Wenonah Canoe steers straight in the recession

Detail work
This kayak is made from polyethylene. Workers pull it from the mold when it's still about 200 degrees, then do detail work like this.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Every winter, the people at Wenonah Canoe build a forest of canoes in their warehouses. The company sells 12,000 canoes and kayaks every year to people around the world. About 40 years ago, founder Mike Cichanowski started with just one boat.

"We started small. This thing was started in my backyard. My father's garage is where this thing started," Cichanowski said.

Mike Cichanowski is the founder and president of Wenonah Canoe and Current Design.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Wenonah now employs about 90 people at two facilities in Winona. It's grown steadily every year. Last year was the only year in recent history that Cichanowski didn't add staff.

"Our trademark is making high performance, lightweight boats. And we probably produce two-thirds of the Kevlar canoes sold in the world."

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A two-person Kevlar canoe can weigh as little as 40 pounds. The company builds 66 types of canoes and kayaks.

Cichanowski leads me into a warehouse, where workers begin the process of building Kevlar canoes. Here the Kevlar fabric is layered by hand inside of a red mold.

Kevlar mold
Builders layer Kevlar, fiberglass and resin into the canoe mold. That hardens to form the hull of the canoe.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"Molding is like making a giant cake. Think of the cake pan as your mold, so we're working inside this mold. And once it's hardened it comes out as a finished boat," Cichanowski said.

Wenonah Canoe is known for innovative design and building techniques. But Cichanowski says his company is reviving what people in the 18th and 19th centuries knew about canoe-building.

In the next room, there's a three-seater 20-foot long canoe. It's the kind of boat you might see on a big lake in the Boundary Waters.

"The boat is so long that we have to really stiffen it up. So we're going to install this structural foam. This is a foam that is used in an airplane wing for an aircraft. It's a very expensive, but very hard, very durable material," said Adam Grable, who is fitting the yellow material into the sides of the boat.

"Right now, I'm just going to put in a couple of the ribs for support in the boat. We fit them to size, we heat them, bend them in and cut them," Grable said.

Kevlar canoes
Some of the watercraft made at Wenonah Canoe.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

Grable and the rest of the staff at Wenonah work four, 10-hour days every week. They started that schedule last year to save workers gas money. The plant saves on energy costs, too.

Wenonah makes other, less labor-intensive boats. But a boat like this one costs around $2,000. Last year sales at Wenonah were flat, according to Cichanowski.

"This recession is different than some. There is so much going right now. The problem is nobody knows what is going to happen. Uncertainty is out there. We might be just fine, and we just don't know," he said.

Canoe and kayak sales were down industry-wide from 2007 to 2008, according to Leisure Trends Group, which does outdoor industry research.

The underbelly of a Current Designs kayak.
MPR Photo/Sea Stachura

"So we're looking at units sold, kayaks are down 10 percent and canoes are down 15 percent," said Julie Day, the company's marketing and sales director.

Those are new boats, Day says. Sales of older inventory was up 105 percent, so overall sales were down just slightly last year. In January of 2009, she says sales were up a tiny bit as customers started thinking about their recreation plans.

"It's January, and I am thinking about what I'm going to do this spring or this summer, and I just can't resist this great price that I've gotten," Day said.

An early indicator of the season for this industry is March canoe shows. Attendance at the recent show in Madison was strong, Cichanowski says, but his sales figures aren't in yet.

Cichanowski hasn't laid anyone off yet, but he might need to if sales slip this year. But he predicts his company will endure.

"I enjoy building things. I'll be here for a long time," said Cichanowski. He says in business, you have to be, or you'll kill yourself with worry.