On A Roll
Key Log Rolling CEO Abby Hoeschler ’06 has turned a family legacy of athletic excellence into a viable business.
Photo| Steve Davis, Aperture - Abby Hoeschler ’06 (r.) competes against her sister, Elizabeth Horvitz, at the 2016 Log Rolling World Championships.
The petite, 5’2” Hoeschler, 29, is the world record holder in the boom run, having covered the 60-yard distance in 2011 over unstable, spinning logs – in the water – in just 13.98 seconds. You see, she is the daughter of a seven-time world champion in Judy Scheer Hoeschler and the sister of three siblings who also have earned international titles at the Lumberjack World Championships. A native of La Crosse, Wisc., Hoeschler is also president and CEO of Golden, Valley, Minnesota-based Key Log Rolling, the first company in the world to manufacture synthetic logs meant to teach – and hook – neophytes on the sport her family loves so much. Hoeschler’s ultimate mission is to expand the traditional pastime beyond its relatively limited base. Though Hoeschler always loved competing in and teaching the chosen sport of the American lumberjack, she never considered the possibility of rolling it into a career until her graduation from Middlebury (with a degree in art history) coincided with a business idea long held by her parents.
As a longtime teacher and advocate of the water sport, Hoeschler opened her own log rolling school near her family’s Wisconsin home when she was only 13. For her Sixth Form Independent Study Project at St. Paul’s, she initiated log rolling programs at the Concord and Manchester, N.H., YMCAs. She also taught the sport at Middlebury, where her fellow students earned physical education credits for their participation.
Still, Hoeschler never imagined she could convert log rolling into a career. But in 2010, soon after her graduation from Middlebury, Hoeschler was working on a ranch in Wyoming, where she met a female entrepreneur who encouraged her to see if she could make her knowledge and love for the lumberjack sport into a business. Armed with her parents’ idea of creating a synthetic, portable log for widespread recreational use, Hoeschler started Key Log Rolling that year. “I thought, ‘Let’s see where we can take it,’” Hoeschler recalls. “If it didn’t pan out in two years, I thought maybe I would let it go.”
A Bit of Serendipity
Hoeschler’s journey from boom running, log rolling champion to CEO included what she refers to as a bit of serendipity. First, she ran into Mike Cichanowski, founder and lead designer of Wenonah Canoe in Wenonah, Minn., and shared her plan to manufacture a synthetic log. At the time, Hoeschler had not yet figured out how to outsource the design and testing of the Key Log – but Cichanowski had a suggestion.
The canoe expert helped put her in touch with two student engineers at the Uni-versity of Minnesota, enrolled in the nation’s only composite undergraduate engineering program. Their task? To help Hoeschler create a lightweight log in the image of the nearly 500-pound Western Red Cedar preferred by lumberjacks for its superior buoyancy. Though their hand-built prototypes, crafted out of carbon fiber on the floor of a garage, went through several iterations before the final design was accepted, the first time Hoeschler tested the imposter log in the water, she knew her mathematically in-clined friends had gotten it right.
“I had prepared myself to fail the first time, but I was so surprised,” says Hoeschler. “It wasn’t a finished product, but I knew the design was really accurate.” In another bit of serendipity, Hoeschler arranged with Cichanowski to manufacture the synthetic logs at Wenonah Canoe, not far from Key Log’s headquarters in Golden Valley, using the mold created by the student engineers. The final product weighs only 65 pounds, but balloons to 486 pounds when filled with water at the user’s destination, emulating its Western Red Cedar inspiration. Hoeschler soon discovered that she was able to strap the synthetic log to her car’s roof rack – by herself – and everything seemed to fall into place. “That was a game changer,” she says. “I knew that if we could make the sport accessible to people, it could grow.”
Finding the Market
Before long, Hoeschler invested in a mold to manufacture Key Logs at Wenonah Canoe, though a new challenge of log durability needed some consideration before manufacturing could begin in earnest. One of the durability problems encountered by Hoeschler and the Key Log engineers involved adding traction to the log surface. Hoeschler went so far as to consult engineers at 3M (the tape makers) on adhesives. Eventually, Hoeschler’s team stumbled upon the idea of manually grinding up the surface of the high-density polyethylene to create the needed footing.
It was 2013 before Hoeschler began taking orders for Key Logs. Many of them were the result of a new facet of the business for the company’s CEO – salesmanship. Summer camps were the first viable market for Hoeschler’s logs, and she sold 70 of them in the first year. Meanwhile, M.B.A. students at the University of Minnesota’s business school worked for a semester on pricing strategy, using the fledgling Key Log Rolling company as its test case.
“Each group looked at a different segment of the market,” Hoeschler recalls. “They identified early on that summer camps would be a good entry point. They are always looking for new activities for the kids, they have waterfronts, and they have staff who want to learn.”
Next, Hoeschler targeted college recreation and physical education programs and those of parks and rec departments and YMCAs, where she had found early interest in log rolling. Indiana University bought six Key Logs in that initial foray into the college market. To date, Hoeschler and her family have sparked nearly 400 log rolling programs in 47 states and seven countries. Eight of the Big Ten schools now offer log rolling (ironically, the University of Wisconsin is one of the two that has not yet introduced the sport, though Hoeschler is working on it). In the college market alone, there are currently more than 100 institutions, armed with Key Logs, who now tout the sport to recreational fun-seekers. The schools span from Vermont to California, including three universities in Alabama, plus UCLA, Texas A&M, Texas Christian University, and Dartmouth College, among many others.
“We were early adopters of the Key Log at the campus recreation level,” says Emily Ward, the former aquatics director at Indiana University (IU), who now serves as director of national sales and program development at Key Log. “We had been trying to figure out how to attract new users to the pool. The logs were the lightbulb.”
When the Key Logs first arrived on the IU campus, recreational staff did not know what to make of them. That’s when Ward decided to attend a conference where she knew she could meet Hoeschler. Shortly after that meeting, Abby and her mother, Judy, were invited to campus to train the IU staff on the basics of log rolling. Over the first two semesters of IU’s log rolling program, Ward calculated that 452 community members tried the Key Logs in the campus’s three swimming pools.
“For 52 percent of them, this was their first time in the pool,” Ward adds. “It’s a single activity that engages the user at all levels. Abby’s enthusiasm is infectious – so authentic and genuine. And people love that this is a small company started by a family of world-champion log rollers. There is built-in credibility.”
Hoeschler teaches log rolling at Lake Calhoun in Minneapolis through the city’s Parks and Rec Department, one of the first adopters of the Key Log. The lightweight, synthetic logs are designed for beginners, with yellow trainers that slow and stabilize the log, providing resistance and limiting the spin speed so that new users are able to try the sport and build confidence in their abilities.
Bringing the Midwest Abroad
The Hoeschlers, led by Abby and her mother, also have brought a little bit of the Midwest to the inter national scene. Through a sister city exchange between La Crosse, Wisc., and Épinal, France, the Hoeschlers became acquainted a decade ago with the European enclave. Épinal now is the proud owner of two Key Logs, which are used in city pools and at local summer camps. The Hoeschlers also have introduced log rolling in Canada, Mexico, Australia, Austria, and Switzerland.
“That’s really encouraging for us,” says Hoeschler of the international growth. “We want to see the sport grow. We’d like to see it in the Olympics one day. Nobody knows what the international log rolling championships look like, but everyone can picture the Olympics.”
The idea is picking up steam. In 2013, the first year of Key Log availability, Outside Magazine named the log one of the five best new products on the market. The following year, Hoeschler was named by the Minneapolis/St. Paul Business Journal as one of its “40 Under 40” young entrepreneurs. The New York Times featured a Q&A with Hoeschler in its July 11, 2015, edition. In 2016, Hoeschler was invited by USA Swimming to demonstrate the Key Logs at the Olympic trials in Omaha, Neb., where local news stations picked up on her enthusiasm and that of dozens of children sampling the sport. Also in the summer of 2016, Hoeschler and Key Log competed in the Minnesota Cup, the largest statewide business competition in the country. Key Log outlasted more than 1,500 competitors to make it to the final round of the general business division, where the company earned runner-up honors. “It was a grueling process, but we learned that our business was strong,” she says.
Made for Beginners
As of this writing, there are more than 700 Key Logs out there in the world. Hoeschler projects that 2017 should produce sales of 380 synthetic logs, with a projection of nearly a $1 million in sales (one Key Log is $2,150). For now, Key Logs are built for beginners. Hoeschler and her engineers even devel-oped a feature she likens to training wheels; yellow trainers that slow and stabilize the log, providing resistance and limiting the spin speed so that new users are able to try the sport and build confidence in their abilities.
Plans are underway for a mold that would create logs fit for use in competition. “Key Logs are made for beginners and intermediates. They were never for myself,” Hoeschler says. “I just want others to fall in love with the sport and have a chance to participate. Physically, the benefits are huge – core, footwork, cardio. More than that, it’s just fun. And I get to see people fall in love with the sport I love.”