Ex-timber worker hits big with bowstrings
An article from the February 1st 2004 edition of The Oregonian by Peter Sleeth:
Timber workers who lose their jobs in the eastern Oregon city of John Day, USA typically have one option, move out. As the timber harvest plunged in the 1990's, Mike Slinkard knew he faced the short end of what he had planned on being a long career.
"I had 16 years in the timber business here," said Slinkard. "That all kind of came to an end." Instead of leaving, he decided he would take his passion for archery and turn it into a living.
Out of that ending came the beginning of a new company, Winner's Choice Custom Bowstrings Inc. Only 3 years old, the company has been profitable for more than a year, topped $1 million in sales in 2002 and is now a nationally recognised leader in making high-quality strings for hunting bows.
Slinkard and his partner, Tom Nealy, a former tree-faller, have taken a long-shot start up company in a depressed area of Oregon and turned it into a success. They have found a niche outdoor product where they can compete as the highest quality provider and still operate in an isolated section of the state. Virtually every shipment can go by FedEx just as fast as if they were shipping from Portland, the largest city in Oregon state.
"It's a darn good looking project," said Rick Minster, regional development officer for the state's Economic and Community Development Department. "It's a light at the end of the tunnel."
Winner's Choice was to be the first tenant to move into the city's new industrial park. Within one year, employment at the firm is expected to increase to 25 employees, up from the current 13.
"I knew we had a good product when we started, but I've been surprised how fast it has caught on." Slinkard said. Winner's Choice strings are used primarily by hunters and tournament archers. They are expensive, from two to eight times the cost of a traditional bowstring.
But they offer a significant advantage. Traditional bowstrings "creep," or get longer, the more they are used. That causes accuracy problems in the complex workings of bows. Winner's Choice completely pre-stretches the bowstring's fibres prior to assembly, ensuring that the bowstring will stay at its desired length. Before a Winner's Choice string will wear out, as many as 40,000 arrows might be launched. With a traditional string, an archer might expect 5,000 launches, according to Slinkard.
At the Broken Arrow Archery shop in Milwaukie, Oregon, owner Norm Geertsen said Winner's Choice is popular because each string is custom built. Because of the high price, he sells only about 30 to 50 annually. "Customers, both hunters and target shooters, who do a lot of shooting, buy them" he said. "Their product has been quite well received nationally."
It has not always been this good. Initially, Slinkard used superannuation money from his 401(k) retirement fund to start the company. Banks, he said, were a dead end. "They just looked at you like you were nuts when you said you wanted to build bowstrings for a living" he said. His credit union loaned Winner's Choice some money, Slinkard said. Then, using a mix of state grants and federal assistance in the form of disabled employees whose pay was subsidised, he began production in earnest in 2001.
In 2002, revenues first broke the $1 million barrier, something the company did not expect for five years. Although Slinkard will not reveal precise figures on net income and gross revenue, he said Winner's Choice is profitable. Total revenues come from a mix of sources. About 50 per cent comes from a network of 1,100 dealers across the nation, such as the Broken Arrow Archery shop and about 35 per cent comes from archery manufacturers who use Winner's Choice strings.
Manufacturers had been nearly 65 per cent of sales in 2002, until Slinkard walked away from a $250,000 account. In January 2002 at a trade show, he found a manufacturer using a mix of Winner's Choice strings and strings from a secondary manufacturer on new bows. Compound bows use a single bowstring and a series of strings known as cables to drive wheels that increase the bow's power. Slinkard said mixing strings was unacceptable as customers might confuse the quality of Winner's Choice with the lesser quality of another bowstring manufacturer. He confronted the archery manufacturer, who refused to relent on mixing the strings on a single bow. Slinkard said he cancelled the contract with the manufacturer, took his bowstrings and went home. Winner's Choice lost $250,000 in annual sales on that account. "We have a commitment to quality we are not going to jeopardise for anything," he said. "If our quality is questioned, we are basically shot."
The insistence on quality is paying off. Precision Shooting Equipment (PSE), one of the largest bow manufacturers in the world based in Tucson, Arizona, USA, will use Winner's Choice strings on the best bows for its 2004 line. Production has already begun, with initial sales showing promising results. "They have the reputation for building the best string and cable in the industry," said Jon Shepley, director of marketing at PSE. Despite the high costs of Winner's Choice products, early indications are the wedding of high-quality bows with Winner's Choice strings will be a hit. "It's not hurting sales," Shepley said. "It's helping sales."
Post script: Winner's Choice strings are trusted by the world's top archers as they provide the best quality and customer service. Abbey Archery sells Winner's Choice bowstrings and cables because they are weatherproof, completely pre-stretched, have a one year warranty, no string stretch or serving separation, no peep rotation and our customer feedback is most pleasing.