A familiar theme emerged when we talked to eight of the people at the reins of the premier family-owned-and-run outdoor gear companies in America. "It all began as a hobby," says Hal Stephens, speaking of his father’s interest in scuba diving, the ignition for a business that early on sold a single diving flashlight – and over 35 years became now a multi-million dollar tactical lighting company the younger Stephens now runs. "It wasn't overnight, of course. there were quite a few hard knocks on the way."
In fact, each of these companies, from a bootmaker whose wares last for decades, to a paddle-crafter working in high-tech carbon fiber, in some part spun out of a free-time pursuit. These families aren’t making widgets to fill some blank space in the product universe; they’re making the gear they’d want to use go to out and explore the world in the open air on Saturday and Sunday. We talked to each of these leaders about their company’s heritage, and one product which evinces it best.
Bruce Furrer – Werner Paddles
Sultan, Washington-based Bruce Furrer recalls growing up with a garage in which cars were rarely parked. "My father (Werner Furrer Sr.) built kayaks there just as a way of life. It's just what we did." The family used them to explore the waterways of the Pacific Northwest together, and as his son Werner Jr. became a master at paddle-making, the family slowly built a business around their shared passion. Bruce didn't consider getting in the family business until after a short stint at his first job at a Paper Mate pen factory in Santa Monica. "One real job was enough," he says. Bruce is now the company President, and has steered Werner through the paddle sports boom with a fleet of ultralight and strong paddles for kayaks, SUPs, and canoes. The company's recent success allowed Bruce to tick off a few trips that have long been on his list – getting back to the roots of why the family started the business to begin with. "Last year I finally paddled the middle fork of the Salmon river, a six-day trip I've wanted to do forever," he says.