WisBusiness interview: After swamped sales in 2011, Madison paddling shop on track for record year

By Brian E. Clark

For WisBusiness.com

To get through the recent recession, Darren Bush — who has been the sole owner of the Rutabaga canoe and kayak store in Monona since 2007 — cleaned up his inventory, discounted some watercraft and didn’t replace staffers who left.

“When there is a decrease in activity, there’s also an opportunity to look at things and ask what can be improved … rather than just sticking your head in the sand and waiting till things got better,” said Bush, a former statistician with the state Division of Public Health.

In hindsight, Bush said the recession helped the shop, which is the largest paddle sports store in the country at 14,000 square-feet. It has 30 employees – most of them full-time – and sells hundreds of boats a year.

Bush said the store is now on track for record sales in 2012, following what he called the most difficult year in “quite a while.”

Part of the reason, he noted, was because of the tense political climate in Madison.

Canoecopia, the huge consumer paddling show that Rutabaga has sponsored for years, had the misfortune of falling on the same weekend in 2011 that drew 100,000 people to protest Gov. Scott Walker’s budget.

“In general, we’ve done fine,” he said. “Last year was probably the toughest … largely because of the political climate. People were nervous.”

But even though a recall vote is just around the corner, canoes and kayaks are selling well. And this year’s Canoecopia drew 21,500 attendees, which Bush said was “way up from last year.”

Bush, who just turned 50, started working part-time on weekends at Rutabaga — named after a Frank Zappa tune — in 1990 for $5.50 an hour.

Because his regular job deciphering health statistics was “less than satisfying sometimes,” he went full-time at the store in 1995. By 2000, he was an officer. In 2002, he bought in as a partner and by 2007, he’d bought out his co-owner.

One of the key’s to Rutabaga’s success, he said, is its location on an inlet of the Yahara River between Lake Waubesa and Lake Monona, allowing the store to offer classes and test paddles literally out the back door.

“We are right on the water,” he said. “And that is one of the reasons we get a lot of business that other people who carry boats don’t get. They have a demo day once a month and we can have a demo day every day ending in ‘Y.’

“It’s kind of like buying a car. You wouldn’t want to get one without test-driving it.”

Bush said he sells everything from used canoes for $500 to new ones that cost $1,500 to beautiful wooden models that sell for $3,000 and ending up hanging from the rafters in their owners’ Northwoods cabins.

“They are perfectly functional, nice paddling canoes,” he said. “I have one myself and paddle it all the time.”

Though the store has dabbled in some small sailcraft and Adirondack-style rowboats, he said Rutabaga will remain “true to our mission of canoes and kayaks and paddle sports.

“We do some snowshoeing in the winter and sell some winter clothing, but for the most part, we are pretty happy specializing in canoes and kayaks and doing it well.”

Though some who turn their passions into a business burn out, Bush said that hasn’t been his case.

“It’s definitely changed the way I look at paddling a lot,” he acknowledged.

“That said, the only thing I like better than paddling is getting someone else into the sport. It brings back a lot of wonderful memories.”

Nor does it hurt that he manages to get out on the water every week. Once a month, he paddles for a whole day. And this year, he plans to do three one-week trips.

Though Bush has sea kayaked off Italy, Baja California and with whales off the coast of Monterey, in Lake Superior and canoed in the Boundary Waters, he said some of his favorite places to paddle are near Madison.

“I love the Lower Wisconsin Riverway and the little, intimate streams in southwest Wisconsin where I never see anyone during midweek,” he said.

Though Bush said he doesn’t know if he’ll always be running a store, he plans to stay in the paddling business in some form as long as he can.

“Yeah, I see myself doing the same kind of work, whether it is teaching or inspiring people. I love to teach and will be part of two symposia this year.

“For me, the line between work life and regular life is pretty dang blurry. For some people that is a problem. But I like it that way.

“My cell phone number is on my business card. If customer calls me at 9 p.m., I am fine with that. If you want to talk about boats, that’s cool. And if I don’t answer, that’s fine, too.”

For more information on the Rutabaga paddling sports store, 220 W. Broadway, Monona, see http://www.rutabaga.com.