AZTEC — As a river guide, Jack Kloepfer knows first-hand about the importance of rafting equipment and "how people screw it up." "I thought I could build a better product," he said.
And that idea led Kloepfer to start this own plastic welding company, which has operated in Aztec for more than 30 years.
In two adjacent storefronts along Main Street, Kloepfer and the employees of Jack's Plastic Welding produce a wide variety of inflatable boats, sleeping pads, dry bags and other whitewater rafting equipment.
Kloepfer founded the business in 1982. As a river rafting guide, his summers were booked, but he needed a job for the colder months. The company initially manufactured river gear in the winter, but the items' popularity quickly evolved into a full-time workload.
Things kicked into overdrive in summer 1983. Kloepfer applied for a job as a river guide with the late Ted Hatch, a key figure in the river-running industry who ran Hatch River Expeditions in sites such as the Grand Canyon and Utah. Kloepfer mentioned he was creating dry bags, waterproof sacks that protect gear.
"He said he would a buy a hundred," Kloepfer said. "We had a great relationship. Some of the bags sold in 1983 are still good."
That level of quality and service brings people back to the company to purchase river rafting items, as well as a variety of industrial equipment for the oil and gas industry, said Errol Baade, general manager of Jack's Plastic Welding.
"Why a lot of people like us is the fact we're small, and we get a lot of people looking for U.S.-made, and they are willing to pay the price," Baade said. "We had a big jump in sales that wasn't expected, and we would rather put our quality above getting the thing out the door."
Since 2000, the company has made an effort to expand the number of industrial products it offers, after much of their work dried up with the drought that year.
"We decided if the rivers were going to dry up, we had to get work someplace else," Kloepfer said.
But river equipment is still a key part of the business. The company is part of the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education and sells its rafts, boats and other equipment to colleges and universities throughout the Southwest, including San Juan College in Farmington, Fort Lewis College in Durango, Colo., and Prescott College in Prescott, Ariz.
"We know the environment down here, and our stuff is geared toward the Southwest," said Kloepfer, who — along with his wife, Laurie, a retired educator — lives in Durango.
During a tour of the company's Aztec showroom and warehouse on Tuesday, Kloepfer showed off the first inflatable stand-up paddle board he built and the current model he's working on.
Kloepfer says Jack's Plastic Welding is the only company that builds an all-welded, stand-up inflatable paddle board, which, by eliminating glue failure, has a longer longevity. The company is preparing to show its paddle board at Outdoor Retailer, a huge outdoor products trade show next month in Salt Lake City.
Kloepfer said he liked the idea of being able to sit down and paddle with a board that's comfortable and also great for fishing.
In the past, the company sold many pontoon rafts, but now more people are purchasing self-bailing river rafts and fishing boats. Paco Pads — durable, self-inflating sleeping pads — and dry bags are also among the top sellers.
Aside from the actual equipment, Kloepfer said the relationships he forges with his employees are his favorite part of running the business.
"I've been real fortunate that we got a core crew that I don't have a problem with. They do the work, and they trust me," Kloepfer said. "It's not about building boats, it's about building humans."