Jas. D. Easton Inc.: the product is performance

Wayne Gretzky, most hockey fans would agree, needs little help in performing his craft. But, as of last season, the NHL record holder has had a cutting-edge advantage–a high-tech aluminum hockey stick from Jas. D. Easton Inc. The endorsement has also scored big for Easton, where sales are growing almost 50 percent annually.

Better known as Easton Sports, the Van Nuys–based company has been a leading manufacturer of sporting equipment for 20 years, best known for its top-notch aluminum arrows and baseball bats. CEO Jim Easton, 55, has maintained his high-margin, high-end products by plowing up to 20 percent of sales into R&D. While Easton now makes everything from football pads to bicycle tubing, his more established line of archery equipment accounts for about 40 percent of sales and is the main source of funds for new product development. That development has been crucial in keeping Easton two steps ahead of the competition–and pulling in the sales, which will top $100 million this year, up from $60 million in 1990.

Despite his leading-edge technology, Easton has only a fraction of the $10 billion worldwide sporting goods market. He faces tough competition from such mega-sporting goods manufacturers as Wilson, Spalding and Mizuno, which have an even more diverse array of products. But Easton is a tough contender with a three-part game plan. “Our strategy is to have a performance product first, to break into the sport and get a reputation,” he explains. “And once you’ve got that, then you can bring out other good quality products. Otherwise, you’re in a commodity business, and you’re just trying to sell by price.”

And Easton’s superior hockey sticks and aluminum baseball bats, which together account for another 50 percent of sales, don’t come cheap. Womens softball bats, for example, range from $36 to $150 each, tow to three times more than traditional bats. But players want performance, says Easton, and they’re willing to pay top dollar to get it. The firm currently makes 30 models of bats, from the Little League to the collegiate level, and introduces a about six new models a year. To meet the growing demand, Easton turns out about 6,000 bats a day from its manufacturing plant in Van Nuys, one of three across the United States.

The growth in sales hasn’t come easy. Last year nationwide sales of sporting goods were nearly flat according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Assn. But Easton has fought back by quadrupling his advertising budget to $2 million this year–much of that for a high-visibility campaign in Sport Illustrated. The full-page ads show Wayne Gretzky, the Giants’ Will Clark and Joe Montana sporting Easton equipment.

It was the arrow business, however, that first struck home for Easton. In 1922, James D. Easton, the senior, began his one-man operation in Watsonville custom-making yew-wood bows and cedar arrows. In 1939, he revolutionized the arrow-making process, called fletching, by crafting them out of aluminum, a more consistent and durable material. Later, Easton expanded into ski poles and, in 1970, baseball bats.

Players were quickly taken with the bats’ light weight and consistency. By 1978, eight out of nine players at the NCAA College World Series were swinging Easton’s bats. This year, Easton crows, nearly all collegiate players handle Easton aluminum, even though metal bats are prohibited in the professional leagues. There are numerous aluminum bats on the market these days, but most sports devotees agree that the feel of an Easton bat has an edge with players. “Players don’t care what name is on [the bat],” states Bob Smith, president of the International Baseball Assoc. in Greenville, Illinois, “they’re just looking for the bat that swings that easiest. Easton has come up with a bat that has the same length, but is much lighter, with more whip.”

Breaking into the hockey establishment, though, has been tougher. Introduced in 1982, the Easton aluminum hockey sticks didn’t see widespread recognition until two years ago, when big-name hockey players like Brett Hall of the St. Louis Blues started taking to the ice with them.” [Hockey] just hasn’t been progressive–they’ve been making the same old wood sticks for 15 years,” points out Easton. “It’s an opportunity to bring in a whole new concept. It took a while, but finally it’s come around.” Easton’s winning shot in entering the sport, though, was made with a pen rather than a stick: last year, he signed Gretsky to a seven-year, $1 million endorsement contract.

True to form, Easton is already moving on to other products. He’s developing hockey blades fashioned from composite materials more typically found in jet planes and working on new materials for baseball bats and kite tubing. But he’s reluctant to say more. Much of the design behind the “Louisville Slugger,” baseball’s main battleaxe, says Easton, was ripped off from his firm by an unscrupulous engineer. “It’s a constant battle,” sighs Easton. “When you’re leading the pack, you’re being shot at from every angle possible.”

Easton has also turned his sights to selling his new carbon-wrapped golf shafts. After introducing a composite-based shaft in 1990, he took up the game to help with promotion and got more involved in the industry. That’s important. Since he’s only producing a component, Easton has had to tie in with other manufacturers in the industry like San Diego–based Slotline (which makes the clubs and packages the sets). That makes it more difficult to market the Easton shafts.

“The product may not be the cheapest, but it’s as good or better than the best that’s out there,” explains Easton. “I really believe you don’t stay in business very long trying to fool people with fancy looking products that don’t perform.”

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