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Jackson Kayak tops industry sales in six short years | | The Tennessean

Jackson Kayak tops industry sales in six short years
Independent thinker has taken his expertise, and his business model, straight to his customers
By Bonna Johnson • THE TENNESSEAN • October 25, 2009
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SPARTA, Tenn. — In a cavernous factory that once churned out Wrangler jeans, a new kind of American classic is making a name for itself.

Just six years after starting up, Jackson Kayak has come to dominate the $10 million-plus U.S. whitewater industry as maker of the best-selling whitewater kayaks in the country.

At the same time, co-founder, president and chief boat designer Eric "EJ" Jackson, an Olympian and four-time world champion — along with his two talented teens and a son-in-law — continues racking up medals at international freestyle kayaking competitions, most recently at September's World Championships in Switzerland.

It might be a stretch to say this region of Middle Tennessee near the Caney Fork River where the Jackson family lives, paddles and makes boats is the epicenter of the whitewater kayaking universe — but not much of one.

Operating three shifts, 24 hours a day, Jackson Kayak expects to manufacture more than 7,000 boats by year's end, about the same number as last year's record turnout, if not more, despite the economic downturn.

The 45-year-old Jackson may be the old man in a sport of young adrenaline junkies, but years of watching where the industry has gone wrong helped lead him to the unconventional business plan that has him clobbering competitors.

He focuses on direct customer interaction by promoting the sport as he travels for half the year. Instead of selling through big-box sporting goods stores, he deals with smaller shops and protects their sales territories.

"You have lots of big conglomerates in the industry right now, and a lot of times they lose the magic," said Lou Dzierzak, a former managing editor of Outdoor Business, a trade publication for outdoor specialty retailers that follows the kayaking industry.

"Here you've got a boat designer and a world champion," Dzierzak said. "For people in paddle sports, soul is important to them, and Eric can translate that in a way that some marketing manager just can't."

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Contact Bonna Johnson at 615-726-5990 or [email protected].

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