Making kayaks faster

by Emily Atkins

Doom and gloom had settled in like a bad spring storm at ClearWater Design. It was March 24 and the owners, husband and wife team Michelle Laframboise and Ian Crerar, had just decided to lay off their staff and shut down production at their Prince Edward County, Ontario-based factory.

Normally, the January through May period is their busiest, with production of rotationally moulded canoes, kayaks and stand-up paddleboards running full tilt, propelled by sales at several major consumer trade shows. The company normally pre-sells about 300 boats (of its normal annual sales of 2,500 units) over the course of those shows.

But this year the Covid-19 pandemic shut down these opportunities, starting with the Home Show in Toronto, which was to run from March 13 to 22. The booth was already set up and the sales team on the way there when they got the news that the City of Toronto had shuttered the event.

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Michelle Laframboise and Ian Crerar. (Daniel Vaughan photo. vaughangroup.ca)

“I really wasn’t expecting great things from this year and the [pre-pandemic] shows were soft,” said Laframboise, the company’s CEO, and person responsible for procurement, logistics and production planning. And when the pandemic shut everything down, “we thought our season was done at that point. Basically we thought we’d be resetting for 2021. Because it’s our 25th year, we’re well established enough that we could weather this storm. So we knew – even if we didn’t sell anything more that season – that it would not be the end of us.”

But you don’t get to be a 25-year, family-owned manufacturer by being complacent. Laframboise and Crerar wasted no time figuring out how to salvage the year, following up any lead at all that might result in a sale. “Basically it was just Ian and myself, since our staff was all gone, trying to follow up any possible lead and doing anything we could for any sale – driving anywhere to deliver anybody a boat for anything. One here, one there,” Laframboise recounts.

A glimmer of hope

But, suddenly, at the beginning of May they received a call from their Quebec distributor, Allan Gourdji of outdoor retailer Yanes Canada, based in Montreal, with an order for 100 special-order kayaks for, improbably, a Corona beer promotion. They called the staff back in to make these boats.

The shop floor with canoes in line for finishing; the moulding machines are in the background.(Emily Atkins photo)

Around the same time, Quebec announced it would begin re-opening some businesses. Gourdji decided the time was right and ordered his first regular load of boats immediately afterwards.

At first, production was normal, and then the orders started pouring in, all from Quebec. Yanes was swamped with customers looking to buy equipment for safe, outdoor activities.

Normally, Laframboise says, an order for Yanes would be 50 boats, which ClearWater would load and ship itself, using its fleet of pickup trucks equipped with custom-built racking and towing enclosed trailers. But Gourdji was now ordering 100 boats at a time, necessitating a tractor-trailer load, and the orders kept piling on.

In late May, the company opened its Muskoka and Kingston retail stores and the factory outlet for curbside pickup, as Ontario began to feel the resurgence of retail confidence.

The company’s main ‘cooker’, Ray Gellert-Leduc about to begin baking a new paddleboard. (Emily Atkins photo)

The surge

It quickly became apparent that normal production was not going to keep pace with the orders piling up on Laframboise’s desk. In an average year orders need to be fulfilled by mid-July; if production runs late orders get cancelled.

Typically the company produces 30 boats a day Monday through Thursday, with Friday as a catch-up day. The various types of kayaks, canoes and boards are made from polyethylene pellets, mixed and ‘cooked’ in a mould, then cooled and finished by a team who cut out holes for cockpits and hatches, and add seats, webbing, rudders and hardware, and then package each boat in a protective wrap for transport. This process cannot be rushed – just as with any baked good you can’t take it out of the oven too soon without consequences.

So with the expectation that the surge in orders would dry up in late July, they added four new staff to the six they already employed on the manufacturing side, and added another boat-cooking shift. “We were starting at midnight through until about five o’clock in the afternoon,” Laframboise says. “We went from doing four days, 30 boats a day, to five days at about 45 to 50 boats a day. Plus Saturdays; we would do 20 boats on Saturdays.”

As of September 1, they had still not caught up with orders, and dealers were not cancelling, even this late in the paddling season. Laframboise said they still needed two more weeks of high production to catch up, and then another couple weeks to get some stock in the warehouse.

Playing catchup

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Normally, by September these racks would be replenished in preparation for the next winter’s trade show season. (Emily Atkins photo)

ClearWater Design normally takes a break from making boats in the late summer and early fall, switching over to making the next year’s supply of injection moulded parts like rudders, deck buttons and foot stops, as well as paddles. Likewise, in the fall they order a year’s supply of small components from three principal overseas suppliers. These typically are on a 12-week cycle from order to arrival at the factory.

When production ramped up suddenly these supplies were running short. “You just run out of everything so quickly when you’ve doubled production,” Laframboise says.”Every single last bit and piece and box of anything was gone. We sold every single paddle we produced, every single foot stop, every single life jacket that we brought in. So then I’m also scrambling to find other suppliers domestically because they’re the ones who have the capacity – like we do – to keep making things.”

A polyethylene supplier couldn’t deliver because they weren’t able to produce enough thanks to Covid distancing restrictions. Fortunately another supplier was able to fill the gap. On the flip side, however, because some suppliers were less busy than normal, Laframboise’s emergency orders for items like the graphics they put on the boats and gaskets, which were normally on a 12-week turnaround showed up in a week.

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Fortunately, the supplies of polyethylene plastic that ClearWater Design relies on were not significantly disrupted due to the pandemic. (Emily Atkins photo)

Still, the unpredictability has been a challenge, she says. “I’m waiting on things that I’ve had to air freight from overseas. We’ve also had to basically search every corner of the warehouse for bits that were left over from previous trade shows, previous production runs. It meant a shift to use similar hardware, but that we had stopped using, but we still have a box of it.” In fact, a recent order for seats and paddleboard pads was still pending, forcing the factory to leave a stack of partially finished boats and boards aside until it arrived so as to not disrupt production.

A moving target

Transportation has also been a moving target, both inbound and out. There have been 6 am runs to the UPS depot to intercept boxes before they were loaded on the delivery truck, and one notable airfreight order from China was sent to Vancouver rather than Toronto, necessitating another flight and a trip to the airport to get it, while another order sat in a Brockville, Ontario, depot for a couple days before finally being delivered. The cost does not faze Laframboise: “I am biting the bullet and paying thousands of dollars more than I would, but I really don’t have a choice. So I just look at it as, if I don’t do that and pay an extra, say, $4,000 for these components – that’s maybe five or 10 boats sold – it’s going to cost me to get that as opposed to being shut down.”

On the outbound side, Yanes, in Montreal, has ended up taking 1,300 boats this year, requiring one or two tractor-trailer loads of 80 to 100 boats a week. Laframboise previously used a freight broker for infrequent large loads, but this year has dealt exclusively with Day & Ross, which she says has been reliable and offers really good customer service through a dedicated rep.

Avoiding burnout

With the extra shift and long days in the office, the whole ClearWater Design team was pushing hard to meet demand. “If we had gone around the clock, 24 hours a day, I could probably have sold everything we could have produced,” Laframboise says. “But we were all getting burnt out already. And even pushing for the occasional Saturday, I was very cautious about that because I know that I was in the office 12 hours a day, not on weekends – well, a few weekends – but so I know how burnt out I felt, and I really didn’t want to jeopardize destroying my staff.”

The beauty of a seasonal business, even when it gets pushed by a couple months because of a pandemic, is that you do get a break – eventually. “We can all tolerate this because we know it’s not going to last that long,” she adds. The company also helped to keep its staff by giving them all raises and bonuses, avoiding the dropouts that others experienced with the availability of Covid-19 government benefits.

Best year ever

Thanks to the tireless work of all the staff, ClearWater Design will see its best year ever in 2020. “This year, every single boat in our warehouse was gone. All of my dealers kept saying they could have sold twice as much if I could have provided them more,” Laframboise says. By contrast, last year they shut down production in mid-July with 800 boats in the warehouse.

After the soft beginning to the year, she said they were wondering if perhaps kayaking had passed its peak. And when the boom hit, they were reminded “that a good thing about our company is the fact that we are small, that we are flexible, that we have the ability to ramp things up and almost double production from one day to the next.” Selling a ‘Made in Canada’ product and being readily available were huge advantages as people flocked to outdoor activities.

“We’re very happy that we’re one of the companies who actually came out ahead this year,” Laframboise concludes.