Whether it’s kayaking, cliff jumping, hiking or spelunking, Craig Carlton can master it all. A 55-year-old with long, ruffled hair and a constant tan, Carlton is active and always seeking adventure. Carlton started his own outdoor adventure business, South by Southwest, five years ago with his wife and partner Brandy Carlton. The two of them have worked hard to grow their business into a successful career that they hope to pass down to their children.
South by Southwest is a company in Cottonwood, Arizona that offers kayaking tours, adventure camps and outdoor activities to people of all ages. Utilizing the Verde River and the land around it, the Carltons spend their days teaching others how to kayak, as well as lead people on hiking and caving explorations and creating activities for kids during summer camps. They work together to share the adventures of the world with others. They each perform different jobs that keep their company working well.
Craig is the front man. He leads the kayaking tours and teaches customers the ins and outs of nature. Craig is the main guide and he spends most of his time on the Verde River. He’s the typical outdoorsy type, who doesn’t care if he needs to take a quick shower in the river water. He loves to be outside and said he is always looking for new places to discover.
“We’ve always loved going on different journeys together,” Craig said. “When we first started dating, 27 years ago, we went exploring all the time.”
Living in Arizona, the couple would spend most of their weekends at a random beach in Mexico or hiking to hidden waterfalls. They took their passion for the wilderness and turned it into a business. Now, they have the opportunity to do what they love and get paid for it.
With a degree in business from Grand Canyon University, Brandy crunches the numbers and runs the operation. She handles the business and legal aspects such as the company website and copyright issues. She deals with paperwork, sales and the shop where they sell supplies like water-shoes and flashlights. Spending most of her time in the shop, she carries herself in a professional manner. However, she is always ready to help outside. Keeping her blonde hair up and out of her face, she is prepared to help transport customers and load boats with Craig. While other couples could be wary when it comes to working with their spouse, Brandy said she and Craig feed off their teamwork.
“We ignored all the cliche warnings,” Brandy said. “Everyone always tells you not to work with your significant other, but that’s actually how we met. We work better together and we make a great team.”
With Brandy working the logistics and Craig out on the water, they have formed a cohesive team and effective business. Although they are successful together, it was not an easy road to get there. They outlined the problems they had to overcome along the way.
“In the beginning, we had to work twice as hard and got paid half as much,” Brandy said.
Craig agreed, adding that their motivation is what got them through the difficult times.
“Maintaining diligence and energy is what got us past the ‘three-year hump,’” Craig said.
The Carltons explained that the “three-year hump” is the hardest part about owning a business. Getting started and staying afloat can be the most challenging part. They described the amount of extra work and little reward they got in return, and how that can be discouraging. However, they pushed through and stayed dedicated.
Although the Carltons just recently started this business, they have always been the adventurous type. Growing up in Arizona, they’ve had the opportunity to visit the Grand Canyon. However, the Carltons have done much more than just visit. They have hiked to the bottom of the Grand Canyon at least once a year for the past 20 years. They take their children and their friends, and plan to continue hiking down and camping for as long as they can.
Before they worked together to form a business, the Carltons worked in Child Protective Services. Working for different companies, they spent their days helping families reunite. However, it was not always sunshine and good news. Often times, they had to report parental neglect and decide that the children should not return home, for their own safety. The Carltons said this kind of work was draining and hard to live with. Craig was the first to leave, and Brandy followed shortly after.
Now, Craig loves what he does, despite the physical strain it places on him. He explained how he continues to do strenuous work like carrying heavy boats, rafting through rapids and helping others out on the water.
“When you do what you love, the physical exasperations don’t seem to matter as much,” he said. “Besides, working outside every day keeps me in better shape anyway.”
Brandy and Craig said they hope to continue working and building South by Southwest until it is time for their retirement. Then, they want to pass their legacy onto their four children and many grandchildren.
Although all of their kids help out, their youngest son, Dylan Carlton, helps them the most. He spends his summers working at camps and kayaking alongside his father. Dylan is currently training to be a firefighter, — therefore has certifications in techniques in first aid and water safety — and he has taken EMT training classes. He said he enjoys helping his parents at work.
“Most parents have pretty boring jobs,” Dylan said. “But how cool is it that I get to say my parents are outdoor adventure guides?”
Dylan said he loves working with his parents and siblings. He has always had a desire for adventure. Although he plans on becoming a firefighter, he also wants to keep the business going after his parents retire.
“This business has brought us closer as a family,” he said. “We all get to spend more time together, and it really is a lot of fun. Even though we’ll each be doing our own thing, I think we’ll be able to keep it going by working together.”
Dylan and his siblings plan to each work a few days at the shop. That way, each of them can have their own careers, while still keeping the family business up and running. With the Carltons’ first two daughters already having husbands and kids, they expect their grandchildren to jump in and help out as soon as they’re old enough.
“Creating a family business wasn’t what I always planned to do,” Craig said. “But it turns out to be a lot more fun than I would’ve thought. I get to spend time with my wife and kids, doing what makes me happy. The best part is that I can see they are happy too.”