Stockbrokers live by risk. But few can match Brian Dorfman's big bet 40 years ago when he jettisoned an unfulfilling broker job at Dominion Securities to start whittling canoe paddles. He wasn't much of a woodworker then, but he knew a market opportunity.
In the early '70s, the movie Deliverance drew thousands of baby boomers to canoeing, and Dorfman realized manufacturers couldn't meet the demand. "When we started doing trips to Algonquin Park and Temagami, we could never get nice paddles," he says. "We'd rent a canoe up there and basically get a couple pieces of timber to paddle with." In 1976, he opened his own plant—a 2,500-square-foot bay in a Cambridge, Ontario, industrial mall—and began crafting high-end paddles.
Perhaps his biggest break came in 1988, when Olympic canoeist Hugh Fisher returned from a dragon-boat race in Hong Kong, handed Dorfman a dragon-boat paddle, and said, "You should consider this; it's going to be big some day." Twenty-seven years later, Grey Owl Paddles is the world's biggest manufacturer of dragon-boat paddles, pumping out around 10,000 a year. These days, Dorfman is constantly testing new prototypes at his Orillia cottage, which certainly beats life on the trading floor.
Photos by Ryan Walker for Report on Business magazine