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Kayak Distribution sees opportunities in turbulent trade waters

A Riot Thunder kayak is paddled by a distributor in Romania.

A Canadian kayak maker is proving how smart ideas can beat trade protectionism.

Kayak Distribution of Saint Hubert, Quebec, forecasts that its sales of kayaks and paddle boards could surge by 50% this year, despite steep customs tariffs imposed by U.S. president Donald Trump. That’s a lot of extra kayaks, given that the firm normally sells between 15,000 and 20,000 units a year.

In fact, much of the growth will come from the United States, Kayak’s biggest market outside Canada. Even as Washington has imposed stiffer duties on kayaks, the Canadian company has outmanoeuvred its U.S. rivals by coming up with a low cost pedal kayak. A big selling point is that Kayak Distribution increasingly uses light injection moulded plastics for its craft, while U.S. builders typically use heavier and more expensive aluminum castings.

Pedal operated kayaks are especially popular for fishing because kayakers’ legs do all the work, leaving their arms free to haul in their catch. Pedals are also more efficient than oars in the ocean and in strong winds.

Trade tensions have given Kayak Distribution a boost on the other side of the Atlantic as well. The European Union has ratcheted up tariffs on U.S. built kayaks in retaliation against President Trump’s protectionist policies, “virtually knocking our competition out of that market,” says Marc Pelland, Kayak Distribution’s owner and president.

Exports currently make up about 80% of Kayak Distribution’s sales, with the remaining 20% sold in Canada. While the head office in Montréal handles design, sales and marketing, almost all the craft are assembled at a company owned plant in China, where low labour costs provide another competitive advantage.

A heavy reliance on exports has the advantage of “not having all our eggs in one basket,” Pelland says. Geographical diversification is especially important given that kayaks are a seasonal business. When it’s cold in Canada, sales in warm parts of the world like Australia and New Zealand “smooths out our production”, he notes.

Pelland is a big fan of CanExport, the federal program that covers up to half of small- and mid sized business’ export marketing expenses. The firm received $25,000 in funding in 2018 to attend a paddle sport trade show in Germany and for follow up visits to potential customers in the United Kingdom. The initiative has brought in more than $200,000 in orders, with more in the pipeline.

“CanExport really gave us a bit of a nudge to bolster our marketing efforts,” Pelland says. “It’s like, if the government has some vision, I should have some too. Usually, it’s the other way round. That is pretty helpful.”

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