In 1975 Brian Dorfman, a stock broker and avid canoeist himself, found a lack of high quality, hand-made paddles on the market. The available mass produced paddles were of very poor quality, while the finer paddles were being produced primarily on the scale of a ‘cottage industry’. With the recreational field rapidly expanding, and canoeing a long standing and relatively inexpensive sport, it seemed a good time to enter the market. Grey Owl Paddle Company was established to make a production line, high quality, hand-made canoe paddle.
A number of prototypes were designed and introduced in the Canadian market. A positive response led to setting up a shop in Cambridge, where many of the suppliers were close at hand. Working with local engineers and machinists, specialized machinery was developed. The designs were advanced to production line status, and part-time labour was secured through a community college’s woodworking program.
There was a good response to the quality of designs and the workmanship, but business was seasonal and there was a resulting cash flow problem. The U.S. was seen as a potential market to boost the cash flow, but one which called for another style of paddles. A recreational line of paddles was developed to compliment the traditional models. At this time, a small full-time staff was secured, supplemented by part-time college students in peak times.
Once the company became established on the market, requests were received for other designs of a more sophisticated nature. One such innovation, the bent shaft paddles, has been a great success and now represents 20% of our total sales. While the idea existed for many years, Grey Owl was the first company to market it on a mass produced scale at an affordable price.
As the manufacturing and marketing expertise of the company grew, an opening in the competitive market became apparent, which would further expand sales and provide good advertising. While the major portion of sales remained seasonal, the full-time skeleton staff of 2 to 3 employees were kept busy building inventory during the slow season to meet peak season requirements. Working with top calibre racers and coaches, a line of competitive paddles were developed, which are now used by most Canadian canoe clubs. Contacts were established with a number of California racing clubs and a line of outrigger paddles was developed for that market. As a result of the California sales, the outrigger racing paddles are now being distributed very successfully in Hawaii.
While in Hawaii at the Bankoh Molokai Outrigger Races Brian met High Fisher, an Olympic K-1 Gold Medalist and outrigger paddler with the Offshore Canoe Club. This acquaintance led to the beginning of the successful launch of the Grey Owl dragon boat paddles a few years later. While in Vancouver in 1988, Brian renewed his acquaintance with Hugh who had just returned from Hong Kong after placing 2nd with the False Creek Canoe Club at the World Dragon Boat Championships. It was Hugh that suggested Brian start making dragon boat paddles as he thought the sport would be ‘big’ someday. Through the 1990’s as all phases of the paddling market grew, kayak paddles were added to the mix.
In 1986, the company outgrew its rented space in an industrial mall. Land was purchased a short distance away, and a 7,500 square foot building was erected to house the manufacturing plant and offices.
Grey Owl currently produces about 30,000 paddles a year and distributes throughout North America, Europe, Asia, Africa and Australia. The plant, now 12,000 square feet and still located in Cambridge, produces wooden paddles for all facets of the canoe and kayak market.
Brian Dorfman as the owner and managing director, remains actively involved in all phases of the business, from designs, to set-up of new machinery, to marketing. In addition, he continues to do much of the product testing himself. In 1986 he paddled the outrigger races in Tahiti; in 1988 he paddled Olympic C-1, C-2 and War Canoe in the Canmas Games; in 1989 he survived a whitewater trip on the Highland River in the Northwest Territories.
Brian’s first love is still wilderness canoe tripping which he first began as a camper in Ontario 60 years ago.