2020 was unpredictable and unprecedented, which might be the understatement of the year.
For us at Aqua Bound, 2020 started like any other. Many of the same people in the same roles handling the responsibilities they’ve tackled for years. We were planning for a normal sales year with normal projects and common paddle manufacturing problems. Pre-season orders came in over the winter months with normal booking volumes and everything seemed pretty “par for the course”, if you will.
Then March hit. The Covid-19 virus was spreading across the upper-Midwest and so the state of Wisconsin required non-essential manufacturers to cease operations for safety reasons. Understandably so, it was a scary time for us all. We had no choice but to furlough all 38 employees. For almost two months, our factory collected dust.
As spring turned into summer and most of North America warmed up, people quickly realized one of the best ways to social distance while also escaping their quarantine, was to explore the outdoors. Paddling became one of the most popular outdoor activities in very short order, with thousands of people trying it for the first time in 2020. Seasoned paddlers pulled their boats out of their garage for the first time in months, as they too were hoping to paddle more.
By early May, our phones started ringing again. Dealers and consumers started calling in asking how they could get paddles. One dealer exclaimed, “I have customers pounding at my door to get paddling gear. What can you send us? We’ll take anything!” Slowly we started bringing people back, but only 1-2 individuals at a time, charged with fulfilling orders from whatever inventory we had available (we build our paddles to order, so that’s a tall order). The few people we had back were handling every major function of the company, from customer service to building paddles to shipping orders, and everything in-between.
As states and territories across the world slowly started reopening, people flocked to local specialty retailers for outdoor goods, especially paddling gear. At the same time, very few manufacturers were even open yet. And if they were open, output was at a very marginal rate compared to normal. So, demand was through the roof and dealers were ready to buy, but manufacturers were miles behind trying to catch up.
So, what was our response? Threefold:
- Develop rigid Covid safety procedures
- Hire everyone we could find to help build paddles
- Build paddles day and night
In the early days of Covid here in America, there were relatively minimal protocols or CDC recommendations for manufacturers, so we had to develop strict policies on our own. Daily temperature checks, required face coverings, regular cleaning, distancing stations, dividers between people, and so much more. Above all else, we needed to ensure employee safety.
Then, we hired everyone we could find. Literally, we hired family members of current employees, local teachers and students’ home from school, and anyone that was low-risk and able to meticulously build quality gear. With the extra unemployment perks, this was an extremely challenging task, but we pushed on. In total, we were able to hire an additional 24 people to work in production to build paddles.
Even with the extra hands, that still wasn’t enough. Most of the office folks spent at least some portion of their day in production either assembling paddles, shipping product, or applying graphics. Our operations team was running two shifts and 6-7 days per week. Marketing spending was shut off so that team could become support for phones, order entry, and whatever fires needed putting out. It was truly an “all hands-on deck” experience that without a team-first, selfless approach, we would have been unsuccessful.
As we reflect on the 2020 paddling season, it will be one for the record books. Sales were astronomical, our team exhausted, and best of all, more people with butts in boats than ever before. Because ultimately, that’s what it’s all about. What’s most important is people escaping their problems for a relaxing, carefree day on the water. More people are regaining control of their lives by accessing the beauty Mother Nature has always provided.
Olivia, masked-up and showing off our lightest paddles
As you get back in your boat to escape life’s noise, remember there’s a team of Wisconsinites building paddles around the clock so your favorite new destination is more easily accessible. We’re honored to do what we do. We’re honored to build world class paddles for a world of casual and classy paddlers. We’re going to continue worrying about every little detail that goes into a paddle, so you never have to. Because the last thing you should ever worry about when paddling, is the paddle.
In the meantime, here’s a glimpse into our 2020. Remember, we’re here, so you can be out there.