Osceola-based paddle maker Branches LLC took home a Manufacturer of the Year award from the Manufacturer’s Alliance last Wednesday.
The award recognizes operational efficiencies, dedication to staff and investment in community, among other criteria. The Manufacturer’s Alliance is a regional association comprised of businesses in the Twin Cities metropolitan area, including western Wisconsin.
Branches, parent company to Bending Branches and Aquabound paddles, was founded in 1982 when canoeists Dale Kicker and Ron Hultman invented a protective edging for canoe paddles. They patented it Rockgard and, selling long-lasting paddles, Bending Branches started to grow. In 1994, production moved to Osceola’s industrial park.
The company’s journey to success has not been without challenges. In the early 2000s, after two decades of growth, Bending Branches found itself with too much inventory and on the brink of insolvency. It was then that Ed Vater and Jason Eccles, the company’s current president and operations manager, introduced streamlined practices and the company’s first kayak paddle.
By 2008, the company’s finances were strong enough to buy its largest competitor, Aqua-Bound paddles of Surely, British Columbia, Canada. Since then, Branches has continued to produce innovative paddles for kayaking, canoeing and stand-up paddle boarding.
Award dedicated to employees
Employing about 50, Branches was named winner of the Manufacturer of the Year in the “Small Company” category in early April. The includes businesses with 100 or fewer employees.
April 24, Wisconsin Senator Patty Schachtner presented the award to Branches president Ed Vater, calling the honor a testament to the employees.
Vater shared a similar sentiment.
“There is something very special about the Branches team,” he said in a press statement about the win. “We relentlessly lean forward and improve process and product, while embracing a respect for people and teamwork. Bottom line, we laugh often and give our competitors headaches.”
For Branches, the award is also a chance to expand the public’s notion of manufacturing itself.
“Manufacturing is hard and not perceived as a glamorous profession,” marketing manager Andrew Stern wrote. “Yet it can be very rewarding, both financially and professionally. We believe we have an obligation to do our part in changing the outside world’s perspective of manufacturing, and do so with every opportunity that we can find, particularly in elementary education (Osceola), high school (Osceola, Somerset, and St. Croix Falls), and post-secondary education (UW-Stout, WITC, and the University of Minnesota).”