As University of Victoria business students, Andrew Paine and Rene Gaultier had a vision for a working life that revolved around the surf. They even put that vision down in a business plan as a final school project - and it was good enough to allow them to graduate.
Now 10 years on, that plan has guided the pair's surf-inspired business, Sitka, through impressive global expansion and into a brand name in demand by those into an active, outdoor lifestyle.
"It's remarkable how closely we've stuck to that plan," said Paine.
Sitka now has stores in Victoria, Vancouver and Auckland, New Zealand, distribution around the world and wholesale sales to more than 150 stores in North America.
"It is pretty much what we envisioned," Paine said with a laugh.
The pair started by making surfboards in a garage and selling to friends, before the business plan dictated opening a store the day they graduated in 2004.
Surfboards were being made at the back of the store, and clothing was sold up front. Growth necessitated a move to larger space at the bottom of Yates Street in 2006 and this year to an impressive 5,300 square foot store at 538 Yates St. that displays their clothing and equipment amid reclaimed and recycled Island wood and auction finds.
Surf boards remain at the core of Sitka. Each year they sell between 250 and 300 boards of their design that are manufactured for them in California.
But it's the clothing and accessories that drive the business, which employs about 55 people in Canada.
Turning 10 this year is quite an achievement for a brand that was entering turf staked out by large surf companies and multinational activewear firms.
Paine admits the prospect of going up against established players like Billabong or even Mountain Equipment Co-op was daunting at first, but he said the partners always saw a role for their kind of store.
"As a young, small player you have a lot more maneuverability, you can see the opportunities and we have carved out a nice niche for ourselves," Paine said. He noted their adherence to being a socially responsible company that keeps the environment top of mind and focuses on high-quality products has allowed it to connect with like-minded customers.
At times, that kind of commitment, which included using as much organic material in their clothing lines as possible, was a tough slog, given the way added costs can eat into already-tight margins.
But Paine said they've seen things improve considerably over the last five years as more people appear willing to pay more for higher-quality items, especially those made closer to home.
That change, along with increasing labour costs in offshore areas known for clothing manufacturing, now has Sitka taking aim at having most of their products manufactured in Canada and the U.S.
"We had always wanted to produce in Canada," said Paine, noting they couldn't when they first started given the cost of producing clothing in small batches.
"The quotes we were get-ting then were through the roof. In clothing manufacturing, you have to hit certain volumes to make it work, to pay the bills."
At their current size, that's no longer a problem.
"We are at a nice comfortable size, we don't have the need to grow those orders like we did before when we had the challenge of hitting a factory minimum order quantity, and without that pressure we can focus on making better quality products," said Paine.
"We're into a new evolution for the company. Over the next two years we will have the vast majority of our products produced here in Canada and the States.
That's a shift that wasn't really possible even five years ago."
But Sitka does not rule out spreading its wings again. "I definitely still see expansion in our future, but we are taking this opportunity over the next year to realign things to where we want to see them," he said. A big part of that will be moving production to North America.
Paine said while they have done some manufacturing here over the last five years, it's been limited to small batches. So they still need to "dial in" their systems before making "the leap back home."
The company has also just announced it has hired new sales agents in Ontario - Spearmint Pelican Sales - as well as switching reps in Quebec and the Maritimes.
According to the company, the changes are designed to ensure Sitka's representatives are able to adapt to the changing needs of the company as well as offering alignment with partners boasting complementary brands. firstname.lastname@example.org
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