Saturday, September 24, 2011

King of kayaks marks 30 years

Brian Henry paddles in the waters near his store, Ocean River Sports. Henry says the paddlesports centre gets at least 1,000 new kayakers onto the water each year.

Brian Henry paddles in the waters near his store, Ocean River Sports. Henry says the paddlesports centre gets at least 1,000 new kayakers onto the water each year.

Brian Henry's Ocean River Sports brings legions to great outdoors

Over the last 30 years, Brian Henry has lost track of the number of people he's put on the water.

But the 59-year-old owner of Ocean River Sports has no intention of backing away from getting people hooked on water adventure anytime soon.

Sure, after three decades of outfitting the Lower Island with the gear and the boats to take on the Pacific Ocean, Henry is looking at spending more of his own time paddling and relaxing, but he's clearly as energized and enthusiastic about his business as he was when he started in 1981.

"I have always said if you live on Vancouver Island and don't own a kayak, well, it's like living on a ski hill and not owning skis," said Henry. "I mean look out your door, go for a drive, it's all right there."

Henry is as much an advocate for the great outdoors - the company tagline is "getting you out there since 1981" - as he is a businessman, and he loves the fact that at least 1,000 newbies get onto the water each year through his store, which not only offers the gear but also courses and tours.

"Our mission is to give people an extraordinary experience," he said.

That's what spurred him into action in the early 1980s.

Henry, a sheet-metal mechanic uninterested in returning to his apprenticeship and with a strong bent for adventure and travel, opened a tiny store in Market Square in 1981 selling kayaks sourced from Vancouver and Seattle.

As he looks back on that time now, it was about finding work that suited his passions. But it also turned into an outlet for the skills honed after nine years working with his hands.

Henry recalled thinking he could improve upon the quality of the boats they were bringing in to sell, and in 1982 he partnered with Campbell Black to start Current Designs, which soon took off as an entity with Black fabricating Henry's designs.

"Current Designs went crazy," said Henry of what drove the early growth of Ocean River. "We had 75 people working for us and we were producing more composite [fibreglass and kevlar sea kayaks] boats than any manufacturer in the world."

Current Designs operated at various locations in Victoria, including the building that now houses Canoe Brew Pub, and Henry said they were seeing growth between 30 and 40 per cent annually and having trouble keeping up with demand.

In 1999, Current Designs was sold to Minnesotabased Wenonah Canoe, and in 2004 it left Victoria, eliminating 70 jobs. "That broke my heart," said Henry, who understood the move, but still found it difficult to watch them load the truck and drive it off the Island.

As for selling, it gave Henry the chance to focus on Ocean River, which had "kind of idled and rumbled away in the background."

"It was a hard transition," he said, noting he went from playing on a global stage to focusing on a local specialty store.

But he brought his energy and enthusiasm to it and established a threepronged attack - retail, courses and tours. It has kept Ocean River vibrant and, in a unique twist, has allowed it to create its own market.

"We don't just hang a shingle and say 'come and buy our gear.' We kind of make our customers," he said. "And we become our own little nucleus if we do it right."

That is to say people taking an Ocean River kayak tour, often buy their gear from Ocean River and bone up on their skills by taking Ocean River courses.

"And we've built that up over a long period of time . it's been pretty slow growth, but good growth," said Henry.

The company, housed since 2001 in a 6,500-squarefoot waterfront building on Store Street with a dock, now has 26 employees.

He's also started to break down perceived barriers that the store is for kayak-

ers only by marketing products that suit the West Coast weather, lifestyle and anyone who lives or visits here.

The company has also been breaking down barriers that have kept people from trying kayaking or canoeing. "I think people think it will be more difficult than it is, and it's up to us to change that," he said.

Ocean River has all kinds of groups in for courses and all kinds of age groups, including kayakers and paddle-boarders in their 80s and 90s. "Who am I to say anyone is too old?" Henry said.

Still Henry is aware he is getting older and is starting to look at options.

"I'm trying to figure out what I want to do. I love partnering and maybe there's somebody that comes in with good, young energy to revitalize things," he said. "I have a lot of energy but I have lots of things [happening as well]."

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1 comment:

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