45 Years with the Appomattox River Company
Step into Appomattox River Company (ARC) today, and you’ll see Owner Bob Taylor’s old fiberglass Perception kayak, a Chauga, up in the rafters. The vintage model – visible to all who enter the longstanding storefront – harkens back to the days before there was an Appomattox River Company and before kayaking had taken off as a sport.
“He was doing all of this long before it was even a business,” says former manager Tom Detrick.
ARC sits on North Main Street in Farmville, Va., yards away from the river itself but separate from the hustle and bustle of the main thoroughfare. After seeing the unassuming, low-slung buildings sprawling across the parking lot, it’s not hard to believe that they once housed lumber for the Taylor Manufacturing Company, a business run by Taylor’s father. Now, instead of hardwood, the warehouses are stocked with thousands of boats.
As one of the largest specialty canoe and kayak shops in the country, ARC has a unique hold on the paddlesports market. But this successful business didn’t happen overnight. In fact, it started as a hobby — a love for canoeing and a desire to share the sport with others in Virginia. But, over the past 45 years, the business has expanded and adapted, filling industry niches, boat by boat, and cultivating a following, customer by customer.
Once you buy something from ARC, you’re part of the family.
Boats in the Basement: 1970s
In 1975, while working for his dad’s construction business, Taylor bought a used canoe from the rental operation at Holliday Lake and started floating the local rivers. His love for whitewater led to more river trips, more canoe purchases, and his first venture into canoe sales to his friends and fellow local paddlers. It also led him to Bill Masters.
As the founder of Perception kayaks and a man who has been called “the Steve Jobs of the modern whitewater kayak industry,” Masters was, as Taylor put it, “a master engineer.” One of the first to manufacture rotationally molded kayaks, he sat on the cusp of a major industry shift replacing fiberglass kayaks with plastic ones.
Taylor was familiar with Masters’ designs first hand, having purchased a Masters boat himself. After a phone call to Masters, the two connected for a paddling trip where Taylor tested some of Masters’ designs and the two began what became a fast friendship. Taylor purchased some Royalex canoes from Masters that day as well — one for himself, one for another friend, and four that he knew he could sell. He stored the boats in his basement in Farmville, but only for a short time. They sold so quickly that he ordered more, and his hobby began to grow.
In 1977, Taylor’s father gave him an ultimatum: Either go sell canoes or stay here and work for Taylor Manufacturing. Taylor jumped full force into the canoe business.
Business Booms: 1980s
ARC started with two employees, servicing walk-in customers from a 150-mile radius in Central Virginia. The company advertised only in the yellow pages and with business cards tacked to local bulletin boards. Because he was an active canoer, Taylor began to cultivate a small community of paddlers in the area, who would make the drive to purchase boats after work. In fact, he designated a phone line at his house for business.
“We would sit there and have supper, and I’d get that phone call saying, ‘I’m over here waiting,’ and I’d have to jump up and run over to the warehouse and get that job loaded up,” says Taylor. “It was long hours, but it was something that I was really enjoying, so I didn’t mind it.”
As business expanded into the warehouse spaces rented from Taylor Manufacturing, Taylor was able to store 50 to 60 canoes at a time, picking up brands like Mad River. ARC’s storage capacity, which remains unusual in the paddlesports industry, has been one of the company’s biggest differentiators over the last 45 years, as they manage to keep various brands and models always in stock. The company also offered boat repairs.
“The business grew, and it was fun,” Taylor remembers. “After about five or six years, my daddy was amazed at how I’d been able to grow the business, and he said, ‘You’re one of the luckiest people I know. You’ve figured out a way to play at work and work at play.’”
The Heyday of Whitewater Kayaking: 1990s
As ARC began to make a name for itself, Taylor continued his signature grassroots customer service, spending three days a week paddling class four and five rapids and conducting business in West Virginia’s New River Gorge and Gauley River. He would haul boats up, delivering them to customers at the paddling destination and then go out paddling himself.
During the 90s, Taylor connected with a new Farmvillian, Tom Detrick.
As Detrick remembers it, “I owned a bar, and Bob liked to drink beer. He owned a canoe shop, and I liked to canoe.”
Detrick, an avid paddler, started working for ARC on weekends, in exchange for a discount on future paddling supplies. As ARC began drawing from larger areas, Detrick would pick up boats from manufacturers and deliver them to people’s doorsteps — sometimes as far as Florida. In 1995, he sold his bar and began working full time for ARC building canoes.
As manufacturers pushed for a bigger footprint and playboating began to take off, ARC opened a short-lived store in Roanoke (which Detrick remembers as a learning experience about what not to do) and then, in the spring of 1997, a Midlothian location managed by Detrick. Launched in the midst of Richmond’s vibrant kayaking scene, this strip mall storefront took off.
“We were just slinging out kayaks,” says Detrick. “It was amazing. Just as fast as we could bring them in, they were going out. We had a good team of hardcore boaters who loved the sport. We had all that knowledge back in Farmville of how to do custom work, and we were just killing it. We were pitching kayaks out just as fast as we were getting them in.”
When Midlothian’s sales eclipsed Farmville’s, Taylor asked Detrick to take on management of all ARC locations, which included a brand new York County store focused on sea kayaking.
Bringing Boats to the Masses: 2000s
With three locations running strong, ARC dipped a toe into digital sales, and more boats began to fly out the doors — fast.
“We really worked hard at what we did best, which was different from the big box stores,” says Detrick. “We looked for niches in the business like freestyle kayaking, whitewater canoes, stand-up paddleboarding, sea kayaking. We would find these little small niches that were underserved and really take full advantage of certain markets.”
Another key reason for ARC’s success? That team of hardcore boaters. With a technical sport, Detrick explains, you have to know that you’re putting people in the right boat.
“Bob was great at assembling a team and being able to say, ‘I’m not good at this, and I need someone else to do this,’” says Detrick.
In fact, since the company’s inception, Taylor has recruited his employees solely within paddlesports, strategically compiling a staff of varied paddlers for specific niches, including whitewater kayaking, recreational kayaking, stand-up paddleboarding and canoeing.
General Manager Brian Vincent is known to joke that “if you’re buying your toilet paper and your kayak from the same shop, you’re probably not getting expert paddling advice.”
At ARC, on the other hand, expert advice is a cornerstone of the business, allowing this family-owned shop to rise above the competition.
Reading the Digital Waters: 2010s to today
As online sales grew, Taylor realized that virtual marketing was a new and unfamiliar avenue. Enter son-in-law Brian Vincent, who started working with the company in 2012. Initially, Vincent (known as “Vince” at ARC) worked in the warehouse wrapping boats and helping customers. As he began to see a new digital direction, he stepped into the role of manager of digital marketing and branding, integrating social media with online advertising and the website. His philosophy? Take Bob’s guerilla marketing approach of yellow-page-advertisements and business-cards-tacked-on-bulletin-boards and put it online.
With a new online strategy, ARC went from selling one or two boats a day to 60. A foray into Google Ads and Google Shopping boosted sales, and the business ended up revamping their website and leaning into a robust, white-glove delivery service that emphasized the company’s care for paddling equipment and respect for the sport in general.
After helping ARC navigate recent challenges, such as the direct-to-consumer movement and the coronavirus pandemic (during which both satellite stores were closed), now Vincent has put his muscle into continuing the legacy Bob established: building a strong staff of paddlers who can offer expert advice.
It’s significant to note that ARC’s dedication to customer service — and, perhaps, more importantly, the joy its employees feel when initiating new paddlers onto the waters — has remained, with Vincent receiving live chats from the website straight to his cell at all hours of the day.
Vincent also has his sights set on new goals, such as making sure ARC can be a solid resource for watersports education.
“We want to be a resource for information about paddling, whether that’s through educational content on our website or our YouTube channel. I would love it too if we had a component of this business that ran classes, offered kayak fishing guides and people who worked on whitewater, paddling and canoeing components,” says Vincent. “I care about keeping people safe. I want people to love this activity, and part of that is knowledge.”
45 Years of Making a Difference
After 45 years in the industry, ARC has made a tangible impact.
“There are an above-average number of phenomenal paddlers,” says Detrick, “and they wouldn't have been there had Bob not had that store. We wouldn't have had this meeting place of canoers and kayakers.”
“People used to just say, ‘Farmville? That’s where that big furniture place is, isn’t it?’” says Taylor. “But now, it doesn’t surprise me to hear them say, ‘We bought a canoe from Farmville. Isn’t there a place in Farmville that specializes in canoes and kayaks?’ After 45 years, we’re getting to be known as one of Farmville’s draws. It makes me happy and proud too.”
And, perhaps, most importantly, adds Vincent: “There’s a through-line there, through all of us — Bob, Tom and myself — who will just give the max to make sure people are taken care of. Bob set that tone. He still sets that tone. That’s the driving force – to make sure you’re trying to help people.”
Written by Jessica Broaddus