story by Ryan Saylor
It is a story of recovery and growth at Riverbend Industries in Fort Smith, according to CEO Ron Embree.
It was just last year that Embree said the company had its worst year. The factory was reeling from the closure of Whirlpool the year before. With Whirlpool responsible for sometimes more than 90% of its business having closed its local Fort Smith operations, Riverbend had to reposition itself.
During this time, Embree said he was able to invest in a company out of Northwest Arkansas called Kosmo Koolers, which had designed a one-of-its-kind three-legged liquid cooler. While terms of the deal were not disclosed, Embree did say he spent about $500,000 retrofitting equipment at Riverbend to manufacture the coolers.
The company had initial success with the product, getting it into Sam's Club stores across the nation and bringing its employee count from a low of 63 people in 2013 up to its current level of 150, including temporary employees.
And while Sam's Club had decided to "go in a different direction" and no longer carries the item, Embree said things are still looking up for what are now his two companies under one roof — Riverbend Industries and Kosmo Koolers.
During a showing of the company's three spicket cooler at the National Hardware Show in Las Vegas the week of May 5, the cooler won one of the show's top awards, he said.
"We were won innovative product of the year and this cooler will be coming out in their July magazine — National Hardware Retailers Magazine. Out of over 6,000 products, one of the top 20 or 30 products at the show and there's some big, big names there. So we were pretty pleased with it.”
The award, he said, is not solely based on cool new concepts. Instead, he said various business factors come into the decision making process with regard to the award.
"It's supposed to be based on sellability and what they think the market will like to buy.”
While Sam's Club is no longer carrying the cooler, the world can still get their hands on the product and another innovative product designed and manufactured by Kosmo Koolers — the freestanding Kosmo cooler.
Even though the designation from the National Hardware Show takes into account market factors and and an item's sellability, Embree said he does not expect to compete with the big dogs in the industry anytime soon.
According to figures cited by the Outdoor Recreation Association, more than $646 billion was is spent annually in the United States on outdoor recreation, resulting in 6.1 million direct jobs. The same organization said in Arkansas, more than $10 billion in consumer spending is associated with outdoor recreation accounting for $2.9 billion in wages and salaries spread among 125,000 direct Arkansas jobs. The consumer spending results in more than $696 million in state and local sales tax revenues, the ORA said.
While no specific figures were found for the cooler industry, a 2012 Houston Chronicle report about the expansion of Igloo's Houston-area manufacturing facility said the company held 45% of the cooler marketshare, up from 38.1% in 2010.
Embree said he does not expect to compete for marketshare against the big dogs like Igloo or Coleman. Instead, he said Kosmo Koolers will focus on online sales through retailers like Amazon.com and getting their products in local stores. The company's products are for sale at retailers like CV's and Marvin's IGA in the Fort Smith and Northwest Arkansas areas at retail prices ranging from $40 to $59.97.
"We're not going to have hardly any marketshare. I mean, compared to Igloo, Coleman, Rubbermaid and them, we'll have small marketshare. I don't know exactly the market, but you know if I was selling $1 million to $3 million worth of product, I would be pretty pleased. And that's a drop in the bucket for the total marketshare.”
The goal, he said, was to increase sales to 35,000 units in 2015. Even at that pace of sales, he said it will still take a while to get the company's staffing levels back to the peak of 300 employees in 2007.
"I think it will take at least three years unless something happens that I'm not aware of right now.”