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In 2003 when I decided to create Jackson Kayak, I had a vision of what this company would look like. We would make a better product, built by paddlers, using the best materials, and supported directly by our factory staff, and myself with the customers, and only selling them through the best dealerships. We would go above and beyond the call of duty at all times, in the spirit of doing whatever it takes. I imagine that most companies are formed in a similar way, with similar goals. I was very fortunate to be introduced to Tony Lunt, by my great friend, Jessie Stone. Tony shared my excitement for a kayak company built in a way that we could be open book and proud of every step we make. I, being inexperienced in leading a company like JK, was full of both excitement for the challenge, and confident in my plan to stay true to the course of making the best product, selling it through the best dealers, and with a great team of ambassadors helping to sell the boats and steer us in the right direction. I also knew that I had a lot of learning to do and that I would make a lot of mistakes along the way. CEO and President of a company, there is more to it than I knew, and keeping pace with the company we were creating was and is my biggest challenge. Luckily for me, I have been blessed with a team of people, with the drive, skills, experience, commitment, and work ethic to get the job done and have my back. I don’t have to be the best in each category. We have become a team, and that team is only now, in 2009, becoming more prominent than the individuals themselves. The whole is greater than the sum of the parts, but only now, as I have allowed that to happen and let go of managing the individuals. Dave Olson has been a great teacher for me, leading by example, and has taken over the operations of Jackson Kayak. He has taken our manufacturing from a simplistic, but effective, system of subcontracting out all of our molding, and small parts manufacturing, to vertically integrating our factory in making just about everything. This brings us to manufacturing, materials, quality, and customer support.

From 2004-2008 the biggest component of a JK boat, the hull itself, was molded at a variety of customer molders starting at one right in Sparta, TN. We have had some incredibly talented molders making our hulls over the years. We have only had one that was not up to par. Not that they didn’t make some good boats, but the key to making the best boats in the world, starts with making the best hulls, over and over and over again. In order to consistently make the best hulls, you must take the following steps (yes this is our entire secret).

1. Start with the best materials- Cross-linked plastic is the best material for a whitewater boat, I believe, and am willing to pay a lot of extra money for.
2. Have the best molds you can get for each boat.
3. Have ovens that have the right tools, such as air for amplifiers, controllable cycles for moving plastic exactly where you want it, consistent heat, etc..
4. have oven operators that care about the quality of each boat, including the cure time, shape of the hull, the graphics, the parting lines, the shot weights, etc. etc.
5. Be prepared to make adjustments to the oven temperature, to the way the oven rotates in the oven, to the cycle times, to the cooling times and the way the boats are taken out of the molds, and more.

As you can see, much of the secret of molding is in good old fashioned craftsmanship and care. There are a few issues you can run into with molders that are consistent.

First is that the less time the boat is in the mold, the faster they can make boats with the same staff and utilities, etc.. The cost of each boat is cheaper if it is molded in less time. For that reason, molders spend a lot of time focusing on keeping the “cycle times” to a minimum. Often they are rewarded based on cycle times, and only focus on the product quality if the customer complains. This means that molders are almost ALWAYS trying to reduce the amount of time they cook the boats in the ovens. When a boat is undercooked it becomes brittle. This is true for both the Linear and Cross-linked plastic. In our 5 years of molding we have had to fight that battle with molders year after year. We have kept our boats cooked properly most of the time, but had two molders that just wouldn’t listen, and cut corners. This is a good and bad thing. It is good because we are now taking molding into our own hands and there is ZERO desire to cut cycle times at the risk of being undercooked. This is because our primary goal is to make the best boat we can and that means one that is the most durable.

Boats molded in the spring of 2007 were the most likely to be undercooked. Just how many of them? If you had one you would know about it, because it would have broken. In 2008 we added Leif Koelher and John Shepherd to our staff and they are the best molders in the business. They helped at the customer molder factory to assure that it never happened again. It did, anyhow, because they can’t be there 24 hours a day, etc.. A very small percentage of the boats were undercooked, but still more than needed to be. It was a game where a minute here, or a minute there, or 10 degrees here or there were dropped. Putting it all in perspective, our durability and low breakage rate is industry leading. Using Cross-linked plastic, however, means it can be even better. 2008 saw a huge improvement in the consistency and quality of the molding. The little things, plus the big things. Better cycle times, better mold maintenance, better care of the boats being pulled from the molds etc.. However, we still didn’t have full control as the facility wasn’t owned by us and the staff wasn’t hand selected by us.

2009 is yet another banner year for us. With two new ovens that were installed by our own guys, under the direction of John Shepherd, we created a situation where we can finally truly control our own destiny. Jase, a class 5 kayaker, and great playboater, and our first employee in 2004, moved back to molding, so did Goat, and Leif Koehler moved from our other molder, to our own place. We brought in a few incredible people, each on a mission to make the best boats possible. Now molding our boats for 32 minutes at 620 degrees, we are well into the “ideal zone” for our product. We are polishing each mold ourselves, and keeping them at a mirror finish, making the boats really shine. Making a cross-linked boat shine is way harder than making a linear boat shine. We send our boats out for laboratory testing on a regular basis and keep tweaking the cure to hit the sweet spot for cross-link, which is as good as a boat can get. We constantly tweaking the air-amplifiers, the shielding, and oven settings to move the plastic to the exact places we want, providing a strong stiff hull, yet keep the boat as light as possible, and super strong. The mood of John Shepherd, and Leif, working with people that truly care, listen, and treat each boat as if it was their own is greatly improved, allowing them to continue making advances, instead of putting out fires. We just got some new oven programming done that will increase our capabilities, yet once again.

If there is one truth at Jackson Kayak, it is that we will continue to improve, and seek improvements. We keep training, and re-training, tooling, and retooling, and never accept what we are doing as being good enough. To give you an example of the type of people that make Jackson Kayak so special, I’ll use this past weekend. A customer of ours called on Friday to tell us that they didn’t have the product they needed on Monday and it was their fault for not ordering it correctly in the first place. We made the call on Friday afternoon to run our ovens all weekend long, 24 hours a day to make the Monday deadline. John Shepherd, a veteran of 20+ years in the business, lead the Midnight shift on Saturday night to get the job done, no complaining, just happy to be able to get the job done, knowing that winning is in our own hands, and this was something he could do to help us succeed for our customer. Monday morning a full semi-truck left the factory, with a complete order for our customer, a happy customer.

I can promise you that we’ll make more mistakes. More boats will break, because all boats that get used enough will eventually break or wear out. All I can promise is that we’ll do our best, every time, and we’ll do what we can to correct our mistakes, and hold ourselves accountable. Thanks for being a supporter of our company, and our employees and team. They care about you, your experience with us, as I do. Feel free to email me at any time with questions, concerns or comments at eric at jacksonkayak dot com (spam bots suck).