The Father of Modern Kayaking

Beginning with $50, Bill transformed a one-person operation into the largest kayak manufacturing company in the U.S.

Kayaking has a 5000-year history with cultures who lived by fresh or saltwater, eventually progressing from hides or bark stretched over wood or bone to composites and fiberglass construction. In the early 70s, the materials and construction of kayaks took a giant leap forward with Bill Masters.

George Sayour, a paddling expert writing for About Sports, wrote an article called “How Perception Kayaks Changed the Kayaking Industry.” The article notes that today’s kayak industry has a range of OEMs large and small, but it all began 30 years ago, with Bill Masters working on the idea of plastic roto-molded kayaks. He started Perception with $50 in Liberty, SC, a small Upstate South Carolina mill town.

As a student at Clemson, Bill accepted a broken kayak as payment for fixing a friend’s car. The repaired the kayak and his workmanship attracted the attention of other kayakers running the area’s whitewater.

Starting a company in a mortuary

Bill knew whitewater. An enthusiast from the first time he paddled down the Chattooga, he spent ten days in 1972, working on his first handmade kayak in the back of an old mortuary. His prototype drew interest from other kayakers and Bill sold it for $90.

In August 1974, Bill and his partner, Don Hamilton, launched their first kayak manufacturing company, Fiberglass Technology, in Liberty, South Carolina. The company produced an average of 150 boats per year.

In 1976, Bill changed to the name of the company to Perception Kayaks. Within five years, this three-man operation would become the largest kayak manufacturer in the United States. As Perception grew with the kayak market, it expanded operations internationally to Chester, England in 1982 and New Zealand in 1986. Along the way, Masters developed and registered 30+ patents in boat design, plastics manufacturing, computers and heat transfer and used these patents to keep Perception at the forefront of the industry.

As George Sayour noted in his article, Perception’s introduction of plastic kayaks changed the industry. Its durability, suitability for mass production and distribution, and low cost made owning a kayak affordable.

The First Fiberglass Technologies Workshop

New ideas about engineering and culture

Perception also offered Masters the opportunity to refine his ideas about process engineering and corporate culture. The company had an honor code and maintained a company book, a history of learning, which documented lessons learned in product development and manufacturing. Bill expected his employees to read the book, absorb its lessons, and make their own contributions.

Perception continued to grow throughout the 80s and into the 90s, producing successful lines of kayaks and canoes. As early as 1984, however, Masters had begun to speak openly about vacating his role as President of the company he founded. 1984 also saw the launch of Aquaterra, a touring kayak division, which was eventually folded into the Perception lineup.

Bill makes a successful exit.

In 1987, Perception’s sales manager, Joe Pulliam, left Perception to work for Blue Hole Canoe and eventually founded Dagger Canoe. Dagger emerged as the first serious competition for Perception, although Pulliam had a two-year non-compete agreement that initially kept Dagger out of kayaks and in canoes. In 1990 Dagger introduced its first kayak, the Response.

Bill would eventually exit Perception altogether when he sold the company to Crescent Capital, which then acquired Dagger, and both companies were put under the Watermark Paddlesports holding company. Watermark was eventually acquired by Confluence Holdings, an industry platform consolidating multiple kayak and canoe brands.

The Perception logo consists of a W and M, for William Masters, interlocking to form a canoe.

Hear the story behind Perception Kayaks

Bill’s happy to share the lessons learned from his work in the watersports industry. Learn more about booking Bill for your next conference, company retreat or academic lecture series.