Puget Sound Business Journal
November 25, 2005
by Heidi Dietrich, staff writer
For one week in June, a self-proclaimed "chubby Jewish businessman" and 32 of his closest friends, business partners, and clients catch king salmon on the Kanektok River in southwest Alaska.
Though investment banker John Siegler isn't the type to climb mountains every weekend, he relishes his 12-year tradition with the remote fly-fishing lodge group Alaska West. Having pulled off multimillion-dollar transactions earlier in the year, the CEOs and venture capitalists can kick back and fish.
"Everyone is an equal when they're fly fishing," Siegler said. "It's the perfect place to mix and match best friends and best clients."
Siegler is just one of the business and pleasure clients who sign up for Alaska West fishing trips each summer. Though the operation is long running, Alaska West changed ownership a year and a half ago.
Now, 31-year-old Andrew Bennett operates the fast-growing parent company, Deneki Outdoors, from his home in Seattle's Phinney Ridge neighborhood. Bennett has spent the last year and a half making improvements at the Alaska camp and, just one month ago, opened a second fly-fishing lodge in the Bahamas.
The Alaska West operation is already profitable, and Bennett expects profitability in the Bahamas next year. This year, Deneki will bring in more than $750,000 in revenue.
Bennett grew up around fishing in Fairbanks, Alaska, before he left the state to attend Dartmouth College. After graduating, he and four other college buddies started Onyx Software in a basement in Issaquah. He spent a total of nine years at Onyx, and ended up running the company's consulting and professional services division for the Americas and meeting his future wife.
Since Bennett had always wanted to run his own small business, he began to ponder sectors he felt personally passionate about, which included music and the outdoors. When he came across a remote fly-fishing lodge for sale called Alaska West, he figured he had a shot at growing the business. He bought the company in May 2004.
In his year and a half as head of Deneki, Bennett has invested in new boats and motors and focused on sales and marketing to make sure trips are full. The company runs 12 trips a year, with 22 people on each trip, and the schedule was 85 percent to 88 percent full for the past two seasons. Certain parts of the summer, such as high season for silver and king salmon, sell out fast.
This fall, Bennett began offering bonefishing trips to the Bahamas. The Bahamas operation allows Bennett to balance the short 12-week Alaska fishing season with a full eight months of warm weather expeditions.
Located on Andros Island, the Bahamas site is called Andros South and consists of a no-frills hotel on a white-sand beach. The group drives 10 minutes each day to tide flats where bonefish -- silvery fish averaging 3 to 5 pounds -- swim in the shallow tropical waters.
Peter Corbett, co-owner of Seattle-based fly-fishing shop Creekside Angling, said the Bahamas represents a growing market for fishing expeditions. Creekside Angling now runs three trips a year to warm-water destinations, Corbett said.
"There's a big demand for the Bahamas," Corbett said.
As a sharp contrast to the Bahamas beachfront hotel, the Alaska West camp is situated in a remote, low tundra region of Alaska and contains a combination of permanent wood-frame buildings and steel-frame tents. Dining and lounge tents provide places for groups to socialize in the evenings. The camp has its own electrical and water systems, which are shut down in the winter. A nearby village, 15 minutes by boat from the camp, is home to 400 native people known as Yupiks.One of the Yupik villagers looks after the camp during the cold off-season.
Since Bennett bought the company, the camp has become more efficient and more aesthetically pleasing, Siegler said. The rugged culture remains.
"They haven't lost the kind of informality that makes it unique," Siegler said.
Unlike firms with more expensive fishing trips where guests stay in plush lodges, Deneki targets avid fishermen and women who don't mind rustic living.
"You'll be warm and dry and fed well, but don't expect the Four Seasons," Bennett said.
Siegler has been a repeat customer for so long because of the stellar fishing. The mosquitos bite like crazy and the flat Eskimo village doesn't have the natural beauty of Alaska's misty fjords, Siegler said, but guests catch plenty of large fish.
Most customers are men; only 10 percent to 15 percent are female. The fact that the camp doesn't have flush toilets weeds out some women, Bennett said. The majority of clients are upper-middle-class people who are willing to spend a fair amount on fishing, Bennett said.
Some groups, like Siegler's, have been coming for years. One set of clients dubbed "The Judge and the General" by the Alaska West team is led by a retired Oregon Supreme Court justice and a former Navy brigadier general, both over 80.
Remote fly-fishing trips don't come cheap. Deneki's trips, which Bennett says are mid-range, go for $4,350 for the Alaska week and $2,950 for the Bahamas. Since the Bahamas location is in a small town, the camp doesn't need a costly generator and water system.
Both Alaska and the Bahamas provide ample competition for fly-fishing businesses. Dave McCoy, owner of Seattle-based booking agent Emerald Water Anglers, said fly-fishing operators flock to Alaska because it's seen as a the best place to catch big fish and a lot of fish. The Bahamas appeals to baby boomers looking for warmer weather adventures, McCoy said.
Bennett plans to continue to expand Deneki to other fishing locations. He has his eye on remote trout fishing in Southern Argentina's Patagonia, steelhead fishing in British Columbia, and trout fishing in the Rocky Mountains. Since saltwater warm-weather fishing is seeing growth industrywide, Bennett may also look at operations in Belize, Mexico or Costa Rica.
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