Easton Sports, Inc.
Easton Sports, Inc.
Sales: $187.6 million (2003)
NAIC: 339920 Sporting and Athletic Good Manufacturing
Easton Sports, Inc., is a privately owned Van Nuys, California-based manufacturer of sports equipment. The company has been a consistent innovator, primarily in its use of aluminum in its products. Easton designs and manufactures archery equipment, baseball and softball bats, hockey stick shafts and blades, and hockey skate blades. It also makes tent tubes and bicycle components. The company is headed by Jim Easton, the son of the company's founder.
Doug Easton Begins Making Arrows in the 1920s
Although Easton Sports, Inc. was not formed until 1985, the company traces it heritage to the youth of James Douglas (Doug) Easton. When he was just 15 years old, Easton became an archery enthusiast under fortuitous circumstances. In the fall of 1921, he was hunting near his home in Watsonville, California, when a shotgun propped up against a car fell, discharged, and seriously wounded him in both legs. For much of the next year, he was confined to the hospital and his home while recuperating. To help him pass the time, a friend gave Easton a copy of a new book written by Dr. Saxton T. Pope, Hunting with the Bow & Arrow. Easton became fascinated with archery and as soon as he was able he began to craft bows from yew wood and wooden arrows from straight grained woods like cedar and pine. His excellent work was quickly recognized, especially his arrows, which were soon regarded as the best tournament arrows in the country. At 17, while shooting a round of archery at San Francisco's Golden Gate Park, he met an older man who complimented him on his craftsmanship. Easton credited his work to a book written by Saxton Pope, only to learn moments later, when the man extended his hand, that he had been conversing with his mentor.
Easton made bows and arrows on a part-time basis for the next ten years, supporting himself primarily by driving a delivery truck. He then decided to devote himself entirely to his craft and in 1932 moved to Los Angeles, opening Easton's Archery Shop. Here he made friends with some of Hollywood's elite who shared his enthusiasm for archery. Easton began producing broadheads and in 1938 toyed with a broadhead design that used an aluminum ferule. Having outgrown his shop, Easton moved to a larger facility in Los Angeles, and it was here that be began to experiment with aluminum as an arrow shaft, the result of his frustration with the inconsistencies of wood. He presented his first set of aluminum arrows to Larry Hughes, a local archery champion. Over the next two years, Hughes enjoyed strong results with his experimental arrows, culminating in his winning the 1941 National Championship. However, Easton would not be able to take advantage of Hughes' success because World War II soon intervened, and for the next several years the military commandeered all supplies of aluminum.
A year after the war ended, when aluminum finally became available again, Easton continued his work on metal arrows, which soon led to his first trademarked aluminum arrow shaft, the 24SRT-X. By 1949, Easton stopped making finished aluminum arrows, electing instead to manufacture the shafts and avoid competing with his customers. In 1953, he incorporated the business as Jas. D. Easton Archery, but it was still very much a one-man shop, supplemented with help from his wife, young son James, and occasional part-timers. The 24SRT-X was so successful, however, that in 1956 he hired his first two full-time employees. A year later, he needed more room and moved the business to Van Nuys, where he took over a new 10,000-square-foot building. Over the next decade he introduced the XX75, which would become the best selling arrow shaft in history.
James Easton Joins His Father in 1960
Before hiring outside help, Easton attempted to convince his son, who was by now studying engineering, to quit college and come work for him. Jim Easton refused, took a job with an aircraft manufacturer, and completed his studies at night. Upon graduation, he kept his job, but after five years he soured on the idea of working for a large company, and in 1960 went to work for his father. The two soon came into conflict over the direction of the business, and it was only due to the prodding of the younger Easton that the company began to expand beyond archery. In 1964, Easton introduced aluminum ski-pole shafts. The company even moved beyond sports in 1967 when it used its expertise in precision tubing to make the thermal shroud for the seismometer used on the Apollo moon landing. In 1969, Easton first became involved in team sports through the production of aluminum baseball bats. Although it did not invent the aluminum bat, Easton developed the technology that made them a viable product. The only advantage of early aluminum bats over wooden bats was that they did not break. Otherwise, they were too heavy, poorly balanced, and hit the ball no further than their wooden counterparts. Easton's engineers worked on the problem and eventually developed equipment to make the walls of the bat thinner while maintaining their curved shape.
As Easton was working out the technical problems of producing a superior aluminum bat, the company's founder died from cancer on December 31, 1972, leaving his son Jim in charge. At the time, Easton was making aluminum baseball bats under a private-label arrangement with another company. Easton insisted on having its name printed somewhere on the bat to ensure that its work was recognized and prevent the customer from building a reputation due to Easton's quality then later dropping Easton in favor of a cheaper source. When the other company refused, Easton launched its own bat brand in the mid-1970s and sold it through an independent distributor, Curley-Bates Company. By the end of the decade, Easton had developed a superior product that was able to command a premium price.
For a time, Jim Easton attempted to take advantage of the company's expertise developed in drawing aluminum tubes to precision tolerances for arrow shafts. Easton positioned itself as a custom house for companies in need of work that a standard mill could not provide. In the end, Jim Easton felt the company was simply becoming a job shop, one that was vulnerable to the vagaries of economic cycles, and he concluded that the business was better off devoting its energies to product development. In 1976, Easton began to make tent tubing and two years later was contracted by PRINCE to manufacture aluminum tennis racket frames. In the late 1970s, an Easton engineer who was an amateur hockey player began working on an aluminum hockey stick. In 1981, the company gained approval for its stick from the National Hockey League, and a marketable model was introduced a year later.
During the 1980s, Easton completed a pair of acquisitions. In 1983 it bought Hoyt Archery Company, maker of high-end bows and accessories. Two years later, Easton acquired Curley-Bates, its aluminum bat distributor. The company was renamed Easton Sports, Inc., and Jim Easton made plans to expand it beyond bats, setting the lofty goal of transforming Easton Sports into the world's top team sports manufacturer of hardgoods. To further that ambition, the Easton brand name would have to gain greater recognition, product lines would have to be expanded to all seasons of the year, and the company would have to gain an international presence. In late 1987, Easton Sports opened an automated warehouse in Salt Lake City to better distribute the company's products and support its long-term goals.
In 1986, Easton Sports Canada was launched and the company began to produce mast and boom tubing for sailboards and bike frame tubing. Easton then tried to bring out its own line of bicycles but soon found that the economics did not work: the company's frames were too expensive to factor in the other costly components of the bike. In 1990, the money-losing venture was brought to a halt. The company was more successful in adding to its line of baseball and softball bats and expanding its hockey business. It introduced composite-based golf shafts in 1990 and ventured as far afield as developing aluminum drum sticks. Also in 1990, the company opened the Easton Sports Lab to further its research and development efforts.
Easton saw its revenues grow from $13 million in 1977 to $90 million ten years later, topping the $100 million mark in 1991. It was succeeding in a competitive marketplace, taking on much larger rivals like Wilson, Spalding, and Mizuno, as well as Nike, which was aggressively moving beyond the athletic shoe niche. In 1991, Jim Easton explained to California Business the company's three-pronged approach to doing business in such a climate: "Our strategy is to have a performance product first, to break in the sport and get a reputation. 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."
Easton continued to dominate the market for aluminum arrows, enjoying an 80 percent market share and producing some 16 million aluminum arrows a year. In 1992, nine out of ten Olympic archers used Easton arrows. From 1972, when archery was reintroduced as an Olympic sport, until 1992, every gold medal winner used Easton arrows. All told, archery products accounted for 30 percent of Easton's total revenues. The company introduced the XX78 arrow shaft in 1992, and in 1995 it expanded externally with the acquisition of French arrow manufacturer Beman.
80-plus years of sporting goods manufacturing success doesn't happen by accident. It's the result of constant innovation and unwavering commitment to being the best. Look inside to find out more.
New Opportunities in the 1990s
Easton was also developing a formidable line of hockey products, but they took time to catch on. A major step towards acceptance came in the late 1980s when top goal scoring forward Brett Hull began to use Easton aluminum sticks on the ice, but the turning point took place in 1990 when superstar Wayne Gretzky, who had been traded two years earlier to the Los Angeles Kings, visited Easton to try its sticks. He liked the product so much that he agreed to a seven-year, $2 million endorsement deal, providing Easton with instant credibility in the hockey world. By 1994, more than 150 NHL players would be using Easton hockey products. The company introduced its Ultra Lite composite plastic hockey stick and X-Treme Graphite blade, developed with significant input from Paul Kariya of the Anaheim Mighty Ducks and other NHL players. Although Easton was capable of producing hockey sticks and blades much lighter than traditional wood versions, it was the players who advised the developers about the need for weight in certain situations, such as winding up for a slap shot. As a result, Easton added weight to the composite material to produce a stick that was lighter than wood and stronger, yet provided the feel that a player required. The sticks proved so popular with professional players, that Easton signed very few to stick deals, because most of them simply preferred to use Easton sticks whether they were compensated or not. By 2000, nearly 40 percent of NHL players used Easton sticks, far more than any of the older, traditional brands like Bauer, Titan, CCM, and Koho.
Easton also became involved in other ice hockey and roller hockey products. In the late 1990s, the company introduce its parabolic blade technology for ice skates, the patented Razor Blade skating system, which used a flex zone between the holder and the runner to transfer energy from the foot to blade, resulting in 25 percent tighter turns and better glide while allowing the skater to conserve energy. The stainless steel blades could also be removed from the graphite holder and replaced. In 2001, Easton introduced the Z-Air Skate, which created a comfortable, high-performance hockey skate combining a thermally activated composite construction, air-foamed latex ankle pads, and side cut tongue to fill in empty space around the foot. These were also the first skates to provide a drainage system to release moisture and keep them lighter, stiffer, and dryer after a game. In addition, they were heat moldable for a tighter fit or to make them ready to wear right out of the box. Along with sticks and skates, Easton developed protective hockey gear: gloves using a special foam to pad the back of the hand where players were often stick checked, shoulder pads and caps using Easton's proprietary Bio-Dri liner treatment to help keep players cool, a spinal pad called Spine Tec, and a three piece system that combines all the upper-body pads into a single unit capable of moving in unison. For the lower body, Easton developed pants that also used the Bio-Dri and Spine Tec technology as well as other high-tech padding.
Although Easton enjoyed tremendous growth with its hockey products, it also remained in the forefront of aluminum softball and baseball bats technology. In the early 1990s, however, the company became a victim of its own success when it introduced a titanium softball bat that performed so well that softball associations banned it, maintaining that the bat was dangerous and would add too much of an offensive component to the game. Despite this setback, Easton continued its innovations in bat design. In 1997, it launched the Redline series, introducing the first Scandium bat to the marketplace. Two years later, Easton offered the ConneXion series of bats, the first two-piece system that significantly reduced vibration and offered a more forgiving sweet spot. To round out its bat product lines, Easton began producing wooden bats, which remained the only material allowed in Major League Baseball. The company's use of wood came by way of expansion. In 1999, Easton acquired Stix Baseball Inc., an Orlando, Florida-based wooden bat manufacturer. Easton also became involved in a related sport, developing bats for the game of cricket.
During the late 1990s and early 2000s, Easton expanded in a number of directions. In 1998, the company entered the after-market bicycle component business. To supplement its tent pole business, it added tent stakes and other accessories, as well as snow shoes that used an aluminum alloy. In the hockey segment, Easton added apparel and equipment bags. Although Easton remained a relatively small player in the sporting equipment industry, it was well respected for its technology and marketing skills and was well positioned to enjoy long-term success. Over the years, Jim Easton was approached by suitors wanting to buy the company and investment bankers looking to take it public, but he remained content to keep the business private and family owned. Jim Easton's son Greg had already held top management positions in the company and appeared poised to carry on the tradition started by his grandfather, who as a teenager almost died from a gunshot wound and survived to found a sports empire.
Easton Development, Inc.
Amer Group plc; The Hockey Company; Mizuno Corporation.
- Doug Easton begins making arrows and bows.
- Easton first uses aluminum to make arrow shafts.
- The business is incorporated.
- Aluminum ski-pole shafts become the company's first non-archery product.
- Doug Easton dies and is replaced by his son James.
- Easton Sports is formed through acquisition.
- Wayne Gretzky signs an endorsement deal for an aluminum hockey stick.
- Easton introduces a composite hockey blade.
- The world's first two-piece baseball bat is introduced.
Barrier, Michael, "Hitting the Bull's-Eye," Nation's Business, January 1992, p. 67.
Brinsley, John, "Sticking to It," Los Angeles Business Journal, February 14, 2000, p. 14.
Svetich, Kim, "Jas. D. Easton Inc.: The Product Is Performance," California Business, October 1992, p. 12.
Taylor, John H., "Make Mine Aluminum," Forbes, December 7, 1992, p. 150.