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WNC Business

Made in WNC - SylvanSport

Aug 23, 2023 12:17PM ● By Randee Brown

Tom Dempsey, Founder and CEO of SylvanSport, said he and his wife used to frequently visit Western North Carolina, and he has always loved Brevard.

“I had been circling around the area with my career from early on when I started Perception Kayaks in Upstate South Carolina,” Dempsey said. “I remember looking out of my windows toward the mountains, and later I started another kayak company, Liquid Logic, here in 2004. That was the same year the paper mill closed. I saw an opportunity to be the third wave of economic success in the county.”

Dempsey described these waves of economy-supporting industries as the first being ‘extractors’ like loggers and miners, the second being businesses like the paper mill who came here to use the water and other natural resources, and the third being outdoor gear manufacturing.

“There is no place I’d rather be,” Dempsey said, “for my personal and family life as well as for my business. SylvanSport customers are located in all 50 states and all the Canadian provinces, and many will happily drive here to pick up their products. We even have a whole section on our website to help customers plan their travels to our area.”

Located in Brevard, SylvanSport manufactures a variety of camping gear including the GO trailer, tents, sleeping bags, camp kitchens, and more. Despite the focus on trailers, Dempsey said he considers his company a gear company, not an RV company. 

“Our roots are in kayaks and bikes, not campers,” Dempsey said. “We are making technical gear that just happens to be on wheels. The focus is on effectively hauling and storing your toys. That’s the priority for us, and for most RV companies, that is an afterthought.”

Dempsey said the company’s product ethos is that the gear can’t be one-dimensional. “Our camp kitchens can also be used for tailgating, soccer tournaments, and backyard entertaining,” he said. “We are designing multiple layers of functionality in our products. Pairing that with the quality and unique design and engineering as well as being made in the US, our loyal customers are respectful of the price points of our products.”

The WNC region, according to Dempsey, has the perfect blend of manufacturing, retail, and tourism, and he said the environment in which it all takes place is so important. He said the quality of life offered by the area also attracts great talent, an aspect he appreciates as an employer.

SylvanSport’s team consists of just under 30 employees, and Dempsey said many of them are also driven by the outdoors. “We even had a mandatory company rafting day at Nantahala Outdoor Center once,” he said. 

The company operates on a ‘four 10s’ schedule through the winter, which Dempsey said helps his staff focus on being diligent and efficient, and provides the incentive of a three-day weekend. He said there is also a company social platform on which employees can communicate with each other, and there are often outdoor gatherings at trails or in parks on days off, and bike rides during lunch hours.

“This all helps with retention,” Dempsey said. “We have had zero turnover since 2019.”

Dempsey said his company’s economic impact on the region extends beyond his own staff. With 40 of his suppliers within a 100-mile radius of Brevard, he said his business easily keeps over 100 jobs going. “Trucks come in every day,” he said. “This helps our assembly line function like a mini auto plant. We keep a good flow going.”

The lifeblood of the company’s future, according to Dempsey, is new products. He said they will expand gear products, and SylvanSports’ new Vast Travel Trailer is just the start of the company’s travel trailer models. He also said his vision for the future of the region is to be the hub of outdoor gear research and development.

“The proximity to the perfect population, resources, and environment as well as the media’s attention to the outdoor space helps put North Carolina front and center in the outdoor gear industry,” Dempsey said. “This is the best place in the country to have this business.”