BY LINDA BAKER
Pete Newport (at right, holding son Kaden) with Sawyer Paddles founder Ralph Sawyer (left).
Over the past 20 years, Pete Newport has worked as a kayak instructor, marketing manager for Pepsi-Cola and owner of Bend-based Breedlove Guitar Company, which he grew to $10 million in sales before selling the company in 2010. Now Newport is embarking on yet another venture, as president of Talent-based Sawyer Paddles & Oars.
The position represents a homecoming of sorts for the 41-year-old Newport, who worked the night shift at Sawyer in 1993. Two decades later, he’s back, streamlining the company’s inventory and bringing a focus on quality and craftsmanship to the 45-year-old manufacturer.
“I’m coming from a competitive kayaking background,” said Newport, who took the reins at Sawyer in August 2011. “Lighter, beautiful, stronger.”
Founded in 1967, Sawyer Paddles is a market leader in the high-end oar industry and has been growing at about 10% annually over the past decade. Despite its strong position, the company, which employs 25, was ripe for reinvention, Newport says. The website had been under construction for two years, and many of the paddles “were state of the art 1960s and ’70s.” Sawyer also makes more than a thousand different products, ranging from pizza paddles to walking sticks. “While we are No. 1 at quality in certain things, in others we are No. 10,” Newport says.
To update the company inventory, Newport plans to reduce the number of items, leaving about 400 products “that will stand the test of being No. 1 in their niches.” He cites as an example a paddle designed for ocean rowing. Other initiatives are under way. Drawing on his guitar-making background, Newport plans to produce limited-edition collector oars, and to celebrate the company’s 45th anniversary, he has launched a promotional campaign soliciting customer stories about their waterborne adventures. “The company has a lot of growth, but the brand has gotten a little stale,” he says. “We’re reinvigorating it by talking to our customers.”
Of course, the more things change, the more they stay the same. Today Newport lives with his wife and son above the Sawyer factory — the same facility where he sanded paddles as a 22-year-old working the graveyard shift. Observes Newport: “We serve as night watchmen in addition to everything else.”