Folbot folding boat-maker suspends North Charleston operations

Folbot boat maker said Saturday it has suspended operations in North Charleston.

Folding kayak-maker Folbot said Saturday it is suspending operations at its North Charleston factory to restructure the business.

“We will not be producing new kayaks or taking orders at this time,” the company said in a statement. “We are hopeful that this will be a time of renewal for our historic brand.”

The company’s announcement didn’t seem to close the door completely on its future, calling the suspension of operations a “transition” and saying it will keep its social media outlets “live and active.”

“We are exploring all options, including new investors,” companay head Eric Thome said.

The 83-year-old specialty watercraft manufacturer started in London and has been based in Stark Industrial Park off Azalea Avenue in North Charleston for the past 63 years.

The owners are Thome and Bill Turner.

In May 2012, Thome and Scott 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,” he said during a Post and Courier interview in 2013.

At the time, Thome said they were making moves 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.

In 2013, it was a much smaller enterprise. It encompassed 15,000 square feet in an L-shaped building off Pace Street, once part of an old military hospital. But Thome and his business partners downsized the footprint to a single 3,600-square-foot building to save money on rent and streamline operations.

The business had faced challenges in recent years.

Orders dropped steadily after a downturn in the economy around the turn of the century and then again after the 9/11 terrorist attacks because airlines adopted new rules for carry-on bags and started charging more. The financial market meltdown in 2008 and subsequent recession didn’t help.

Three years ago it grossed about $600,000, sold 270 kayaks and employed seven people. The latest figures were not available Saturday.

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Three years ago, Thome said the company’s general weakness lied in marketing. While it’s been around for eight decades, Folbot is not a household name in the Charleston area. He said the company also didn’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.

Folbot, which can be folded up into a backpack, made just under a dozen boat models. They ranged in price from $999 to $2,399.

Made of lightweight aluminum and polyester, the smallest kayak weighed in at 24 pounds. The largest: 62 pounds.

Twenty-three years ago, the slogan was “From bag to boat in 20 minutes.” With technology improvements, the smaller boats could be set up in nine minutes, Thome said during an earlier interview.

Because it’s packable, there was no need for a rack attachment to a vehicle and it took up less room.

Folbots were sold throughout the U.S. and in Europe, Australia, the Middle East, Chile and South Korea.

The Pacific Northwest, especially Seattle and Vancouver, was 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 in 2013.

Reach Warren L. Wise at 843 937-5524 or twitter.com/warrenlancewise.