Kelley Woolsey has always been a surfer at heart. That’s why it was almost surprising to find him riding one wave for so long as the director of sales and marketing for Easley, S.C’s Confluence Watersports. He nearly single-handedly kept the company going through good times and bad, including its merger with Watermark, the move from Trinity, N.C., acquisition of brands, and secession of CEOs – which most recently ended with Confluence naming Sue Rechner, ex-president of Victorinox Swiss Army, Inc., as the company’s new CEO, replacing Tom Nathanson. This event coincided with Woolsey’s Jan. 8 decision to leave after 10 years for other pastures that may or may not include paddling. Throughout this all, Woolsey has kept the fire burning for such brands as Wilderness Systems, Perception, Mad River, Dagger, Wave Sport and AT Paddles.
Paddling Life caught up with him between sabbatical surf sessions in Hawaii, Long Island, California and Florida to get his take on Confluence, the paddling industry and where the next wave might take him.
PL: Dude, why’d you leave?
Woolsey: It pretty much comes down to timing. I left at a good space in time, both for me and the company. Confluence is well positioned, with preseasons at their best ever. The company knows it needs to deliver on operations – ensuring deliveries are accurate and on time and that its boats are high quality. The company has a great plan in place and I think retailers will begin to see those results. Note: Click here for SNEWS story
PL: Now that you can be objective, what do you really think of the industry?
Woolsey: Whitewater paddlers need to realize that they need to sell paddlesports and the lifestyle – not just whitewater. They’re the extreme athletes that compete in an exciting environment who can help build awareness for the sport – kind of like what skateparks and half pipes do for skateboarding and snowboarding. There are less than 2 million surfers in America but everyone wants to look like Kelly Slater, which is why Quicksilver pays him seven figure digits and why they sell over $1 billion a year in surfwear. Sell the lifestyle and then take advantage of it with brand extension.
PL: You came into paddlesports from the surfing industry…any comparisons?
Woolsey: It’s very similar, with the importance being what passion and culture means to a company and the industry. Specialty retailers have such a huge influence on the industry, and in both surfing and paddling smaller manufacturers mean a lot to the health of the business as they bring new ideas, youthful concepts, emotion, passion and creativity to the table. I also can’t emphasize enough the importance lifestyle plays in each sport. Water parks played a huge role in the expansion of surfing just as whitewater parks are doing for paddle sports….the Charlotte course is a great example of the type of impact it can have on building awareness.
PL: How has paddlesports evolved since you became involved?
Woolsey: The industry is attempting to come together to have one voice in the PIA, and the development of whitewater parks is also now expanding awareness. Equipment has also improved dramatically with new technology, a more scientific approach to hull design, improved outfitting, lighter-weight materials, and women’s- and kids’-specific hulls. And the impact kayak fishing has had is incredible.
PL: What’s your overall take on the industry? Best/worst thing?
Woolsey: The best thing is that we are trying to work together as a family to build awareness of paddlesports. The worst thing is that we need more creative, outside-the-box thinking and more youthful outlooks on how to take the industry to the next level. We need younger folks involved….and we don’t need to worry so much about what our competitors are doing but what we as a group can do to better our industry.
<PL: Highs and lows from your tenure at Confluence?
Woolsey: My high point came at CWS in North Carolina at the end of 2004: We finished the year with our best sales ever and were very profitable. The low point followed the merger with Watermark and the negative impact that our (CWS) struggles had on the company, our employees and their families, our product, our brands and our retail partners.
PL: What will you miss most?
Woolsey: Maybe nothing, as I may remain in the industry. The word will hit the streets shortly as to where I will land and what the direction of my next career/life challenge/adventure will be. But if I were to go, it would be the people, no question.
PL: Any other plans?
Woolsey: Yeah – to surf lots, and I have.
PL: Where do you see the industry going over the next five years?
Woolsey: If we can make PIA work, I think that the future for paddlesports is great. With the development and impact of parks the future should only get brighter.
PL: Any advice for paddlesport retailers?
Woolsey: Focus on service, service, service…..also don’t forget the importance of education, training and merchandising. Remember what and who you are, and get more kids and women involved. Get into kayak fishing if you are not there already. Passion and culture are critical, don’t lose it.
PL: If you take one piece of schwag with you when you leave, what would it be?
Woolsey: A Tempest by Wildy…anyone who has ever paddled one would understand why.
– Eugene Buchanan