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Dan Britton, Chariot Carriers' founder and former president and CEO (EWAN NICHOLSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)
Dan Britton, Chariot Carriers' founder and former president and CEO (EWAN NICHOLSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)


Thule's long ride to buy Chariot Carriers Add to ...

Until very recently, Chariot did everything from its home base of Calgary: design, manufacturing and distribution of its carriers as well as managing patents, trademarks and safety regulations. But as the company has moved into key growth markets, Chariot's resources and capabilities were stretched to capacity, making it difficult to keep up with demand.

And so, when an outdoor-products behemoth came calling, in late 2010, offering to buy his company, Mr. Britton had to think long and hard. Perhaps now was the time to hand over the reins and let somebody else take Chariot Carriers to the next level?

When Chariot launched in the early 1990s, similar products on the market included the Burley d'Lite and the Winchester Originals carriers, both out of the United States and selling for about $300. Initially, Mr. Britton's goal was to create a multifunctional, made-in-Canada child carrier that was more affordable than both competitors' products and offered better folding designs and more convenience.

But manufacturing the product in Canada made it impossible to lower the price point as much as he wanted, so if it wasn't going to be cheaper than the competitors' products – Chariot Carriers retail for between $450 and $950 – Mr. Britton decided to focus on value instead: one product that allows a family to do five different activities.

Chariot's Sport Conversion Kits start at $80 for the strolling and biking kits, and go up to $275 for the cross-country ski model. The product's versatility and longevity (a Chariot can be used for newborns and children up to six years of age) often outweigh the hefty price tag for active parents, especially those with disposable incomes.

In a mountain town like Canmore, Alta. – 100 kilometres from Chariot's headquarters and a mecca for young, active families – Chariot Carriers are as ubiquitous as ski bums.

“There's a real culture of Chariots here,” says Darin Anderson, a 35-year-old electrician who lives in the town with his wife, Jodi, and daughter Reese. “We're an outdoorsy family and love to bike and ski. My brother had a Chariot for his son, and it seemed like a no-brainer for us to get one.”

But even in the city, for a basic activity such as strolling, fans herald Chariot Carriers as the superior option.

Sarah Kennedy, a 39-year-old senior account executive at Calgary's Zentra Computer Technologies, wouldn't have made it to the park in deep snow with any other stroller, she says.

“Those walls close in a little in the dark winter days when you are home with your first infant. The Chariot was my path to the outdoors.”

The bike attachment came in handy once her daughter Samantha was a bit older, and when the family packed up the car for summer vacations, Ms. Kennedy says, they'd put their Chariot kits into another well-known outdoor transportation product, a Thule roof box: “All our friends went from being a young couple with a dog and having a Thule box on their car, to adding the Chariot as the next piece of gear when baby arrives.”

That natural progression didn't go unnoticed by Magnus Welander and his team at Thule Group, the Swedish company known for its assortment of lifestyle outdoor products such as roof racks, roof boxes, and bike and water sport carriers.

“If you look at the consumers that we are targeting…the places they go to buy their product…in those stores, in many cases next to our product, you will find the Chariot,” says Mr. Welander, who was promoted to CEO last year after four years heading the company's vehicle accessories division for Europe and Asia, from Thule's headquarters in Malmö, Sweden.

Thule looked closely at Chariot Carriers in 2007 and liked what it saw: strong management, passion for the outdoor/lifestyle industry and a superior product. After waiting out the financial storm that started in 2008, Mr. Welander and his officials made initial contact with Dan and Chris Britton in September, 2010.

“With family-owned, small companies, it's not so often that they are up for sale because the people that started the company have a true passion for what they are doing and are very focused. They rarely think about what they can do better outside or as part of a bigger group,” says Mr. Welander, who didn't think the Brittons would consider a deal after that first meeting.

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