Branches’ team in 2022 in our Osceola headquarters
2022 marks our 40th Anniversary year here at Bending Branches. What began as a 2-man shop in a garage has grown to our 37,000 square-foot headquarters in Osceola, Wisconsin.
From those humble beginnings we’ve grown to supply canoe, kayak and paddle board paddles to water-loving people around the world. Today we average over 10,000 hand-crafted paddles each month with a team of over 50 highly-skilled people.
Let’s take a look back in time and see where we’ve come from and where we’re headed:
Bending Branches in the 1980s
In 1982, with $1,500 each, Dale Kicker and Ron Hultman decided to work together to create the very first composite-tipped canoe paddle. Dale was a whitewater and touring canoeist, and Ron a flatwater racer. Their unique product revolutionized the paddle industry and Bending Branches was born. They worked out of Dale’s mom’s garage in North Saint Paul, Minnesota.
1986-94 Bending Branches team at the Minneapolis headquarters: Ron is second from left in front, and Dale is to Ron’s right
In 1984, our patented Rockgard® tip protection was introduced for the first time. This material prolongs the life of every canoe paddle up to six times longer than those paddles without it. 38 years later it’s still one of our “secret weapons”!
In 1985, we brought our first CNC machines into the manufacturing process. This enabled us to produce identical grips and shafts for our canoe paddles.
A year later, in 1986, Bending Branches had grown so much we moved out of the garage and into a 1,600-square-foot building in Minneapolis.
Lauretta works on paddles inside the Minneapolis shop (Lauretta still works with us today!)
Because paddling is a seasonal sport here in the Upper Midwest, Dale and Ron decided to add a product line they could work on for the winter months—custom-made hockey sticks! The first Bending Branches hockey stick was introduced in 1986. They would remain a part of our product line for the next 17 years, and be used by hockey players throughout the US, Canada and parts of Europe.
Greg Walters pictured with a Branches’ custom-made hockey stick in 1989 (Greg still works with us today!)
Branches in the 1990s
The 1990s saw continued, steady growth. We made the choice to move our operations from urban Minneapolis across the St. Croix River to a small town in Wisconsin called Osceola. The move was made in 1994 and we’re still here today.
Our building today, in Osceola, Wisconsin
Osceola has been an ideal home for us because it has that small town, local feel with people who are genuinely nice, hardworking folks. They embody our core values to a T. Yet Osceola is close enough to Minnesota’s Twin Cities metro area that we can attract top talent from there as well.
Beyond that, this picturesque town is located on the “Wild and Scenic” St. Croix Riverway—a paddler’s paradise.
By the early 90s we expanded our canoe paddle offerings. At that time these paddles were the Twig, Loon, Traveler, Voyageur, Arrow, Explorer, Vagabond, BB Special, Cruiser, Performer, Outrigger and Alliance. Many of these models received updates over the years and are still in our present line-up.
We also had developed wooded kayak paddles by this time: the Turbulence, Tailwind and (the beloved) Journey.
Bending Branches canoe models from the late 90s that are still available today
In 1997 we produced our first composite (non-wood) kayak paddles. As kayaking was increasing in popularity among paddlers, we knew the kayak side would become more and more important to us. We built a 10,000-square-foot addition to our building to be able to house our new composite kayak line.
By 2001 our top selling composite kayak paddles were the Evening Breeze, Day Breeze, Day Mist, Evening Mist and Morning Mist.
A sampling of our product catalog from 2000
Branches in the early 2000s
Two key team members were added in the early 2000s: Ed Vater in 2002 and Jason Eccles in 2003. Ed would later serve as Branches’ President for 20 years and owner for 7 years (starting in 2015), and Jason eventually became the Operations Manager.
Ed Vater in 2009
Also in 2002, a key transition was made in our manufacturing process. Branches switched from a build-to-inventory company to a build-to-order (or lean) manufacturer. This move gave us several advantages, including the ability to continually improve our products while reducing waste, raw materials usage and inventory. It also helps us introduce new products faster and keeps us nimble as the markets change.
In 2003 we discontinued our hockey stick line as that sport had transitioned to a marketing-intensive “pay to play” industry (companies were paying athletes up to $10,000 per play-off game to use their sticks). We refined our focus solely to the paddle sports industry.
This chair made of hockey sticks sits in the lobby of the US Hockey Hall of Fame in Eveleth, Minnesota. Can you find the five Branches sticks? (photo courtesy of Sharon Brodin)
As kayaking outgrew canoeing in the general outdoor recreation world, our kayak paddle line soon outgrew our canoe paddle line. In 2008, due to the owner’s desire to retire, we were able to acquire our primary competitor, Aqua Bound, from Joe Matuska and his partners. Aqua Bound was operating in Surrey, British Columbia, near Vancouver. We moved the operation to Osceola so both brands could be under one roof.
We acquired Aqua Bound, already a strong Canadian brand, in 2008
Branches in the 2010s and Beyond
In 2011 we introduced our first kayak paddles specifically designed for kayak fishing, the first company in the world to do so. This family of paddles has grown significantly for us, and today we’re the market leader with an 80% share.
Also in 2011, Canoe & Kayak Magazine awarded us “Accessory Brand of the Year.” In 2013 we won “American Made Outdoor Gear Award” (AMOGA) for our company culture and US-based manufacturing quality. From 2013-2018 our Angler Pro kayak fishing paddle was awarded “Kayak Fishing Paddle of the Year” by consumers on YakAngler.com. We’re grateful for these acknowledgements of our care and craftsmanship!
In 2014 we began to revamp our technical capability by expanding our Engineering department and investing in software, 3D printers and testing equipment. That eventually led to the development and launch of newly-designed, high-performance composite paddles.
Cory inspects a Whiskey kayak paddle blade
In 2017 we introduced our first composite stand-up paddleboard paddles with the Malta model. Following closely in 2018, we introduced our coveted Whiskey and Tango performance kayak paddles. These paddles are all under the Aqua Bound brand and have successfully met our goal of having the lightest product on the market.
In 2019 we were honored to be named “Manufacturer of the Year” by Manufacturers Alliance. Voted by peers in the Greater Twin Cities Region, this is an award granted annually to just three companies from a field of over 400. It was the same year we introduced our first completely sustainable canoe paddle, the Catalyst.
2020 brought an entirely new set of challenges as we were forced to navigate our way through the Covid-19 pandemic, along with the rest of the world. Because of stay-at-home and social distancing restrictions, more people got outside to paddle than ever before. Thanks to increased demand and our amazing team, 2020 saw the best sales in our company’s history.
The demand for outdoor recreation gear—including paddles—hasn’t abated as we head into North America’s main paddle season of 2022. We’ve been challenged through the unprecedented demand on the one hand and supply chain issues on the other. But we’ve pivoted where needed and are committed to leaning forward, as always.
Our newest Angler Pro blade pattern, Copperhead, introduced in 2021 (photo courtesy of Ray Martinez)
Where We’re Headed
In February 2022, Bending Branches experienced another major transition. Longtime owner, Ed Vater, retired and sold the company to three long-serving team members: Jason Eccles (former Operations Manager), Brian Boyea (former Sales Manager) and Cory Novinska (former Production Manager).
Cory Novinska, Brian Boyea, Ed Vater and Jason Eccles
Together, these three will lead our team into the future. A future of continued innovation, improvement and growth as we remain committed to giving our customers the very best value in the industry with every paddle we make.
New Branches’ President, Jason Eccles, said, “It is such an honor to have the opportunity to lead an amazing and talented team of people who genuinely care about each other and the paddles they are building. With the utmost integrity, we look forward to the continued stewardship of our employees, customers, community and outdoor environment."
Bending Branches paddles are used around the world today
What paddle questions can we help you with today? Get in touch with our Wisconsin-based Customer Service Team: 715-755-3405 • [email protected]
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