Eric Thome didn’t know a lot about folding boats when he moved to Charleston in 2009.
At a glance
Company: Folbot, pronounced “Foal-boat”
Location: 4209 Pace St., North Charleston
Product: Folding kayaks
Owners: Eric Thome, Scott Peckham and Bill Turner
Years in business: 80
Years in North Charleston: 60
In fact, he had never heard of a longtime local boatmaker called Folbot.
But three years later, he found himself at the helm of the North Charleston specialty watercraft manufacturer.
It happened after Thome’s wife, Rebecca, landed a medical equipment sales job in Charleston while they were living in New York City.
Thome, who was born in Texas and grew up in Aiken, jumped at the chance to move back to the South, especially to the renowned Holy City that he admired.
He worked in global sales chain planning for Avon and decided he could do his work from Charleston.
That lasted for a year or so, and then his bosses wanted him to move back to the Northeast. “It was winter. I looked outside and saw the sun shining in Charleston and realized I didn’t want to deal with the cold and snow anymore,” Thome said.
In January 2011, he was out of work. That’s when Thome started looking around Charleston for the right fit. He wanted a business he could invest in and own. He later made friends with Scott Peckham, who turns reclaimed wood into new building materials at his Charleston business.
“We did an exhaustive search,” said Thome, a mechanical engineer with a degree from Clemson University and a master’s in business administration from the University of Virginia.
During the search, a real estate agent introduced Thome to a friend who knew Bill Turner, a partner in the Folbot enterprise.
After a tour of the facility and much consideration, Thome and Peckham decided on Folbot, a company entering its 80th year in business with 60 of those spent in Stark Industrial Park off Azalea Avenue in North Charleston.
“They have a long-standing brand with loyal customers, and it stood out from anything else we saw,” Thome said.
In May 2012, Thome and Peckham partnered with Turner of Columbus, Ga., a Folbot partner with Dave AvRutick and Tony Mark, to buy out the business from AvRutick and Mark.
Just five years earlier, AvRutick, Mark and Turner had bought it from Phil Cotton, who in the 1980s acquired it from the family of its late founder.
When Thome and his partners bought the company, Thome called it “a turnaround situation. We came in hoping it would be more self-sustaining.”
They are making moves now to streamline operations and cut costs.
Portable, collapsible kayaks got their start in 1902, when German inventor Hans Klepper introduced them to the public. Previously, the vessels were used mostly by hard-core hunters and navigators.
Folbot founder Jakob Kissner of Germany took his idea of a folding-kayak business to London in 1931. Two years later, seeking to tap into the burgeoning U.S. market, he moved it to Long Island City, N.Y., and Folbot was born. In 1953, Charleston economic development officials persuaded Kissner to move south, at one point taking over a whole block of buildings in the industrial park.
Today, Folbot is a much smaller enterprise. It encompasses 15,000 square feet in an L-shaped building off Pace Street, once part of an old military hospital. But that will change.
Thome and his business partners plan to downsize the footprint to a single 3,600-square-foot building to save money on rent and streamline operations.
“We have parts and pieces all over the place,” he said. “We need to put them all in one place.”
Instead of making batches of parts from some of the 120 different suppliers for the firm that grossed $600,000 last year and sold about 270 kayaks, Folbot and its seven employees will make orders as they come in.
Thome hopes that will translate into a quicker turnaround time from about four weeks to process an order to one or two weeks.
“The goal is to increase our output,” he said. “We can do more with less. It will make us more agile and able to do custom orders quicker.”
Orders dropped steadily over the past 10 years or so, first with a downturn in the economy around the turn of the century and then after the 9/11 terrorist attacks because airlines adopted new rules for carry-on bags and then started charging more. The financial market meltdown in 2008 and subsequent recession didn’t help.
“We are seeing more consumer confidence,” Thome said.
He expects sales this year to rise between 300 and 400, after outdoor retailer REI placed an order for 100 of the boats for the first time. They will be sold in four REI stores across the nation: Seattle; New York City; Anchorage, Alaska; and Bloomington, Minn.
Admittedly, Thome said the company’s general weakness lies in marketing. While it’s been around for eight decades, Folbot is not a household name in the Charleston area. The company also doesn’t have the manpower or resources to get the product into mainstream sporting goods stores because the kayak requires some hands-on training for new buyers.
To counter that, Thome said he is going to more trade shows and offering discounts for customers who refer new buyers to the company. “We are also trying to have better story lines on our website in the digital age,” he added.
Folbot, which can be folded up into a backpack, currently makes nine boat models. They range in price from $999 to $2,399.
Made of lightweight aluminum and polyester, the smallest kayak weighs in at 24 pounds. The largest: 62 pounds.
Twenty years ago, the slogan was “From bag to boat in 20 minutes.” Now, with technology improvements, the smaller boats can be set up in nine minutes, Thome said.
The advantages of the folding boat are its performance and portability. Because it’s lightweight, it’s easy to carry and maneuver in tight spaces. Because it’s packable, there’s no need for a rack attachment to a vehicle and it takes up less room.
It’s biggest disadvantage is not that it has to be set up.
“There’s no low-end model to get on the market,” Thome said. “But we are playing with ideas and working with designers.”
Folbots are sold throughout the U.S. and in Europe, Australia, the Middle East, Chile and South Korea.
The Pacific Northwest, especially Seattle and Vancouver, is a huge market for the company. The Charleston area is not a big player in the collapsible kayak market because of so many other things to do outside, Thome said.
Bill Weatherford of Mount Pleasant loves his Folbot.
He was first introduced to the boats in 1962. His father took him for a ride in a twin-seater model when he was 12 years old and then bought him a single-seat folding kayak when he turned 15. He used it often over the next six years, but it was eventually given away.
In 2009, he decided to buy another one, a 15-footer. He liked it so much he recently bought another one for his sister in Arizona.
“It’s a great boat. I own a Corvette, and I can travel all over the country with it since it folds up,” the safety coordinator at Patriots Point said.
He often takes it with him across the country or for an outing on one of the many rivers and creeks in the Charleston area. “It’s not like a rigid boat,” he said. “You almost can’t turn it over.”
In February, the company will launch a new camouflage version of one of its existing models during the Southeastern Wildlife Exposition in Charleston. Bare bones price: $1,995. All the bells and whistles: just under $3,000.
The company also buys back old kayaks and turns them into lifestyle accessories such as wallets, travel bags, dog collars and luggage tags.
“Even if you have an old kayak hanging around, it can still be used for something,” Thome said.
Reach Warren L. Wise at 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.