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Hitting the bull’s eye..

James D. Easton Inc manufactures aluminum sporting goods equipment for team and individual sports. Owner James L. Easton claims the company ranks fourth in the sporting goods market with 1,000 employees and annual sales of about $120 million.

Seventy years ago, a teenager named James D. “Doug” Easton suffered a gunshot wound in a hunting accident. While he recuperated, he started making arrows at his home in Watsonville, south of San Francisco. He sold them to archers, as a part-time business.

Easton continued making arrows part time for over a decade. In the mid-’30s, he quit what was then his regular job– driving a delivery truck–to become a full-time fletcher, or arrow maker. A few years later, he moved to Los Angeles.

Easton died in 1972, but James D. Easton Inc. is still in Los Angeles–in the Van Nuys section, in the San Fernando Valley–and it still makes arrow shafts. In every other respect, the company has changed radically. Doug Easton’s son, James L. Easton, 56, has transformed his father’s tiny business into a sporting-goods powerhouse with around 1,000 employees and annual sales that industry sources put at $120 million.

Under Jim Easton, the company has won success in a remarkable way: by expanding its product line rapidly, even while remaining intensely focused. Easton is, at its core, not a sporting-goods company, but an aluminum company. “Easton products are lightweight, high-strength aluminum products,” says ‘Steve Whiteley, manufacturing manager at the Van Nuys plant. “That’s where we’ve made our name.”

Most of Easton’s output is in two categories: equipment for team sports–sold by a branch of the company that calls itself Easton Sports–and equipment for individual sports, like archery, golf, skiing, and bicycling. Easton tends to sell products of the latter kind to other manufacturers, as opposed to selling them directly to dealers. Doug Easton stopped making finished aluminum arrows in 1949 and restricted himself thereafter to making arrow shafts–a policy that his son still follows. Otherwise, Jim Easton says, “we’d be competing with our customers.”

Easton now produces around 20 million aluminum and composite arrow shafts every year–most of them at its plant in Salt Lake City–making it far and away the largest such manufacturer. Easton’s most impressive growth in recent years, though, has come as a purveyor of equipment for team sports–baseball and hockey, in particular.

Between 1985 and 1991, says Doug Kelly, president of Easton Sports, that branch “had a compounded annual sales growth of 29 percent a year”; it now accounts for the largest share of the Easton company’s revenue. Easton products have won endorsements from such well-known professional athletes as hockey star Wayne Gretzky, of the Los Angeles Kings,’ and baseball star Will Clark, of the San Francisco Giants.

Comparisons with Easton’s competitors are difficult, because all the companies involved are either privately owned, like Easton, or part of a larger concern; but, Jim Easton says, “I think we’re No. 4, behind Wilson, Rawlings, and Spalding.” He sees Easton climbing to the No. 2 spot in a few years if its current growth pattern continues. The endorsements by the likes of Gretzky and Clark are part of an effort to, as Easton puts it, “get that brand building.”

All of the products that Easton makes itself, like arrow shafts, baseball bats, and hockey sticks (it contracts out the production of such things as baseball and hockey gloves), start with aluminum tubing. Easton makes some of its aluminum tubing, but it buys most of it from larger manufacturers; in either case, it’s what Easton does to the tubing that really matters.

As Whiteley says, “We add value to it by manipulating the grain structure in the aluminum. Many, many years of research have gone into working the aluminum to give it the strength that’s necessary for our products. We’re able to make a stronger, lighter bat, which is what the player wants.” Easton makes around 1.5 million slow pitch mens softball bats a year.

You might assume that the technology that Easton has developed for sporting goods would be readily adaptable to other uses, and you would be right. But as Jim Easton decided some years ago, for a company to be capable of doing something doesn’t necessarily mean that it should do it.

“When I was looking for new products to bring into the company,” he recalls, “we went off for a couple of years trying to sell our tube-drawing expertise to other manufacturing companies. We offered ourselves as a custom house, when they had a customer who could not find something in the standard mill.”

The idea, he says, was to “play off our expertise that we developed in producing arrow shafts, which was drawing aluminum tubing to precision tolerances” that were 10 times better than those that an ordinary tube mill could produce.

“We did that for a while,” Easton says, “but then I realized that we were a job shop,” and, as such, vulnerable to the economic ups and downs that afflict any job shop. “I felt it would be better to put our time and energy into product lines that we would own, and try to get some continuity in our production.” Easton all but dropped the custom work, except for a few long-time customers–and an occasional challenging high-tech project that is potentially of benefit to the sports business. (A current example: less-than-paper-thin aluminum tubing for the National Aeronautics and Space Administration.)

Unlike the kind of work that comes into a job shop, demand for sporting goods doesn’t wilt in the face of recession, Easton says. “We’ve gone through this recession with continually growing sales and profits,” he says. “A $50,000 sports car is recession-sensitive, but a $30 or $40 baseball bat is less so.”

Doug Easton started making aluminum arrows when the difficulty of achieving uniformity in his wooden arrow shafts drove him to look for a more cooperative material.

He bought some aluminum tubing and made a few sets of arrows in 1939, but World War II interrupted his efforts. After the war, he couldn’t get a mill to produce tubing to his specifications–the quantity was too small–so he bought some standard tubing and figured out how to make it into what he wanted.

“He was willing to try things that other people weren’t,” Jim Easton says. “He developed a tube with a particular hardness,” combined with resilience, that permitted an arrow to stay straight even when it was shot into a target. The Easton company still relies on Doug Easton’s key discoveries. “To this day,” Jim Easton says, “we haven’t had a competitor that has put all the elements of our trade secrets together.”

Doug Easton’s techniques weren’t directly applicable to such products as baseball bats, Jim Easton says, but “it’s been basically that technology, and our amplification of that technology, that has led us into all these other areas.”

The senior Easton began hiring his first employees outside the family in the mid-’50s–around the time that Jim Easton was completing his studies for an engineering degree. “It was an issue, yes,” Easton says of his decision not to quit school and go to work full time when his father asked him to. “I wanted to finish school. So there was a conflict.”

Rather than give in, Jim took a job with an aircraft manufacturer and completed work on his degree by attending classes at night. He worked for that manufacturer for five years–long enough to realize that he didn’t want a career with a large company; then, he recalls, he and his father “got together.”

Jim Easton’s return in the early ’60s coincided with a major change in the Easton company–at his direction, it began expanding beyond arrow shafts. Ski-pole shafts came first, in 1964. His father “kind of got pushed and shoved into that by my insistence that we try something new,” Easton recalls. “I did a lot of it on my own, after hours.”

Starting in 1970, the Easton company made aluminum baseball bats for another manufacturer, under a private-label arrangement. “But we wanted our name on the bat someplace,” Jim Easton says, “because we didn’t want them using our quality for a couple of years and then shifting over to somebody else, to save a dollar a bat.” AFter the manufacturer refused to do that, Easton brought out its own brand, in the middle ’70s, and hooked up with an independent distributor.

When Easton bought that distributor– it now calls itself Easton Sports, as part of what Jim Easton admits is a confusing clutter of names–it was distributing only one product under the Easton label, the bats. “We were highly spring-oriented,” Doug Kelly says, “as far as the cash coming in. We needed to develop our fall sports.” That led to the ice-hockey line; at the same time, “we also expanded the baseball line,” Kelly says, “to be more than just a bat company.”

Now Easton Sports’ plan of action, Jim Easton says, is to start with “the main piece of equipment, like the hockey stick or the baseball bat. Once we establish our reputation, we bring on other product lines to complement that.”

The Easton company has another arrow in its quiver for the competitive wars: a quality program that is transforming its manufacturing operations. Through changes in the plant, Jim Easton says, ‘”we’ve been working smarter. We’ve been able to build more without adding more people.”

Easton launched what it calls its “Total Quality Control” program about two years ago, and “we’ve had some pretty amazing results from it,” says Whiteley, the manufacturing manager. “There has been a 20 percent increase in efficiency, and our equipment down time has decreased by 10 to 15 percent. Basically, wasted time is being eliminated.”

Easton is relying on “the teamwork approach, the empowerment approach,” Whiteley says, and taking advantage of its employees’ expertise: “Most of these people have worked here for many years–we have a very low turnover rate–and they probably know, better than any of us, how to make this product.”

Each of the two dozen departments in the Van Nuys plant—many bearing such esoteric names as the “taper swage department” (that department shapes, or tapers, the bats)–wrote and posted its own “statement of commitment” early in 1992. Easton places a lot of emphasis on satisfying internal customers, Whiteley says, and that goal is typically part of the posted statements of commitment.

“In a manufacturing environment like this,” he says, “very few people ever get to meet the final customer. So we [identify] the internal customers, and that’s who [the departments] have got to please.”

Pleasing the final customer is, of course, the ultimate point of all that internal activity. Wayne Gretzky not only endorses Easton hockey sticks, he plays with one–and no one doubts that he would quit doing that if his Easton stick ever let him down. As Whiteley puts it, “We’re dealing with athletes at the top of their class, and they’re completely unforgiving people.”

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