Tim Niemier’s new venture, Wild Designs,
will focus on small craft, such as kayaks, canoes, and drift boats
by Dave Gallagher
Tim Niemier is having some trouble getting rid of the boating bug.
Niemier, who started Ocean Kayak in 1987, built it into a multi-million dollar company and sold it to Johnson Outdoors in 1998, has spent the last seven years pondering new water sport products. He has decided to introduce these new concept products through Wild Design Inc., a company he recently started.
The company’s offices are in Bellingham, while the new 33,000-square-foot roto-molding plant is in Sedro-Woolley. Wild Design currently has 10 employees.
Niemier was prevented from getting back into building boats sooner because of a non-compete agreement he had with Johnson Outdoors. That agreement expired last July, and he said he feels refreshed as he jumps back into the market.
“It was a great time for me to take a break. I spent the time mostly raising my kids and investing in real estate, although I did try flying, which I enjoyed,” Niemier said. “But I really have fun showing people how to have a great time on the water. There are many new ways you can have a great experience out there, and I want to be a part of that.”
Wild Design will be making some new kayak models, but Niemier expects kayaks to be a small part of the business. He didn’t give too many details about the products he has designed, but they all revolve around the small-boat industry, such as canoes and drift boats.
“One line that intrigues me is outrigger canoes, which are just beginning to get popular,” Niemier said. “They can go twice as far as a kayak in a day, giving a person more options on taking a day-trip on the water.”
Niemier started Wild Design because he thinks there are new opportunities available since selling Ocean Kayak. The kayak industry has blossomed into a $350 million industry, Niemier said, because it has become more “corporate.” By that he means bigger companies have been buying smaller companies and have made it more product-driven than experience-driven. The result, he said, has been a homogenization of the industry, where all the products are similar.
“Now, that’s not a bad thing, because many more people are out on the water than when I owned Ocean Kayak. The general public has more opportunities to try out kayaking at a relatively inexpensive price, and the products can be found at big box stores,” Niemier said. “However, this change has also created an opportunity for a company to come in and emphasize the experience of being on the water by bringing new products to the market. We want to be that company.”
As Wild Design begins production on some of Niemier’s new designs, he also wants the production plant to be a place where others can use their roto-molding plant to create a product. The plant has a custom-built roto-molding oven that can create a product 18 feet in length. Niemier hopes to have another oven installed to make items up to 26 feet in length.
Wild Design is already working with someone interested in producing a 17-foot drift boat at the roto-molding plant.
“We’ll make his product for a year and then let him start doing it,” Niemier said. “It’s an easy process that has many advantages: The cost is low, the molds are very durable and (using polyethylene) it’s much more environmentally friendly that using fiberglass. The costs are so low that shipping the product overseas costs more than the labor, so this kind of production will stay here. I think this molding method will catch on in many other industries. If someone is making a product in aluminum, wood or fiberglass, I think there are a lot of benefits to switching to this molding system.”
Having made the molding process popular by making the sit-on-top kayaks at Ocean Kayak, Niemier thinks it will become popular in other water products, even up to large products like catamarans.
“This process can make so many more products less expensive for consumers. Our motto is to be a water-friendly company, to get as many people out there enjoying it as possible,” Niemier said.
Just a kid with a dream
As a teenager living in California, in Malibu, Niemier had plenty of opportunities to get out on the water and he took advantage of the opportunity. Niemier and a friend began tinkering with designs to build a new kayak. It cost him $50 in materials, and while trying it out someone on the beach saw the kayak and offered him $150 for it. Niemier liked that kind of profit margin, so he continued to tinker with designs and making kayaks until he built a molding production machine in 1986. A year later, for family reasons, he moved his machine and family up to Ferndale and started Ocean Kayak.
The company steadily grew and by 1996 it generated $5.7 million in annual sales. This attracted the interest of Johnson Outdoors, who made him an offer that he accepted. He stayed on as a consultant for two years, but it was clear the Johnson Outdoors had its own plan for Ocean Kayak.
“Selling the company was a big life change, kind of like having your daughter get married. They don’t want you on the honeymoon,” Niemier said. “On the other hand, they are no longer living in my house, which is really a big relief knowing that this thing is going on without you.”
Johnson Outdoors has continued to flourish in Ferndale, with the expanded facility now employing 140 people and generating around $25 million in annual sales.
Back in the saddle
One advantage Niemier has in starting Wild Design is that he won’t have to go through another learning curve to get the company running well.
“The biggest lesson I learned at Ocean Kayak that I can carry over to Wild Design is to surround myself with great people, which I feel I’ve done here,” Niemier said. “It took me longer to do that at Ocean Kayak, so I feel like I’m already ahead of the game the second time around.”
What will be more challenging this time around is the fact the market is much more saturated than 18 years ago. Niemier said in order to succeed, the company will have to be unique in what it offers.
“Our intention is to become a leader and redefine the market, not follow along and do what everyone else is doing,” Niemier said.
With all the Ocean Kayak sales and the popularity of using them as rentals on tropical resorts, Niemier figures 200 million people have had a 20-minute kayak experience. His personal goal is to increase that total to one billion people.
“My motivation in doing this is getting someone with physical disabilities out on the water, or getting a little kid out there for the first time,” Niemier said.
“It always reminds me of the first time I got out on the water and thought ‘wow!’ I want to get as many people out there as possible to at least have that first experience.”