Not many manufacturers call small-town America home anymore, but the stars and the development of the packrafting industry seem to have aligned to make Mancos the perfect place for Alpacka Raft.
“We’ve had steady growth. It’s been one of the most fortunate, if not the most fortunate, things we’ve got going for us,” said Alpacka CEO Thor Tingey.
“Packrafting hasn’t become so popular that we’ve seen huge spikes in orders, and we really haven’t had drops in sales. We’ve seen steady growth, and that’s perfect for us.”
Steady growthTingey said he’s unsure Alpacka could handle huge increases in orders from its headquarters and manufacturing facility in a former hardware store in Mancos. But the facility has proved more than adequate – in fact, ideal – to deal with steady growth.
Thor co-founded Alpacka with his mother, Sheri Tingey, in 2000, after Thor discovered packrafts he used during a 160-mile expedition in the Alaska Range and a 600-mile trip in the Brooks Range couldn’t hold up and weren’t river-worthy for the Alaskan waters he encountered.
Sheri had decades of experience designing outdoor clothing for skiers and dog pushers, and Thor asked his mother if she would build him a raft – eventually dubbed the “White Boat” – which was made of white nylon with a urethane coating on one side with 12-inch diameter tubes.
Finding MancosThe Tingeys, determined to control the manufacturing process in-house, moved from Alaska to Mancos in 2007.
The Tingeys discovered Mancos because Sheri wanted to be one day’s drive from Phoenix, where her mother, then in her 90s, was living. Alpacka happened to have a customer in Mancos, Sam Perry, owner of Fenceline Cider, with space on his ranch to handle the fledgling packraft maker.
Once in Mancos, Sheri and Thor continued to improve designs and added models to Alpacka’s fleet.
Designing the boats is still handled by Sheri, whom Thor calls “super design savvy.” He added, “The biggest challenge was learning to design to inflate in 3D.”
Today, Alpacka has 12 different models for single and tandem packrafters and their gear. Individuals can customize their packraft in an array of configurations and colors, so much so that Thor says the company essentially builds packrafts individually to suit each customer’s needs.
“We have grand plans to build an inventory, but it never seems to happen,” said Thor’s wife, Sarah Tingey, who serves as Alpacka’s chief operating officer.
Small-town manufacturingAt any one time, Thor said Alpacka can be working on anywhere from 30 to 300 separate rafts, and packrafting remains enough of a niche pursuit that customizing an individual craft remains the primary way manufacturing is done at Alpacka.
“We feel a real responsibility to the community,” Sarah said about manufacturing in Mancos. “We’re proud of the jobs we provide in the community. They would be hard to replace.”
Beyond providing jobs for 28 employees at Alpacka, Thor said Mancos offers several advantages over outsourcing manufacturing, which most likely would move manufacturing to Asia.
Keeping the fabrication of the packrafts in Mancos, he said, allows for better quality control.
Sarah adds manufacturing the boats in Mancos also makes Alpacka more nimble. “If we see something is not working, we can make changes right away.”
Thor added, “We’re more in control of the manufacturing process, and for a niche, high-quality product, it’s important to devote the time and effort to get it right.”
Finding a nicheThor said a lot of outdoor firms will handle the branding and the design of products then outsource the manufacturing, but that never felt right for Alpacka.
“Sheri has always been a niche designer and producer. It would fundamentally conflict with the way she does things,” Thor said about moving manufacturing of packrafts overseas.
Alpacka has about 10 competitors building packrafts, including AIRE, the major manufacturer of large multi-seat rafts.
But Alpacka has built a solid reputation as the premium, high-quality manufacturer of packrafts, and that also helps keep Alpacka in Mancos; the firm is at its third location in town.
Thor sees the packraft market developing along lines similar to sport cycling. “When cyclists improve, they move on to a higher quality bike. We’re definitely more expensive. Other makers are more entry-level boats.”
Room to growThe current Alpacka property in Mancos is adequate for expansion to handle the steady growth the Tingeys have seen.
Currently, Alpacka is converting an outbuilding, once used by the hardware store for storage and as a shed, to handle Alpacka’s administrative offices. Thor said the new office space will give Alpacka more room for manufacturing and storage in its main building.
Alpacka has never had difficulty finding the skilled labor in Mancos that it needs to manufacture the packrafts, and Thor said the work is so specialized Alpacka would be heavily invested in training its workers no matter where it was located.
Forever homeAlpacka also benefits from a good core of small, outdoor manufacturers that have located in the Montrose area, and Sarah said it’s beneficial to meet with them to discuss statewide regulatory and legal issues.
Alpacka now owns its building and property in Mancos, and Thor sees the business as having plenty of potential for expansion.
“This is our forever home,” he said.