America has a big appetite for kayaks, and Confer Plastics is helping to feed it.
The North Tonawanda manufacturer last year produced 150,000 kayaks, along with other molded products like pool steps and ladders and panels for spas.
The company spends about $1 million a year on power, driven by the cost of keeping its blow molding machines humming. Last fall, Confer Plastics began running a massive machine that allowed it to increase its kayak output, after receiving another allocation of low-cost power from the New York Power Authority.
Confer Plastics on Thursday showcased its $3 million investment, as well as the company's growing, diverse work force, to Gil Quiniones, president and CEO of the Power Authority, and Lt. Gov. Kathy Hochul.
Employment at the Witmer Road plant has grown to 228 people, said Bob Confer, the vice president. "Just 10 years ago, we were probably at 120 (people). So we have grown significantly over time by having the big [manufacturing] machines and having labor-intensive jobs like the kayaks and swimming pool ladders and steps."
Those larger products are tougher for overseas rivals to compete on as cost effectively, said Frank Fedele, chief financial officer. "The smaller parts, you can put in containers and ship all day long. The bigger parts, you can't do that. That's our competitive advantage, because of the bigger parts."
The 400 kilowatt, low-cost power allocation Confer Plastics received enabled the company to spend capital and think long term, Quiniones said.
"They had the confidence basically to invest in that machine, and they have an advantage on the cost," he said. "The combination of the two produced a unique competitive advantage for this company against competitors in the United States but [also] globally."
Currently, four of Confer Plastics' 20 blow molding machines are devoted to making kayaks. The most popular colors in its lineup are red, lime green and blue.
Fedele declined to release sales figures, but said demand for the company's products holds up well no matter how the economy performs.
"When the economy is down, people will still spend money on recreational products like a kayak, or a swim spa or Jacuzzi, versus taking a vacation," he said. "They might say, 'You know what, we want to stay local, this is more affordable to us.'" That's why this category has really been growing and continues to grow."
Confer pointed out that his work force includes 40 Burmese refugees. "They're the best people in the world," he said. "They're great workers, so it's kind of upsetting when I see how refugees are treated by the [Trump] administration and followers in recent weeks, because I know what good people refugees are."
Hochul said Confer Plastics should be "held out as an example to other businesses" for hiring refugees.
"They're demonstrating that these individuals can work closely with the existing work force, they're learning the language, they're learning skills, and becoming an important part of the fabric of this community," she said.