How Wenonah Canoe is making a boom in business last

COVID-19 brought a surge of interest in outdoor recreation, which was great news for Wenonah Canoe. Here’s how vice president Bill Kueper and his team are keeping operations consistent after a huge boom in business.

Tags: Best practices, COVID-19, Small Business
Published: April 21, 2021

Wenonah Canoe, based in Winona, Minn., has been building handcrafted canoes for decades, but vice president Bill Kueper and his team never expected they’d have to figure out how to build canoes during something like COVID-19 — nor did they expect demand to skyrocket. For this small business, pivoting has been about growing strategically, so it can keep thriving.


What was it like realizing that demand for recreation equipment would actually increase because of COVID-19?

“We were planning for the worst, but while we started to see increased web traffic, we still had decreased demand from retailers canceling orders because of uncertainty. It was in late April when we started realizing independent specialty retailers like us could get scrappy and figure out how to run the business with delivery or curbside pick-up. Consumers who normally would have shopped at big-box stores started to find us. By the time we came back to work in the shop on May 1st, demand was huge. We hadn’t seen an uptick like that in decades.”


How did you meet the demand for more canoes when you had to follow social distancing protocol in the shop?

“In late April, I’d figured out a way for everyone to come back to work safely and work at a productivity level that was the same as before we shut down. We had an hour of safety training on the first morning, and then we jumped right in. Hiring new people was extremely difficult because [part time wages] were less than the extra money coming from unemployment at the time. In late July, we were able to bring on 20 more people. We’ve added as much human resource as we can.”


How are you making room for business to grow during a season of increased demand, but still planning for when demand returns to normal?

Purchasing more warehouse space wouldn’t make sense, because in the long run we will go back to a more normal level of demand. My guiding principle has always been to keep this a sustainable business, I don’t want to have to lay people off when we get smaller or demand goes down. Everyone at Wenonah Canoe is really family. We bring people from the office to work on the factory floor if someone’s on vacation, and it’s brought all of us a lot closer together. We’ve put in a lot more overtime, and while those long work-weeks can be fun, work-life balance is still important.


What advice would you give to a business owner who wants to avoid downsizing after a burst of growth?

“Continue to innovate and provide differentiation between you and your competitors. Ask what you can bring that someone else can’t. Also, solidify relationships with retailers and customers.  [If your business is] done through specialty independent retailers, those relationships need to be strengthened, so you’re their preferred provider. Be a reliable vendor, so they can be a reliable retailer. Honesty is key.”

Continue reading more stories about how small business owners pivoted their business and navigated unprecedented times

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