Jackson Kayaks – It’s All About Family

By Adem Tepedelen

Eric “EJ” Jackson approaches the family-owned whitewater kayak company that bears his name with the same intensity and commitment that made him a world freestyle champion. Listening to him describe the way Jackson Kayak, based in Rock Island, Tennessee, has grown-spouting facts and figures to illustrate his point-and the innovative dealer network his company has devised, it’s not surprising that in just three short years Jackson has quickly become a major player in the industry. What is surprising is that he never aspired to have his own kayak company. And had things transpired differently at Wave Sport, where he worked from 1997 to 2003, he might never have gone down this path at all.
“I was pretty convinced that I didn’t want to start my own business,” he said. “My primary focus is on quality of life, which for me means being able to spend time with my family full-time and paddle wherever I want and whenever I want.
I want to be able to compete at the highest level, [and] I felt that I couldn’t own my own business and do that at the same time.”

While working as brand manager at Wave Sport (which was eventually bought by Confluence), Jackson was initially given the freedom he needed to pursue that quality of life he refers to. He and his design partner, David Knight, would devise boat designs for the company off-site, and Jackson was given his own RV so he could act as an East Coast sales rep, as well as travel to competitions where he represented Wave Sport. However, Confluence was sold multiple times toward the end of his tenure and the different owners wanted to keep Jackson in the office more. “Nonpaddlers were running . . . Confluence who didn’t understand the need to have somebody doing what I was doing,” he said. When Knight was let go in 2003, Jackson left as well. “I wasn’t interested in working there anymore.”

Though he didn’t initially see how he could operate his own business while maintaining his quality of life, the idea had definitely crossed his mind. But it was a much different plan than the one he’s currently pursuing. “I was thinking to start a company called Independent Kayak Company, and do what everybody else has done: start a kayak company, build it up to a top market-share position in five years, and sell it,” he said.

What ultimately made more sense to him was to start something that his two children-daughter Emily, 16, and son Dane, 12, both gifted whitewater paddlers-could take over someday. And, in fact, Jackson’s family members are a key part of the company’s operation. Jackson is the president, his wife Kristine is “upper management” (“the business pretty much requires her input,” says Jackson), his mother-in-law is the office manager in charge of all bookkeeping and banking, and his children are actively involved in the Jackson Kayak team. And from April to October, they all travel together (except Kristine’s mother) in an RV going to competitions, checking in with dealers, and giving clinics. (COO John Ratliff looks after the manufacturing plant while the family is on the road.) It’s a family business in the truest sense. “If I were to die tomorrow, my kids would be next in line to take over the business at 12 and 16,” said Jackson, without a hint of irony. “They could be the boat designers with my design partner. They could do the marketing. They could do the clinics. They could run the team. We wouldn’t have to bring anyone from the outside to take over.”

Perhaps because his own children are so immersed in whitewater paddling, Jackson has made an extra effort to design and market river-running/playboats for smaller paddlers. The Fun 1 (smallest boat in the Fun line) is small enough to accommodate a beginner in the 30- to 80-pound range. “The Fun 1 is probably not going to make us any money,” admitted Jackson. “What it does do is put us in a different category from other manufacturers right away. We’re in a category of manufacturers who are willing to do what’s right for the market, not do what’s right based on what the spreadsheet said.”

This philosophy of doing what’s right for the market is important to Jackson. It’s a tenet that informs much of what he does. “If you do what’s right 100 percent of the time,” he said, “and you make every business decision based on what’s right for the customer, the end user, the dealer, and as long as you watch your pennies and run your business efficiently and are smart about it, that’s the most successful way you can [do things].”

To this end, Jackson has also developed a unique relationship with his dealers. Rather than badgering shops to carry his boats, he basically let everyone know he was launching Jackson Kayak in 2003 and then waited for those who were interested in carrying his boats to get in touch. He then worked closely with those dealers to protect their territory. More recently he has devised a three-tiered system that differentiates the various Jackson dealers.
“Standard” dealers carry Jackson boats, as well as other lines, and don’t give any preferential treatment to Jackson Kayak. In turn they get no preferential treatment from Jackson Kayak. “Preferred” dealers always have one of each model on the showroom floor in the best real estate in the shop. So whatever the store is allocating to whitewater, Jackson will be the predominant brand. The boats will be in a special rack that Jackson provides. And Jackson also will provide a new demo of each model on-site for people to paddle. “Super Stores” carry nothing but Jackson kayaks and also have every single model in stock, as well as demos available to paddle.

There are currently 12 Jackson Super Stores in North America. And Valley Mill Kayak in Washington, DC, the company’s first Super Store, sold more than $100,000 worth of Jackson boats last year.

Clearly, Jackson’s willingness to offer a commitment to dealers who are willing to commit themselves to making his kayaks a priority is working well. Jackson wants dealers to come to him willingly, not out of coercion, something he learned from his time spent at Wave Sport. “When you call a dealer and you convince them-maybe somewhat reluctantly-to carry your brand, you do not have the upper hand working with that dealer,” he said. “That dealer is basically doing you a favor. And they may or may not push your product and represent your product in a way that you’d like it to be represented. But if a dealer comes to you and says, ‘I like what you have here, people are already asking about the product, I want to be a dealer,’ then you can lay out how you want to do business with them.”

Jackson Kayak
325 Iris Drive
Sparta, TN 38583
(931) 738-2628