Going with the flow

by Gayle Wilson

  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTOS</p><p>Glenn and Kathy Parlee began their manufacturing business on a home sewing machine in their basement apartment Queens in 1985.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>The company currently has a contract to replace medical bags in ambulances across Nova Scotia.</p>
  • <p>GAYLE WILSON PHOTO</p><p>Parlee Manufacturing has switched emphasis over the years from outdoor gear to medical equipment bags.</p>
  • <p>Liverpool Adventure Outfitters is owned by Glenn and Kathy Parlee, but a completely separate company offering outdoor equipment and adventure tours.</p>
  • <p>Liverpool Adventure Outfitters arranges canoe, kayaking and hiking tours on the South Shore as well as in Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize.</p>

An avid water sports enthusiast who leads canoe and kayak expeditions both locally and internationally, Queens County's Glenn Parlee is used to navigating challenging waterways.

His skill, determination and reflexes have proven equally successful in helping guide the business he and his wife Kathy co-own over an ever-changing landscape of opportunities.

Owners of Parlee Manufacturing on Highway 3 in Liverpool, the couple manages a small team of employees producing a variety of outdoor and custom emergency service equipment packs and bags.

They also own Liverpool Adventure Outfitters, an outdoor equipment retailer and specialized tour operator, which is in the same building.

Speaking to LighthouseNOW recently, Parlee talked about some of the trials and tribulations of the income streams he and his wife have chosen to tackle.

While it may not be for the faint-hearted, he has no regrets.

"If I were to have just worked a regular job and not have done this my whole life, financially I would be better off. But I like the life I live doing this more than the life I live punching a clock for somebody else for 40 years," he said.

Their story hails back to the mid-1980s, when both were working summer jobs for the Red Cross. Parlee was a small craft safety instructor; Kathy worked for the youth program.

Unsatisfied with the outdoor packs he was able to find commercially, he asked Kathy if she could put her sewing skills toward adapting one he bought so it was better suited for a canoe.

"The gear was out there, but it just wasn't specialized enough for what I wanted," explained Parlee, who has a degree in recreation studies from Dalhousie University.

One pack led to another project, and then another. More and more of his friends and colleagues began commenting on the gear. It began to dawn on Parlee, "If I like it, and they like it, then I might have a small market here.'"

Recognizing they didn't have the money to start up a business in Halifax, they moved to Queens, where Kathy is from.

In 1985 they launched Parlee Adventure Gear, working out of a basement apartment they rented from a relative and using Kathy's home sewing machine.

Both would continue to work at part-time jobs off and on, on the side.

Parlee learned to sew as well. They soon determined Kathy's sewing machine alone "wasn't going to cut it."

They were looking at producing hunting clothing and equipment such as rain gear, vests, packs and bags, as well as gun sleeves and fly fishing rod bags.

They began investing in industrial machines to perform the various tasks required.

"And we learned pretty quick that in order to keep this running I had to learn to fix machines," says Parlee. "If I had to call somebody every time the machine was down we were out of business."

He says he never let a challenge capsize the business.

"I never looked at something as, 'Oh, how are we ever going to do that?' It was, 'Okay, we've got to figure this out.' So how do we do it?" says Parlee.

"As long as you're kind of dedicated to the end result, it's just, you know, putting one foot in front of the other. If you give up, you're done."

They began wholesaling their product to retailers as well as selling to wholesalers throughout Canada.

In Halifax, they were in Campers World and The Trail Shop. Adventure Outfitters in Peterborough carried their product, as did the renowned SIR in Winnipeg, which was subsequently bought out by the American company Cabela's.

"Usually beyond Ontario I went through wholesalers, so I didn't know exactly what stores they went through," says Parlee.

They had a good run for five or six years, and then they hit turbulent waters of recession.

Adventure gear sales became choppy; however, other opportunities surfaced. They began supplying chainsaw safety pants to the forestry companies.

"I mean we did close to $100,000 in chainsaw safety pants that year," says Parlee, explaining that the company was marketing directly to the mills, such as Bowater.

"Which was great. The margin was good because we weren't going through a wholesaler at that point."

But that opportunity too would become increasingly shallow as the mills started getting rid of their "in house" cutters and hiring contract workers.

"The contractors didn't really care at that point," says Parlee.

But again he and Kathy steered their business toward another opportunity - emergency industry products, such as trauma bags, oxygen bags and drug bags for ambulance companies.

They began marketing directly to the ambulance companies, which, then, mostly were owned by the funeral homes.

"That's sort of what started us in the custom building."

Parlee Adventure Gear morphed into Parlee Manufacturing.

After the Nova Scotia government took over with its Emergency Health Services and struck a deal with the private corporation, Emergency Medical Care Inc., the ride became rougher again.

"They decided to get a better price by going offshore."

But according to Parlee, they managed to recover some of the market when the buyers realized it was more difficult to get custom products and repair work done offshore.

"Now we're replacing all the medical bags on the ambulances throughout the province. That's the contract that we're on right now," says Parlee.

Meanwhile, the Parlees had floated and developed another business during these years - Liverpool Adventure Outfitters.

Though in the same building, it is completely independent and provides outdoor gear and equipment such as canoes, kayaks and bicycles.

It also offers canoeing, kayaking and hiking tours that Parlee leads on the South Shore and in Mexico, Costa Rica and Belize, the latter providing a nice if temporary escape from the Canadian winter.

Parlee is circumspect when asked how well his company has done over the years.

"I hate to throw sales numbers out there because they're not indicative of what we do."

There was more than one instance when it was just he and his wife steering the business as they tried to control costs; while in its heyday the company had 15 employees and was chalking up 24-hour work days.

It now employs five people full-time and four part-time.

"We had years where our sales were very good and made no money. We had years where our sales were poor, and we made money. So a lot of it is just on profit margins," says Parlee.

"When people talk about sales numbers, my first reaction is, 'What's your bottom line?'"

But on the watercourse of life, and despite the choppy times, Parlee is sure he went in the right direction with a self-steering family business.

"If somebody were to get into this to get rich, I would say it's not the way to go. But it certainly is, I think, a great way to make a living."

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