EXCLUSIVE: What’s better than a Yeti but made in the UC?

A birdseye view of Jackson Kayak's new manufacturing facility in Sparta. The UCBJ got an exclusive first look in February. UCBJ Photo/Liz Engel
A birdseye view of Jackson Kayak’s new manufacturing facility in Sparta. The UCBJ got an exclusive first look at the 300,00-square-foot facility in February. UCBJ Photo/Liz Engel

SPARTA – It’s a brisk – cold, even – typical February day in Tennessee. The Upper Cumberland seems to be hibernating in the winter. But inside Jackson Kayak’s new Sparta warehouse, things are just heating up.

The manufacturer, in operation in White County since 2004, moved into space at 3300 McMinnville Highway a few weeks earlier, the former mothballed Philips Lighting plant. The transition’s happened in pieces; the whole of the business will be transferred over an untold number of months, with large equipment dissembled, packaged, hauled and reequipped here. But for workers already on site – Jackson Kayak has roughly 170 overall – there’s finally room to breathe. The space is nearly three times its Iris Drive shop, and that’s already meant a host of improvements.

But, while the company still churns out fishing and whitewater kayaks to the tune of roughly 100 a day, it seems the hottest product isn’t such a boat at all – it’s quite literally a cooler. Specifically, Orion coolers, which Jackson Kayak started selling in early 2015 and have moved like hotcakes since.

Orion is superior in many ways, says Jeff Leach, customer service/internal sales at Jackson Kayak, to the market’s leading and most notable name – Yeti, which has amassed a cult-like following complete with a shout-out last year in Chris Janson’s country music tune “Buy Me A Boat.”

But Orion is made with thicker foam, has more accessories – and another differentiating feature, is 100-percent made in the U.S.A. The premium cooler category – Yeti’s are priced between $250 and $1,300 – has exploded and seems yet to have peaked. Yeti’s 2013 sales totaled more than $100 million, up from $30 million in 2011.

Jackson Kayak officials, during an exclusive first-look tour for the Upper Cumberland Business Journal, said they had a two- to six-week backlog of orders.

“We never would have anticipated how quick it took off,” Leach said.

A market need

Leach said Jackson Kayak will further ramp up production of Orion this year. The company sold 5,000 coolers in 2015. The goal for 2016 is between 15,000 and 20,000. That’s a 300 percent increase in production, something that likely wouldn’t be possible it not for the new warehouse space.

The company opened up on McMinnville Highway – the former Philips Lighting plant, which heartbreakingly shuttered in 2012 and left 275 without jobs – in early February as part of a $6.5 million expansion plan. The building, 300,000 square feet, had been all but abandoned, set to be sold for salvage, until Jackson Kayak came along.

Tennessee state economic development team, when the expansion news was first released last April, dubbed the move and company as the quintessential Tennessee success story.

“They started from a small operation and have continued to grow, thanks to a reputation for making the absolute highest quality products,” Economic and Community Development Commissioner Randy Boyd said.

Arguably the bigger bottom line, Jackson Kayak will add 250 new jobs in the deal, more than double its current count that tallies around 170.

“We’re really growing by leaps and bounds,” said Leach. “This space was a good fit for us, mainly because of the size and proximity. We love this area. Rock Island (State Park) is right down the road, and those waterfalls have some of the world’s best features; they are perfect for training. And there’s also a lot of molding know-how here. We’ve got a lot of molding facilities and people already have those skills.”

When it comes to Orion, Jackson Kayak saw the potential years ago. The company was molding for Orca but thought they could do the job better.

The Orion 65.
The Orion 65.

Leach said the coolers are superior to Orca – and Yeti – in several ways: they have thicker foam, 3 inches in most places; latches that are stronger and easier-to-use; and they’re equipped with YakAttack tracks, which allow for accessorizing with rod holders, fish finders, GoPros and more.

But Orion is also the first – and only – cooler available in multi colors. Jackson Kayak’s custom colors can match most every collegiate team.

The company’s first cooler, the Orion 65, retails for $499. There’s also an Orion 25, 35, 45, 55 and 85 available.

Ian Stewart, customer service manager at Jackson Kayak, says they’ll sell an estimated 15,000 and 20,000 units this year. But it’s possible that number could hit 30K. He attributes the increase to brand recognition. While still lacking locally – one of the company’s largest Orion dealers, for example, is in Texas – it’s increasing nationwide.

“The first year, you’re just trying to establish who you are and convince people your product is worth trusting,” Stewart said. “We are really good at letting people know who we are. We already have the manufacturing facility, so it’s not like we’re in a garage still trying to ramp up. And the market is already there. This is an established market that we brought a premier product to. We didn’t match the other products. We went to a next level, and now, they’re going to have to figure out how to compete with us.”

Leach said Orion production will likely be move from Iris Drive to the new warehouse by the end of the year; previously, its line had been “tucked in a corner” there. After, Iris Drive will likely relegated to storage, he said. But since there’s more space there now, they’re pushing to increase Orion’s production capacity by roughly 60 percent. Leach said they’ll ramp up from about 75 to 120 coolers a week.

“We saw a need in the market,” he said. “People are very familiar with our kayaks and the quality that goes with them, and now the name Orion is associated with it, too. People are really excited about them.”


Editor’s Note: Check the UCBJ’s May print edition for more on Jackson Kayak.




Liz Engel is the editor of the Upper Cumberland Business Journal. She can be reached at liz@ucbjournal.com

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