SOAR Inflatables Sold (and Q&A with New Owner)

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Nothing wrong with a 30-year run. That’s the playbook of SOAR Inflatables owner Larry Laba, who recently sold his long-running inflatable canoe and kayak manufacturing business to Todd Frank, owner of Trailhead Sports and Trailhead River Sports in Missoula, MT. (Photo caption: Larry Laba and Todd Frank celebrate the sale of SOAR Inflatables)

“It’s officially sold,” says Laba, who started SOAR in 1993. “Todd has a staff which includes several whitewater canoeists who are really excited about this new acquisition.

“Todd’s outdoor retail experience and credentials are impressive—now he gets to try his hand at the manufacturer’s side,” Laba adds. “What excites me most is that, while I started SOAR in 1993, I never really graduated beyond a one or two-man operation. Todd has an existing paddlesports shop with four whitewater canoeists on his staff.  They are excited to start exploring all the possibilities that the SOAR brand can bring to their paddling experiences. That kind of enthusiasm will carry over to the large Montana market and beyond.”

Laba adds that he’s seen a lot of changes in the paddling industry since he first founded SOAR more than three decades ago.

“When I joined the paddlesports industry in 1993, there were almost no corporate players,” he says. “Today, besides for the corporatization of the industry, the four biggest changes have been the advent of sit-on-tops, SUPs, fishing kayaks and pack rafts.  These categories have brought many new paddlers into the market.”

And these new paddlers, he adds, can help lead to better preservation efforts.

 “The best reason we need more new paddlers is that we can have more voices out there protecting our rivers,” he says.

Laba, a well-respected figure in the industry, still owns Russian River Adventures in his hometown of Healdsburg, Calif., where he leads trips in SOAR inflatables down his beloved Russian River. While the business is also for sale, he recently moved his operations across the street to a new location where a new owner can have a long-term lease, and more warehouse space and parking to eventually expand the outfitting business. Anyone interested is encouraged to contact him at Russian River Adventures, (707) 433-5599; www.russianriveradventures.com

Special Q&A with New Owner Todd Frank

PL: How excited are you to take over?
Personally, I have known about SOAR inflatables for a number of years, and as it turned out when I started looking into the company I found a number of friends already owned them and all swear by them as the perfect boat for a number of applications. So, as I startled looking I got more and more excited for the opportunity to take over a legacy brand that has worked incredibly hard to create an entire category of boat. In addition, it checked a number of important boxes for me and how I approach business; so while I was not “looking” to expand more this opportunity was a fantastic fit for us. We are thrilled!
PL: How do you plan to integrate it into your current business?
We are adding SOAR as a component of the paddlesports shop we opened in 2019. We at The Trail Head have been doing paddlesports for most of our 50 years; by the mid-teens it had grown and we were out of room as a category of our main outdoor store so I made the leap to buy a 12,000-square-foot building a mile and a half from the main store and open a paddle shop. We spent the early winter building out some more storage and organization space to accommodate adding in both a DTC brand business as well as having the product on our sales floor. While SOAR is a separate brand it is under the umbrella of the Trail Head Family of stores.
PL: Any big plans for it moving forward?
Yes, I see through my experience in the outdoor business that most (I’d argue all) DTC only brands win over the disciples and advocates, and SOAR is a prime example of that.  Larry and all the SOAR owners are a tight knit group that LOVE the brand. Step outside that awesome group of boaters and very few people have ever been exposed to SOAR boats. No one has seen one in a store, and there is little opportunity for what I call third party validation of how awesome they are. I belong to the Grassroots Outdoor Alliance, a buying group and industry advocacy group made up of over 100 store owners and over 200 doors. I intend to show the boats/brand at our trade show in June and work to develop a small tight group of retailers to bring SOAR to another layer of core boaters. No intention of trying to make it get big, just finding a good core group of retailers who want to have a high-quality product that is not in every store around.
PL: How do you view the current state of the inflatable manufacturing and retail industry?
Well, that is the most loaded question I have been asked in a long while… The current state of the business is that everyone, from vendors to retailers, enjoyed a huge boom as a result of Covid. Unfortunately, they also did not do a great job of managing the downturn.  Manufacturing timelines are long and when we told vendors that things were slowing a year ago most were already in an over inventoried position. The slowdown in sales at retail created a glut of stock that caught most vendors and as a result things got a little unstable with regard to pricing and DTC discounting. It was better in the inflatable side of the business. The higher-end products fared best, generally because those products are a smaller part of the overall business. It was a tough time for most of the lower price point products (generally PVC and not Hypalon or Urethane constructed boats). The hard boat business in the plastic kayak category is, in my opinion, a complete utter train wreck.
It’s going to be a tough few seasons for the Me Too products; small niche products I believe will fare better.
The other piece of the industry that is going to be challenged is the apparel and footwear businesses that are facing PFAS issues with clothing and footwear that need to be pushed through the market. Margins are going to be a real challenge for everyone. We are bracing for a very challenging time ahead.

 

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