$8,000 a year in free replacement parts and theyve been known to overnight something to places like Belize if a Folbot paddler is in need.
Cotton says most people learn about Folbot from a friend who owns one, in a magazine ad, on the Internet, or from their catalog. In the last decade, dozens of buyers have tried a Folbot at Charlestons annual East Coast Canoe & Kayak Festival. Held each April and coordinated by the Charleston County Park & Recreation Commission, the festival was named last years American Canoe Association Sanctioned Event of the Year. The event is held at James Island County Park, which provides a large pond for on-water classes and demo, access to bigger water, and proximity to the Atlantic for surf kayaking and classes.
Thanks to the location, the program, and word of mouth, we generate more and more enthusiasm within the paddling community each year, says Steve Hutton, who coordinates the event for the parks system. That enthusiasm typically leads to more than 750 consumers in attendance, as well as close to 50 speakers and presenters and more than 165 exhibitors and their staff. Normally, there are 40 commercial exhibits by some of the nations finest retailers and manufacturers.
Cotton says, We have been coming to this local event that gets national attention since 1986, but didnt start showing our boats until a few years ago. We decided that the event is too large and well-attended not to have a presence. Its a great opportunity to expose our unique boats and more to Charlestonians and other South Carolina residents, as well as getting veteran paddlers from further afield to try them out.
This local and statewide exposure has meant a few more visitors to Folbots North Charleston headquarters and plant. With a put-in on the Ashley River less than five minutes away and demo Folbots ready to go at any time, more prospective buyers are making an appointment to try (and likely buy) a Folbot. In this way, a Charleston company is literally 'making waves' worldwide.
SOUTH CAROLINA: PADDLING CAPITAL OF THE WORLD?
South Carolina seems to have an inordinate number of kayaking-oriented companies. Apart from Folbot (www.folbot.com) on the coast, the northwestern part of the state has become somewhat of a Mecca in kayaking circles.
The plethora of paddling companies is mostly due to South Carolina native (and 1974 Clemson grad) Bill Masters, who founded Perception back in 1976. His company would grow into one of the most successful whitewater and sea kayak manufacturers in the world.
In 1998, Perception and Tennessee-based Dagger were purchased by Watermark, joining the two largest kayak companies in the world. All manufacturing was moved to Perceptions plant in Easley, including that for yet another brand--Islander Kayaks, a popular sit-on-top option. That means more kayaks are manufactured at Easleys 111 Kayaker Way than anywhere else in the world!
Watermark (www.watermarksports.com), also now owns: Mainstream, a Minnesota-based kayak manufacturer; Harmony, a leader in paddling accessories; Arcata, the manufacturer of Yakima roof racks (you need something to carry your kayak); Rhode Gear vehicle racks and shuttles; and Sospenders, a line of inflatable personal flotation devices. But, this South Carolina firm is still a kayaking company at heart!
Also located in the northwest section of the state, Whetstone (www.kayakstore.com) is a leading manufacturer of high-end paddles for whitewater and touring. Their local river is the Chatooga, where theyve tested many of the current paddles, including the Forte and Finesse for whitewater and the Mako, Bonito, and Wahoo for touring. Ironically, like Folbot, Whetstone sells factory-direct and has a similarly loyal following.
Lynn Seldon is a kayaker who owns two South Carolina-made Perception kayaks (which he carries on a Yakima rack). For his next boat, hes seriously considering a Folbot--and a Whetstone paddle.