Roswell Wake-Air rides its waveHow one man's love for a sport spawned an international business
By: Barbara Righton From: Business without Borders Date: Thursday March 21st, 2013
Even for the uninitiated, it's easy to imagine that wakeboarding had its genesis in California. Cutting back and forth behind a sleek boat and using its waves to launch high-flying tricks seems tailor made for the sun and surf culture. (It is also said to have been invented Down Under when a water skier used a snowboard behind a boat, initially dubbing the sport "skurfing.") More improbable is that a hockey-playing teenager who grew up on a farm near Lloydminster, Alta., roughly half way between Edmonton and Saskatoon, has made a career inventing wakeboarding accessories and outfitting $150,000 sport boats from Canada to Brazil, and Australia to the United Arab Emirates.
Robert Oswell, now in his mid-30s, founded Roswell Wake-Air at 19 after he and some friends tried the then fledgling sport on a lake near home moored to a line off the back of a boat. A tower at the front, he thought, would be a better idea. Higher lift, less stress on the body. "Two weeks later I built the first extended tower and within the same three-month period, I had a design for a universal fitting tower with the first swivelling board racks and that was the start of the company," Oswell says. "I have never gone to work at anything else since."
Becoming a water sports mogul took a bit of good timing. It was 1998 and young, adventure-seeking millionaires were living large off California's Silicon Valley boom. Oswell was living small in his garage, renting out his house to make ends meet. "I had targetted one of the largest ski boat companies in California and their key supplier with one of my products," he says. "I phoned them and they said, Come." For a year, he went to work in San Jose where the money was. On his way home, he met with one of Canada's largest boat builders, Campion, in Kelowna, B.C. "The boat companies knew this was an emerging sport," Oswell says. "Within a couple of months, we were an OEM option with Campion and the extended pylons were selling at its 90 some-odd dealers. Then Larson Boats out of Minnesota phoned me." Roswell Wake-Air relocated to Edmonton where it still does engineering, design, rapid prototyping, distribution, marketing and sales, and Cocoa, Fla., where Oswell and a stable of pro-riders test products on the Intercoastal Waterway. Distribution deals are in place in Holland, Australia and soon, Japan. The manufacturing is done in China.
Following his initial success, Oswell extended his product line to include towers with built-in speakers and his reach to inboard/outboard or what he calls "family" boats, designing an adjustable tower that would fit many different makes and models and help wakeboarding to grow from a sport for hot-doggers to a thing moms and pops and kids of all ages could do on lazy afternoons anywhere in the world. "Wakeboarding is an extreme sport," Oswell says. "But there is a very small percentage of people who can operate on a double-front-roll, multiple-invert level. Most people have worked hard to buy a boat and they want to enjoy a sport they can do with their families. I want them to have a great experience. I am passionate about that. " Oswell wakeboards with his seven-year-old son too, when he can.
In his list of challenges, which includes building solid relationships with clients and employees, and overcoming protectionism with quality, innovation and good service, is developing and maintaining a sharp focus. "When you build your international plan," he says, "don't be trying to sell everything to everyone. Keep to the best, most reasonable targets that fit your business size and make sure you can handle the volume." And the travel. In the two weeks before speaking to Business Without Borders, Oswell says, "I was in Vegas at the Consumer Electronics Show. I was in Toronto. I was in Dusseldorf at the boat show and France doing a deal with Focal, an audio company. I was in Hong Kong, and in China at our factory. You want to do business internationally, be careful of what that actually means." Still, wakeboarding has provided him with far more than a way to stay insanely busy and make money. "In this industry," Oswell adds, "I can be on the water. Our work is fun."