Building An Empire: Waka Kayaks | Rapid Magazine | Rapid Media
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Sam Sutton and Kenny Mutton of Waka Kayaks in Italy Photo: Luigi Mazzucchi

Sam Sutton and Kenny Mutton of Waka Kayaks on growing their business and their new digs outside of Milan, Italy

The sun is barely up. Soft light touches the green water of the Kaituna River, making it sparkle. Giant fern trees, straight out of Jurassic Park, hang over the river as boat shaper Kenny Mutton and decorated freestyle athlete Sam Sut- ton slide from the riverbank into the water. Mutton and Sutton let whitewater take the sleep out of their eyes as they start their daily 6:30 a.m. lap of a river that is their backyard. If the roar of whitewater didn’t drown out their voices, a terrestrial bystander might know this isn’t just a leisurely paddle. It’s also a business meeting.

Good friends, good connections and good timing led to the creation of Waka Kayaks in 2013. Back then, Mutton and Sutton were discussing the idea of buying the Tuna mold from Bliss-Stick Kayaks and starting their own production.

“Both of us were a little out of money,” says Sutton. “I had enough to buy the mold, and Kenny paid for the set-up costs and airfreighting the mold. We both went in halves.” Mutton was the shaper of the original Bliss-Stick Tuna and Sutton helped with design and testing so it felt right that they were reunited with the design.

“Waka means canoe in Maori,” says Sutton. “We wanted to keep our Kiwi roots even though we weren’t going to manufacture the boats in New Zealand.”

Designed and tested on the warm water of the Kaituna, Waka’s rotomolded boats were manufactured for three years in the cold north of the Czech Republic. The two paddlers had contacts in the Czech making the start-up easier and knew it was close to their largest market, which meant saving money on shipping costs.

At that rural Czech factory, the building was camouflaged with no signs for Waka Kayaks out front. The houses butted up against each other along the street, giving way to a massive roller-style garage door that opened up into what used to be an old pig farm.

In May 2016, the factory moved to Italy, 40 kilometers south of Milan. “We had a bit of a supply issue at the old location when it came to production—the move has been an awesome step forward for Waka and its future,” says Sutton. “Plus, the food is really great in Italy.”

“We have only just figured out how much running a business costs, and it’s more in buying materials for full-scale production. Some things you need to buy three years supply,” says Sutton. “That makes a big impact on balancing cash and at the end of the day you are still unsure you will get a single dollar from the year.” Using a third party for manufacturing means Mutton and Sutton have less control of production times and supply. The biggest challenge Waka has faced is keeping up with the demand of boats, says Sutton. “People knew who I was in Europe and Kenny was the man at shaping so it was easy to market the boat straight away,” he says.

When Sutton is paddling and racing around the world, it’s satisfying for him to turn up at a river and see a fleet of Wakas at the put-in. It’s even more rewarding when he hears that his boats help paddlers progress their ability. He talks about a 50-year-old Tutea paddler who fired up a run she’d only done once in her life. “She said it took her a grade above her previous ability,” says Sutton. “Giving her the chance to paddle harder whitewater again was cool.”

A handful of professional kayakers, including Aniol Serrasolses and Evan Garcia, have turned down money from other companies to paddle for Waka for free, says Sutton. “As soon as they tried it, they didn’t want to paddle anything else,” he adds. “We just want to make a boat that we love racing down in the morning and that makes you feel like a gangsta.” 

This article was originally published in Rapid, Volume 18 • Issue 3. Read this issue. 

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