Sportsmans Outdoor Products

Published: 28th July 2010
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Sportsman's Outdoor Items

Exciting, Innovative & Resourceful

By Bill & Sherry Krenz
Sportsman's Outdoor Products

In business there are two worlds. First is the world of sales figures and profit and loss. It's a world we can measure six ways to Sunday from the very top to the bottom line. The second world, however, is one we can only feel.

It's the excitement of business, the innovation and often the resourcefulness of it all. Only when the two worlds combine does something truly special happen.

"I was going to college at BYU during the day," says John Tilby, "and working in a local archery shop in the evenings and on weekends. One day the archery shop ran out of a popular item--leather wrist slings. Having long been the resourceful type, I told the shop manager not to worry. I went home that night, rounded up some scrap leather and my old leather-working tools from scouts and made up several samples. The next day I presented those samples to the shop owner. He liked what he saw, bought my samples and committed to more. I went to a Tandy Leather Factory store, bought more leather and better tools and quite suddenly I was in the wrist-sling business.

"Within weeks I began thinking about armguards. I bought some heavy-duty Cordura fabric, and designed and managed to sew up an innovative Cordura armguard. The shop owner liked that as well and my product line suddenly doubled. So did my work load. I needed help.

"Tapping the free time, hands and talents of my friend and brother-in-law Ed Brewer, the two of us set up shop making slings and armguards in the tiny kitchen of my apartment. Ed was also attending BYU at the time and majoring in business. I called our enterprise Tilco Archery. The year was 1988."

What else did the local archery shops need? The two partners asked the question. and the answer was a quality, affordable polar-fleece fanny pack. "We can do that," the partners said in unison. "We'll have samples for you in two weeks."

"We rushed out and bought polar-fleece material from a local fabric shop," remembers Ed. "Then we pooled our funds and splurged on a used sewing machine, and just like that we were in the pack business."

Their next evolutionary step, almost something of an accident, would influence their lives for years to come.

John explains. "Every time we cut up a new batch of polar fleece for fanny packs, we ended up with small scraps of the material. Late one night--in between college books, cold pizza and a rattling sewing machine--we got an idea. If we took those small scraps, trimmed them into rectangles two inches wide, put multiple slits in the ends and tied them on a bowstring, we'd have great bowhunting silencers.

"We made up a few, tied them on our own bows and they looked, well, like big hairy tarantulas sitting on the bowstring. The very next day we took sample sets in to the local archery shop where I worked and let the owners, the manager and customers try them. Everyone loved them. They were soft and weatherproof, and they worked very well to dampen noise from string vibration. The name Tarantulas instantly stuck."

"At the time," adds Ed, "rubber Catwhiskers and yarn Puffs were the leading bowstring silencers for compound bows. Our Tarantula Fleece Silencers were lighter in weight so they had less effect on bow performance, and yet they seemed just as effective at reducing shot noise, a fact we confirmed with decibel-testing equipment on the BYU campus."

Timing is crucial in any business venture, and it seemed that right then the archery industry was looking for a new, faster and more water-repellant bowstring silencer.

"Being located in the Salt Lake Valley in Utah, we knew plenty of the key people that worked at both Hoyt and Browning Archery at the time," says John. "Many of those bow-company employees shot in leagues at the archery shop where I worked. We made sure they all got Tarantula samples. One thing led to another, and in no time Hoyt had generously agreed that if we would supply the Tarantula Silencers, they would send out free samples to every one of their far-flung dealers with their letter of recommendation. That sample program almost instantly put us on the nationwide archery map. And no matter what additional items we were to create in at least the next ten years, it effectively branded us as the Tarantula company."

With an expanding, creative, quality product line, the company began to grow.

"Fairly quickly we went from cutting and sewing in the kitchen of my apartment to working out of my mother's basement to taking over my grandmother's garage to landing in leased business space. With every move we quickly outgrew the space available. Early on we also changed the name of the company to Sportsman's Outdoor Items to better reflect our expanding interests and product line."

"Both John and I grew up in hunting families," declares Ed. "John was bowhunting deer and elk by the time he was in high school and I started shortly after that. We also thoroughly enjoyed rifle hunting, waterfowl hunting, predator hunting and, more recently, turkey hunting. That longstanding passion for and experience with hunting of all sorts has served us well in the context of growing Sportsman's Outdoor Products over the years. We seem to have a knack for seeing what hunters and our wholesale and retail partners need, and then designing innovative outdoor products to meet those needs. We've also been good at identifying emerging trends and visualizing what products will sell within those trends. Both of those things have led to a planned diversification of our product line."

Today, 21 years after John and Ed first began producing a limited number of archery accessories in John's apartment, Sportsman's Outdoor Products now offers no less than five distinct, branded product lines with a sixth brand on the way. Since the mid-1990s, the company has also been housed in its own 14,000-square-foot building, complete with offices, conference room, showroom and manufacturing, warehousing and shipping facilities. The five current product brands under the Sportsman's Outdoor Items umbrella are Tarantula Archery Products, Horn Hunter packs, Beard Buster turkey gear, Splash Waterfowl equipment and Snug-Fit custom-molded cases. In the works, and scheduled for a 2011 release, is Sly Dog predator-hunting gear.

Tarantula Archery Products includes quality bowstring silencers, bow slings, armguards, bow hooks, fleece silencing pads, bow carriers, quivers, bow holsters, optics accessories and superb bow cases of all sorts.

"Horn Hunter," Ed offers, "is a line of innovative hunting packs and accessories designed by hunters for real hunters. Every pack in the Horn Hunter lineup combines comfort with functionality. Prime examples include the versatile Mainbeam packs and the G2 Whitetail Pack, a pack that was designed specifically to solve the problems of treestand hunters.

"Turkey hunting represents a growing market, and our Beard Buster brand of inventive turkey-hunting gear gets rave reviews. It's also a market that is evolving, and we're staying on top of that. At one point multi-pocketed turkey vests were all the rage, but today more and more turkey hunters are utilizing portable blinds to hunt the big birds. As a result, we've retooled our Beard Buster line to focus on specialized turkey-blind packs and a host of superb accessories for blind hunters. The Beard Buster Blind Hog, for example, is an exceptional blind pack that is lightweight and yet will comfortably carry any hunter's blind, two chairs, decoys, clippers, your bow or shotgun and everything else that serious turkey hunters need in the woods.

"Splash Waterfowl offers ingenious decoy bags, blind packs, floating shotgun cases and bird keepers for dedicated waterfowl hunters.

"Snug-Fit grew out of our unique ability to produce exceptional outdoor-gear cases with foam interiors molded expressly to hold specific items securely in place. Binoculars and spotting-scope cases, for example, are molded inside to hold specific optics with a perfect fit. Pistol and tactical-rifle cases do the same thing.

"Building for a 2011 launch is Sly Dog, a lineup of specialty products for those serious predator hunters in our midst. Year-round predator hunting is another emerging market." Most of these brands and product lines have been created and are produced within the company's Sandy, Utah, facility.

"That's a bit different," states Ed Brewer. "Today an awful lot of the design and manufacturing of outdoor soft goods has been taken overseas by so many companies. We've consciously decided not to do that for a number of reasons. First, it allows us to totally control the quality and delivery of our products. Second, it enables us to work with customers of all sizes, including those who can't wait eight months for a delivery and don't need or want a container load of, say, bow cases. If someone required just a few hundred cases, customized with their logo and built exactly to their specifications, we can efficiently do that right here. Keeping most things here also allows us to better support the American economy, the American people and our valued employees. No company as large as ours can operate without skilled, caring people and we're fortunate to have an outstanding group, including our Shipping Manager Christi Larson, our Production Manager Ryan Nielsen, our Office Manager Allison Bowers, our Product Designer Alex Morales, our Accountant Vince Tilby and many others."

Any company that has managed to grow and thrive over 21 years, as Sportsman's Outdoor Products has done, has probably amassed a wealth of practical business experience. The best of them are often willing to share that experience.

"In our very first year we pulled together what money we had and exhibited at the archery industry's big, annual trade show," says John Tilby. "It was in Louisville that year and we drove halfway across the country to get there, but it proved well worth it for us. We felt then, and still do now, that the archery-industry trade show put us in front of a whole lot of archery dealers. We actually split a 10-foot booth with an outfitter that first year. He tried to sell hunts and we sold a surprising number of Tarantula silencers, armguards, wrist slings and a few packs. For us it was great.

"But quite possibly the biggest value of the archery trade show is that you learn so much about our industry, you see the trends, the direction things are going and you also meet the players. After 21 years of such trade shows, Ed and I can't walk down an aisle without bumping into someone we know and have probably worked with in one way or another, including retailers, distributors, sales reps, other manufacturers, outdoor writers and more."

"Designing and building good products isn't quite enough these days," adds Ed Brewer. "You've got to market those products, effectively getting the word out in a world already flooded with messages. The truth is that marketing decisions are increasingly difficult today, largely because you'll be pulled in so many directions-print ads, TV sponsorship, websites, Facebook and more. We've tried it all, and to be honest we've had the most success with print ads in magazines. It seems to us that TV is great for branding and for getting your name established, but we don't see TV prompting people to get up off the couch and go log onto your website and maybe buy a product. TV viewers today ignore product messages and often simply fast-forward through recorded programs to see only what they want to see, which is never the commercials."

"We've also had the best sales results with well-managed independent sales rep groups," explains John. "We have tried in-house telephone sales efforts, but have found that with our type of items, retailers much prefer to see and feel the products before they commit to an order. And the best way to accomplish that is with an energetic sales representative that visits their place of business to demonstrate and explain our items, to slip our packs onto their back, to physically show why our bow cases are better sellers. You can't get that from telemarketing. Face-to-face relationships are extremely important in the people-oriented outdoor industry. We currently use four independent sales rep groups to cover the country and develop and maintain those crucial sales relationships."

"In a very similar vein," adds Ed, "we've developed strong pro-staff and outfitter-staff programs. From those programs we derive two key benefits. First, the programs enable us to obtain firsthand input from enthusiasts on our products. It's very important to listen to what users say. And second, the programs allow us to spread the word about our many items through even more face-to-face contact."

Partnerships in business often become troublesome. That's just the way it is. And yet John Tilby and Ed Brewer have been business partners for more than two decades. How have they managed that?

"To begin with," says Ed, "we work hard to make sure that we have the same goals in mind. That avoids misunderstandings and wasted efforts. We also bring different strengths to the party. John is especially creative and innovative, and is very good at motivating people. He's responsive and strong in sales and working with all sorts of people. I'm more laidback. I'm a thinker. I analyze. I do the books and the finances. I plan long-term. We've been working together for so many years that our strengths mesh to accomplish our common goals.

"We've also both developed the ability to occasionally just step back and objectively look at things, whether it's a business strategy, a specific product or our own individual performance, and together make the necessary decisions that will best guide our business."

John also reveals a business secret that sometimes comes hard. "One thing we've learned over the years is that it's easy to lose your focus. You start looking at all sorts of things outside of your core capabilities and thinking that because others are being successful in those areas that you should be jumping in that same direction. That can be dangerous.

"In our two-plus decades in business we've tried other things. Shortly after we built our current facility, which we initially designed on the large side to accommodate for future growth, we filled up some of that initial excess space with an indoor paintball venture. It went reasonably well, but we underestimated the labor and time involved in managing that additional business. We also tried our hand at owning and operating our own archery pro shop. In 1997 we closed down the paintball operation, purchased an existing archery shop, moved it into the same space and ran that venture, along with our manufacturing business, until 2001.

"That business was certainly closer to our core competency, and it did provide us with valuable insights. It allowed us to talk directly with consumers and experience firsthand what it was like to actually manage a retail archery business. That clearly gave us a better understanding of what retailers need and want. But eventually we simply required that extra space for our expanding manufacturing operations, which was our core business, and so we sold the archery shop.

"What we concluded with both of those side ventures was that we really needed to stick with what we knew best, and that was manufacturing. About that same time we also began to develop a unique process for custom molding foam to be used in a variety of our items, including backpacks and unique equipment cases. That eventually led to the development of our Snug-Fit Custom Molded Case line, now managed and run by my brother Danny Tilby. It also led to an expansion of our OEM manufacturing capabilities. The term 'OEM' stands for original equipment manufacturer and refers to the practice of producing products or components for other companies to sell or utilize under their own brand name. OEM work has allowed us to further capitalize on our manufacturing expertise while significantly broadening our market. It allowed us to do what we do well while expanding our business."

In business there are indeed two worlds. The first world of numbers must be satisfied for any business to endure. The second world--the world of excitement, innovation and resourcefulness--fuels the venture so that the business thrives.

Sportsman's Outdoor Products, led by partners John Tilby and Ed Brewer, has been artfully blending both worlds together for 21 years.

For additional information on Sportsman's Outdoor Items, please log onto their website at www.sophuntinggear.com or call the company at (801) 562-8712.

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