WARROAD, Minn. – The story of Northern Toboggan runs as deep as the snow on which the products crafted by this second-generation family business can ride.
It’s a story of old and new. Of tradition and technology, the latter in the form of social media, digital marketing and e-commerce. New techniques for selling hand-crafted products that have been around for hundreds of years.
It’s a story of family ties. And like a toboggan sailing down a hill, it’s been a joyous ride.
“We have this really fascinating story of the man who started this company using a centuries-old process,” said Gabriel Harren of Minneapolis, a partner in the family business with his older brother, Jackson, of Warroad. “His kids got involved, and it’s bending wood, (a process) which is fascinating to people.”
The story began in the early ’90s, when John Harren, a Warroad craftsman with family ties to northern Manitoba, became aware of the need for toboggans in remote communities of the North. He learned the trade through a Thompson, Man., mentor by the name of Milton Chaboyer and started a small shop in Warroad in 1995.
His two sons now own the business – Jackson oversees production and manufacturing, and Gabriel handles sales and marketing – but the elder Harren remains involved as shop manager as he transitions into retirement.
Jackson’s wife, Solveig, runs the administrative side of the business and connects with customers.
Arctic to Arizona
Northern Toboggan products today can be found from the arctic to Arizona; basically, anywhere there’s snow. The company markets its products to northern Canada through the Arctic Co-op, a distribution network servicing 32 communities in Nunavut, Northwest Territories, the Yukon and northern Manitoba.
Online sales drive the rest of their business.
“Over the years, we’ve just kind of expanded into different products and to different customers,” Jackson Harren said. “That kind of led us to what we have today, which is a combination of different sizes of toboggans, sleds, snowshoes and outdoor hand-made quality wooden equipment.”
The division of labor comes naturally for the brothers and their respective careers. Jackson manages the engineering department at Marvin, the window and door plant in Warroad, and Gabriel works in IT sales and marketing for Solution Design Group in Golden Valley, Minn.
“I’ve always been kind of the dreamer/big thinker, and my brother is just a phenomenal systems thinker-executor-leader,” Gabriel Harren said in a phone interview. “He keeps us grounded, and I keep us looking forward. I think my biggest contributions are driving the strategy of the organization and then the sales and marketing from largely a digital standpoint.”
Northern Toboggan, the brothers say, is like a family farm.
“You’re born into it – it’s just a way of life,” Gabriel said. “We’ve always worked in a toboggan company. When you have a family farm, you know what you’re doing in the spring and fall, right? You’re planting and harvesting. And so we’re in a very similar situation where it was just always part of our lives.
“So it’s exciting to see the growth. And then there’s also just that pigheaded conviction that there’s no way this business is going to sunset with Dad’s retirement. That’s just not an option.”
In the shop
On a cold Friday morning in early January, Jackson, Solveig and their 5-year-old son, Jean-Paul, showed a visitor around the Northern Toboggan shop, situated in a grove of trees east of Warroad and a few miles south of Lake of the Woods.
John Koets, an apprentice craftsman, was at work building toboggans for the U.S. National Toboggan Championships set for Feb. 7-9 in Camden, Maine. A few other projects, including snowshoe frames, awaited completion but overall, the shop was less crowded than it was during the Christmas rush.
Basic tools of the trade, including saws, sanders, joiners and dust collecting equipment, filled the shop floor.
“That’s kind of the basis of any woodshop,” Jackson said. “But we’ve upgraded the size of the equipment and the capability, for sure, over the years.”
Most of Northern Toboggan’s products are made from ash, which they order from Wisconsin, and red oak from eastern Canada, which they buy from a distributor in Winnipeg, Jackson says. The timetable from order to shipment typically is about three weeks, he says – less if it’s a product already in stock.
“It depends on our backlog, but if you think about a day for wood processing and bending, and then it needs to dry for a week,” Jackson said. “And then, you know, a few hours to assemble and then it needs to be finished and dried and packaged.”
The shop is set up to easily switch from making toboggans to snowshoes or other products as the need arises, he said.
“I know that’s been a challenge this year for the guys as we’ve been taking on more and more products and growing our sales more and more,” Jackson said. “Sometimes, you can hardly walk through here, but we try to just flow things through it.”
Ready to compete
The brothers also will be racing in the upcoming toboggan championships. The racing toboggans, Jackson says, are “pretty well customized” to optimize speed. About “16 or 17” Northern Toboggan-crafted racers will compete in the championships, he said.
“We have several customers that we’re working with directly on customization for the race,” Jackson said. “It’s kind of like Ford and NASCAR, right? You want your sleds to win.”
While Northern Toboggan has been an event sponsor for previous championships, actually racing will be a first. Competitors race their toboggans down an ice chute, and the event is based on times.
“I think you close your eyes and hope for the best,” Jackson said with a smile. “The engineering and the work and the preparation that you do before they say go is what matters.”
Northern Toboggan recently wrapped up a Kickstarter campaign, offering a prototype 1800s-era toboggan made with traditional 1800s materials in exchange for a pledge of $500 or more. For an additional $150 pledge, Northern Toboggan included a waxed cotton toboggan pad, and pledges of $680 or more received a custom engraved nameplate with text of their choice, in addition to the toboggan and pad.
Anyone who pledged $100 or more received a winter jacket with the Northern Toboggan logo.
A total of 18 backers pledged more than $6,000 during the 30-day funding period that ended in early December, exceeding the family’s $5,000 goal.
“What it forced us to do is do about a year’s worth of marketing and PR outreach in 45 days,” Gabriel said. “So it was pretty intense, and it was successful. We’re very excited about the outcome, getting our pledge amounts and then also just the awareness that it brought to Northern Toboggan company.”
Whether for utility or recreation, the people who buy Northern Toboggan products are dads and grandpas and people of all ages, Solveig Harren says.
“They’re wanting something that will be long lasting for their family to use for many years, and they remember, they have memories” of riding toboggans as kids, she said. “And so they usually have a story to tell. And then we can help them continue making stories for their own children and grandchildren.
“We feel like we work with happy people when they reach out to us. They’re excited because they want to play and have good gear to be out and enjoy the winter. They have great questions because they want to educate themselves if they’re going to make that investment. So it’s fun.”
On the Web: northerntoboggan.com.