Q&A: Bret Chumley of Columbus Kayak

  • Photo by Meghan Ralston
By Abernathy Miller
From the December 19, 2013 edition

What looked like a void in the Columbus sporting goods market to most kayak enthusiasts looked like an opportunity to Bret Chumley. Unhappy at his job at a repossession company, Chumley had a forward stroke of genius and is now the owner/founder of Columbus Kayak, the only sporting goods store in Ohio that focuses solely on kayaks and kayaking accessories. Though it’s his first entrepreneurial endeavor, Chumley’s love for the sport and sense for finance are setting him up for a smooth ride.

Before I opened my store, I managed a repo business. Needless to say, that line of work was unpleasant. It's great having a business that people actually want to interact with. When I sold my first pair of kayaks, it was to a super friendly couple. That was a much easier interaction than some I've had in the repo business.

I knew since college I wanted to own my own business, I just didn't know then it'd be a kayaking business. I started [kayaking] and immediately got hooked. I noticed that there weren't any stores around that are dedicated solely to kayaking. There is an entire population of kayaking enthusiasts not being given any local options. I figured I would try to fill that void in the market. I studied finance in college, and I knew with my skill set, I'd be good at owning a business.

There are a lot of great places to kayak in and around Columbus. A lot of people don't know that, but there are many different places to go kayaking that offer a spectrum of sights and environments. Alum Creek and Big Darby Creek are great, but the view of Downtown at night on the Olentangy River is amazing.

Most people don't realize that kayaking is a four-season sport. People kayak year-round in Alaska and Canada, when you think about that a winter in Ohio doesn't seem like such a big deal. It's all about having the proper gear and being prepared. It actually isn't terrible either. I was kayaking one winter and it started to snow while we were on the water and it was really beautiful. Still, fall is my favorite.

I wanted to open at the end of paddling season so we could ease into retail. I wasn't sure of the response at first, so I wanted to slowly get things set up and get used to the space and daily operations before spring.

Besides boot-strapping finances to make this happen, everything about owning my own store is the best part of this venture. In finance, I learned how expensive loans can be, so I have been avoiding getting any for the business. That has been tough. But I am so enthusiastic about talking to the customers, I find I have to dial it back a little, as not to overwhelm them. I love having creative control. Plus, I am really enthusiastic about the products I carry, not just because I love kayaking, but also because I am really passionate about the products themselves. I wanted to have a shop that was well-curated and offered products you can't find just anywhere. I like to include start-up brands that are really specifically designed. In some cases, we are the only place in the state that carries a certain brand.

So far, the response has been great. I'll have people stop in just to check the place out, and end up staying an hour just to talk about the sport and their favorite spots to kayak. We have new people coming in every day and there seems to be a really strong kayak community here. Hopefully soon we can start organizing small groups to go on trips.