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Monday, March 13, 2000
2000 Small Business profiles

Cascade Canoe & Kayak Centers

by Monica Soto
Seattle Times technology reporter

On good days, when the sky is clear and the weather warm, Dan Henderson can't imagine doing anything else.

Henderson, a former member of the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team, owns Cascade Canoe & Kayak Centers, which offers canoe and kayak sales, trips and classes at Bellevue's Enatai Park and on a seasonal basis at a spot along the waterfront in Kirkland.

It's a job Henderson has trained for his entire life.

He and his mother took their first canoe lesson in the Bay Area when he was 17. Shortly afterward, he began racing for sport, but there weren't good programs in the U.S., he said.

In 1980, Henderson went to the Olympics in Moscow to film other countries racing. He met a Hungarian coach, who invited him to train there. He went the following year.

"I went from being 60th to ninth that year," he said.

Henderson raced for two different Hungarian clubs over five years. In two Olympic trials, he placed eighth overall.

In the late 1980s, Henderson, who has an economics degree, worked for Security Pacific Bank under the Olympic Job Opportunities Program, which pairs Olympic athletes with companies so they can develop a professional career while they're still training.

In 1988, Henderson was riding his bike to work when a car hit him. He hurt his shoulder and missed competing in the Olympic trials. He and his wife, Krin, moved to Seattle.

Henderson revived the Seattle Canoe Club, a children's racing program at Green Lake. Within three years, the team became the top junior canoe and kayak team in the U.S. Based on his success, Henderson was asked to coach the Junior National team at the 1995 World Championships in Prague.

He wrote the coaching manual for the U.S. Canoe and Kayak Team. When the coach was fired after the 1996 Olympics, he was let go, too.

"I started looking for a business plan," he said.

"I started with the intent upfront that this was going to be a business and that I would have fun, be profitable in the long term and healthy in the short term," he said. "It was as well-thought-out as it could be."

The business plan was strong enough to land Henderson and his wife a $90,000 line of credit from KeyBank, which provided start-up capital.

In April 1998, Henderson and his wife subleased part of the boathouse at Enatai Park and operated canoe and kayak lessons there. At the end of the first year, they weren't sure whether they would be allowed to operate their business in the same spot and rented a Kirkland location.

It turned out that Cascade was offered a chance to operate all of the activities at Enatai, including rentals and trips. The business expanded out of circumstance.

Another breakthrough occurred around the same time: REI selected Cascade to operate its paddling school.

"That second year," Henderson said, "it just really took off."

In 1999, Cascade served 9,000 customers, but its rentals -- roughly 60 percent of the business -- were down because of poor weather.

Henderson said the business hasn't made any money yet -- something he and his wife anticipated. Last year, Cascade lost money but still wound up within $10,000 of its business plan, he said.

"Every day, there's something that happens that's either really good or really bad, and it's a lot of just steering along," he said. "It's a challenge to manage the really good and the really bad stuff. You feel like you're on a roller coaster. That's harder when you have so much of yourself and your assets tied into something."

Henderson said Cascade's most important assets are its attorney and accountant. "Those things have been a godsend," he said.

Henderson said the business has been an aggressive advertiser, using 80 percent of its marketing budget for "tried-and-true" methods, such as the Yellow Pages, and 20 percent on experimental advertising. This year, for instance, it paid for a spot in the Bravo Event Planner Resource Guide, which advertises the business's corporate team-building programs. The business also formed marketing partnerships with REI and the cities of Bellevue and Kirkland.

The Hendersons plan to open a third site in Renton this year, and they also plan to open a few more sites and a couple of destination-travel sites. They've also begun a children's racing program.

Henderson said they hope to turn a profit this year.

"That was not a big priority," he said. "It's getting to be time for that."

Monica Soto's phone message number is 206-515-5632. Her e-mail address is


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