Carrying on a tradition: New NOC president Sutton Bacon brings paddling, business savvy
By Michael Beadle
Sutton Bacon once had dreams of becoming a surgeon.
But ever since a canoe trip down the Nantahala River at the age of 10, he’s returned to the waters of Western North Carolina year after year. Now, the avid paddler plans to carve out an exciting future as president of the internationally acclaimed outdoor recreation company known as Nantahala Outdoor Center.
“This is a dream job for me,” Bacon said. “I always wanted a job where I could listen to a river at work.”
Dressed in a fleece jacket, shorts and sandals, Bacon isn’t quite the buttoned-up executive you might expect to see running a company that employs 550 people in peak summer season with a $15 million annual budget. Then again, NOC is not your average business.
There’s a culture at NOC that’s built its success by balancing values with profits over the last 35 years. Bacon intends to maintain that balance, securing the bottom line but also fostering the employees’ eclectic, fun-loving, conservation-minded philosophy. The Wesser-based company is Swain County’s largest employer and one of the biggest outdoor recreation companies in the U.S. As NOC celebrates its 35th year in operation this year, Bacon takes over as only the third president in the company’s history.
What he may lack in age — he’s 27 — he makes up in enthusiasm for paddling and the outdoors. He’s paddled all kinds of rivers from California to the Carolinas and can navigate through Class V rapids. His stellar resume includes starting his own dot.com business out of a college dorm room and later teaming up with friends to build an Atlanta-based consulting firm whose Fortune-500 clients included Coca-Cola, Hasbro, and Home Depot.
Oh yeah, he’s also a four-time Grammy Award winner as a member of the Atlanta Symphony Chorus. The group records about three classical albums a year, and Bacon has not only sung tenor on some of those award-winning records; he’s performed three times at Carnegie Hall, with the Berlin Philharmonic and in Los Angeles and Chicago.
“That’s my fun fact,” he said. “I’m a classical music nerd.”
He’s even a member of the National Academy of Recording Arts and Sciences, the group that gets to cast votes for the Grammies.
It’s just part of the diversity at NOC that Bacon has come to appreciate over the years. Whether it’s doctors who come for the summer to work as rafting guides (at a fraction of their regular salary) or retirees looking for a tourist destination or college kids hungry for a whitewater thrill, NOC welcomes a wide range of people seeking a one-of-a-kind experience.
“There’s just something that attracts people here for a reason and keeps people here,” Bacon said.
NOC is widely regarded as a mecca for paddlers and outdoor enthusiasts. National Geographic Adventure magazine rated NOC as the Number One Vacation with a Splash, and last summer the company was featured on Good Morning America. NOC operates on seven rivers — the Nantahala, Pigeon, French Broad, Ocoee, Nolichucky, Chattooga, and most recently the Cheoah.
Advertising itself as the “Harvard of Whitewater Paddling,” NOC regularly attracts Olympic and national team paddlers, and offers whitewater certification courses, wilderness medicine classes and a rafting guide school that teaches everything from paddling techniques to river rescue and equipment maintenance. NOC has expanded into resorts (with cabin rentals and the new Nantahala Inn) and group outdoor education programs that cater to everyone from corporate groups to family reunions.
And if you’re looking for something beyond the U.S., NOC Adventure Travel packages also take paddlers to rivers in Chile, Costa Rica, Panama, Jamaica and Florida’s Everglades. NOC’s retail store boasts some of the best paddling and outdoor sporting gear in the country.
Though Bacon has never before worked at NOC, he’s rafted its rivers for the past two decades and knows many of the staff on a first-name basis through his visits and while working as a board member and president for Sylva-based American Whitewater, a nationally known conservation group.
As a kid, he would drive up to NOC with his mom to hunt for used kayaks and paddling gear at the annual Guest Appreciation Festival. Now, Bacon takes great pride in carrying on the legacy that legendary founder Payson Kennedy built when the Whitewater Hall of Fame paddler started up NOC with his wife Aurelia and friend Horace Holden back in 1972.
“I’m succeeding a real titan in this industry,” Bacon said. “He’s a remarkable, remarkable human being.”
Payson Kennedy served as president of NOC until 1997, then came back to run the company as an interim president in 2004. There was talk of selling NOC, and Bacon’s investment group, Nantahala Partners, was rumored to be one of the prospective buyers, but NOC’s board decided to stay employee-owned and local.
Now Kennedy can paddle off into the sunset knowing a fellow paddler and businessman is at the helm of NOC.
“I’m enjoying it already,” Kennedy said.
Having gotten to know Bacon over the last year and a half, Kennedy has nothing but praise for his successor — an expert paddler and someone widely known in the whitewater industry and in river conservation.
While Kennedy plans to continue guiding whitewater rafting trips at NOC — and his home is adjacent to the NOC campus — he’ll step away from the day-to-day management of the business. That leaves more time for travel and to go on biking trips overseas with his wife.
“He’s been ready for a break,” said Wayne Dickert, a 1996 canoeing Olympian and paddling school director at NOC. “It’s good to see a smile on his face again.”
And while Bacon wasn’t even born when NOC first began, his fresh ideas and business savvy will bring a lot to the company, Dickert agrees.
“We’ve done a lot of paddling together on the Tallulah [River],” Dickert said of Bacon. “I think he can do a good job. He’s got a lot of ideas.”
Crossing over the Founder’s Bridge at Nantahala Outdoor Center overlooking the Nantahala River, Bacon explains one of those ideas, a long-range plan that might take several years to put in place.
Along the river corridor where the Nantahala runs through its main campus, NOC is looking at altering the stream bed to create more “rodeo waves,” where freestyling paddlers can do tricks like flips, somersaults and surfing. It can also become more of a tourist attraction, a place to watch kayakers test their skills.
The Great Smoky Mountains Railroad brings in some 200,000 people along the Nantahala each year, according to Bacon, and NOC can draw on those crowds to boost local tourism. While plenty come for the water, others come just to shop, hike, eat or stay overnight at one of NOC’s cabins.
Making adjustments to the Nantahala River will take some planning and cooperation with the U.S. Park Service, local businesses and tourism organizations like AdvantageWest, but Bacon believes it could become a real boon for the region.
On an unusually warm January afternoon, Bacon explains that the river is actually warmer now that it is in mid-summer. That’s because the dam-released water during the summer comes from the cold bottom of Lake Fontana. NOC owns about 450 acres along the Nantahala — about 850 acres in all along its seven river sites — but the outdoor recreation company has become much more than a rafting destination. There are three restaurants and a pub on the way this spring. NOC received its liquor license last fall to serve wine and beer, but Bacon is quick to note that delicate balance of offering beer while maintaining the family atmosphere that welcomes church groups and throngs of young kids. During peak summer months, NOC becomes inundated with paddlers in brightly colored kayaks and canoes that bottleneck in the narrow stretches of the busy river. So how does NOC thwart those traffic jams?
“Sometimes you can’t,” Bacon admits.
After all, many come to NOC looking for a fun time with lots of people.
“Our staff has the ability to change lives,” Bacon says. And that’s a sacred responsibility and trust he intends to honor. In fact, Bacon can already see himself retiring at NOC. He and his girlfriend, Natalie Whiteman, an attorney in Atlanta and also a paddler, have a tandem canoe they use on the Nantahala. Bacon would love to see his kids grow up on the banks of the river.
Come spring, he’ll be in that same river he fell in love with 17 years ago.