Peter Newport laughs. “I do chaos.”
In addition to the many roles he plays—from budding Gold Hill, Oregon, mayor to president of Sawyer Paddles and Oars—Chief Pot-Stirrer is also in Newport’s personal mix.
Newport is the former chief executive of Breedlove Guitar Company, a renowned custom instrument maker based out of Bend, Oregon. After selling the company in 2010, Newport moved to southern Oregon and bought Sawyer Paddles and Oars.
And it’s that fast-paced, 100-percent, year-over-year growth path that he helped generate at Breedlove that Newport wants to repeat with the similarly renowned custom paddle maker in Talent, Oregon.
But in the three years he’s been at Sawyer, the growth trajectory is slower than what Newport thrived on with Breedlove.
“We are growing Sawyer slower than we grew with Breedlove,” Newport said. “I’m engineered for 100 percent growth. I don’t have a whole lot of patience and it’s painfully slow. We’ll start ramping up our growth in the coming years.”
Nothing a little chaos can’t stir up
Tracking down the man known as “Crazy Pete” isn’t easy, especially in the middle of shifting manufacturing operations to Grants Pass, Oregon. in a partnership with custom furniture company Roguewood.
In fact, it seems wherever sawdust is flying and gorgeous wood products are crafted in Oregon, Newport can be found.
“He should be here later today,” Roguewood CEO Elizabeth Bauer says on a Monday afternoon. “Pete is just awesome. He’s a superstar.”
The next day at the Sawyer shop in Talent, Newport is again missing in action.
“He started real early this morning and I don’t expect him back anytime soon,” co-owner Zac Kauffman, says. “Things are a bit crazy around here right now.”
The company is making significant advancements, including the strategic partnership with Roguewood. It’s a partnership that has the two companies combining equipment and employees in the same facility — a temporarily chaotic move that will likely create an even higher level of product quality and consistency.
“Our peak seasons are opposite. It’s going to be beautiful. It will allow us to keep a steady workforce year round. We’re hoping if we cross-train on furniture and paddles and oars we can switch for whatever orders we need to get out the door,” Newport says.
Man in the middleAny significant change will find Newport directly in the thick of it.
“Wherever the bottleneck is, that’s where I like to be,” Newport says a few days later, when he finally slows enough to talk.
In short, he wants more chaos because — for a die-hard kayaker turned entrepreneur who is now in the business of making fantastic paddles and oars – turbulence is not only expected but welcomed.
“I was taught how to communicate that type of chaos,” Newport says. “It leads to a fair amount of time in meetings but everybody’s on the same page.”
Finding a Niche. And another. And another.
Like many entrepreneurs, Newport spent a fair amount of time finding his own direction. His central Oregon upbringing weathered into him a love for the state, love for the extreme outdoor sports the region is known for, and love of music and love of adventure. All of these facets, in one way or another, have shaped Newport’s life trajectory.
The defining moment? When he took a kayaking class, “on a dare.”
“It totally changed my life,” Newport says, “The Bend and the Oregon boating scene is pretty advanced and I had a lot of great paddlers around me and fell head over heels into kayaking and that’s pretty much all I wanted to do.”
Newport navigated through Oregon colleges, including Southern Oregon University, University of Portland, and Portland State. By 1995, he wanted to try out for the 1996 Olympics in kayaking.
“It was a longshot,” he admits, “but I ended up breaking a bunch of ribs before I could even try out. But during that time I realized… wow, pretty much everything I was trying to do got shut off within a couple of weeks. I got kinda depressed.”
He followed his wife back to school—this time for an actual education—landing at Oregon State University.
“I was so sick of school and not knowing what I wanted to do,” he says. “But, when I went to OSU I ended up finishing pretty much near the top of my class in business.”
That led to a stint with Pepsi. Newport was working for the beverage company in marketing when Bend-area business leader Jim Schell sought him out. Schell, an entrepreneur and co-author of Small Business for Dummies (who still says on his Linkedin profile that “my favorite thing to do is to connect the dots,”) enticed Newport to consider working with a Bend- area company.
“He called me up and said, ‘Crazy Pete, have I got a perfect project for you.’” Newport recalls.
Soon Newport was the general manager of Breedlove Guitar, with a plan to earn more of the company each year moving forward.
“It was nightmare for three years,” Newport said. “Then we finally figured out how to grow it profitably.”
He also began slowly buying out investors. He became the chief executive and over the course of 11 years bought out most of the partners what he calls a “a great formula for budding entrepreneurs.”
Those wonderful, chaotic, 100-percent growth years soon followed and Breedlove Guitar Company became known as an industry leader. The company’s 500,000 annual sales hit $10 million and Newport sold it.
The experience helped craft Newport’s personal vision, combining his love for Oregon, its signature products and all the state has to offer in terms of lifestyle, recreation and environment.
“I really like niches where we can execute being number 1 or number 2 in quality, so we can dominate it,” Newport says.
The question that had once depressed Newport now enthralled him. What’s next? He wondered.
Method to the “madness”
Crazy Pete isn’t all that crazy when you get right down to it.
Like most successful entrepreneurs, he’s learned to combine his passions with past experiences to build success. But Newport kept the nickname given to him decades earlier while working at Pepsi.
“One day they called me the ‘Crazy Pete ‘and it just stuck. I thought it was kinda funny because I wasn’t really that crazy. But then I saw a definition for crazy as simply being open to another point of view,” says the perpetual pot stirrer. “It also gives me a lot of license.”
Just as riding whitewater in a kayak, Newport keeps a fixed gaze on how best to navigate. He credits a book he read that said to be truly happy as an entrepreneur one must “design your dream customer,” Newport recalls.
“That was probably the most significant hit over the head I’ve had in forty years. I read that line and that changed everything. I was so excited to get a white board out and trying to fill it out,” he says.
That effort funneling down to a list of businesses where he could work with his dream customer. The list was short. One name long in fact. Sawyer Paddles and Oars in Talent.
“I used to work at Sawyer,” he said. “I wondered if they were still kicking.”
He sent an email to the company’s owner, Bruce Bergstrom. When he didn’t hear back immediately, he called. When he got an answering machine, he started driving to southern Oregon. On the way he called again and then again until at last Bergstrom picked up.
“I said, ’Hey, teach me how to run the company and I’ll help you retire.’ And it was kinda silent for a while then he said, ‘we’re gonna need some beer.’”
They met that day in May 2011 and penciled out a plan.
“Then we made it happen,” Newport says.
Playing in unison
The similarities between Breedlove Guitars and Sawyer Paddles and Oars are hard to miss, starting with the names: both remain branded by the vision of their respective owners who lived in Oregon and saw the opportunity to stunning craftsmanship into niche products of exceptional quality.
Both needed a healthy amount of Crazy Pete’s chaos to truly scale into a leader in their respective niche market.
“I love the initial quality,” he says of Sawyer but could equally be speaking of Breedlove. “We have dramatically improved the consistency and global excellence.”
To scale these niche manufacturing businesses takes more than pot stirring. Newport again is relying on his past experiences. At Breedlove the guitars were known for its innovative graduated top and bridge truss construction. At Sawyer the company has made innovations around some of their paddles that improves their competitive edge, Newport says. The company intersected with the rapid growing Stand Up Paddleboard markets through innovation becoming the first to create a tapered oval carbon fiber shaft. The tapering cuts the weight by 30 percent, Newport says, while the oval shaping makes it less fatiguing.
“The oval allows you to relax your grip so you don’t have to work so hard to aim it where you want it to go,” he says. “It’s probably the best racing paddle in the country right now.”
Shane Perrin, founder of SUP St. Louis, backs up Newport’s claim.
Perrin says he is considering changing his entire fleet over to the Storm Stand Up Paddle, which he describes as “ultra-tough.”
Equally important is a crucial factor often associated with Sawyer.
“Made in the USA,” Perrin says. “Says it all right there. I love that they are made there in Oregon.”
According to Sarah Layton, CEO of the Corporate Strategy Institute, Inc. , quality is spurring the comeback of American manufacturing.
“We conducted an informal survey of manufacturing CEOs, and the general consensus is that manufacturing will make a comeback in the US. The reason is partly because of perceived poor quality coming out of other countries, mostly China,” she forecasted.
Perrin is proof of that trend.
“It’s been sad to watch companies that originated making their products here and then source through China so they can make more money,” Perrin says. “Almost always that product’s quality declines.”
Among the other moves Newport made to launch Sawyer’s growth curve was connecting directly to those like Perrin. To do that, he aggressively recruited Kauffman whose connection to the company goes back 30 years as an outfitter and guide trainer. Newport enticed Kauffman with the opportunity of ownership through sweat equity, a typically entrepreneurial move that has worked out as well as he could have imagined.
Like Perrin, Todd Freitag, owner of Grassy Knob Guide and Outfitters in Bandon, Oregon, knew Kauffman for several years. Sawyer sponsored Freitag’s steelhead tournament and Freitag serves as a regional ambassador. He speaks with intimate knowledge of his favorite product a square v-lamb top oar.
“It’s an absolute beautiful piece of wood,” Freitag says. “When I first saw them I couldn’t believe them. It’s almost like a piece of art. When you run those oars down the river you always attract attention.”
Freitag is quick to point his fellow river rats to Sawyer.
“There’s a lot of other great products in other states to, but let’s try to employ those craftsman who are local first. There’s tons of stuff in Oregon,” Freitag says.
New rivers to run
So the age old question of what to do with his life has become increasingly clear amid the chaos, Newport says. He wants to run a $100 million company in Oregon and has a typical turbulent way to meet his goal. It starts with becoming the mayor of Gold Hill, a town of 1,200 residents that sits on less than a square mile of land in Jackson County.
“I’m a die-hard Oregonian,” he says. “I think Gold Hill will be the coolest town in the world. Ten years from now it will be known as the best place in the world… it already has the best white water on the Rogue.”
The wannabe mayor is quick to list Gold Hill’s vision and virtues, from recreational marriages, a new parks plan, a 5,000-seat amphitheater that he hopes will rival the Britt Festival in Jacksonville, Ore.
“That’s where Sawyer as a brand belongs and it will become a $10 million company. Then all we need to do it cherry-pick ten other $10 million companies. As the mayor I’ll have reached my goal.”
Turbulent? Chaotic? Crazy? You bet. Doable? No doubt about it for Crazy Pete Newport. He’s seen it clearly and even drawn the whole thing up, a necessary first step for any entrepreneur with a dream, he insists.
“Anytime I start a project I take a poster board and draw a picture of the company in the future. I put it right next to my desk so anyone can see it,” he says. When we make a decision we ask, ‘does that get us closer to that picture or further away?’ It so easy to see when you have an image of what you’re going to become.”