Rapala-Normark Group, Ltd.
Rapala-Normark Group, Ltd.
Incorporated: 1960 as Rapala Company
Sales: $52 million (1998 est.)
NAIC: 42191 Sporting & Recreational Goods & Supplies Wholesalers; 33992 Sporting & Athletic Good Manufacturing
Rapala-Normark Group, Ltd., through its subsidiary Normark Corporation, markets high quality fishing, hunting, and outdoor sporting goods. Two avid anglers founded the company to distribute a single lure, the Original Floating Rapala, which became the top-selling fishing lure in the world. Many of the company’s other products, such as the Rapala Fillet Knife, have earned the respect of outdoor enthusiasts and significant market share as well.
Fabricating Finnish Fishing Lure: 1930s–50s
The Normark story, technically speaking, begins in Finland during the 1930s, with Lauri Rapala. It was a period of widespread economic depression, and Rapala pieced together a living for his family by working as a lumberjack in the winter and a farm hand or commercial fisherman in the summer—hard work either way.
In hope of boosting his fishing income and as well as cutting down on the time and effort spent rebaiting hooks, Rapala began playing with the idea of an artificial lure. He already knew that in schools of minnows the wounded ones, those which wobbled when they swam, were the most likely targets of larger fish. He attempted to duplicate the motion in an artificial minnow. After much trial and error, the undertaking finally paid off.
The lure he produced in 1936 was fabricated from cork, covered with colored tin foil claimed from candy and cheese packets, and sealed with the celluloid backing of photographic film. “This first lure still exists today—it’s black on top, gold along its flanks, white on the bottom—just like the minnows of Lake Paijanne,” wrote Stephen Dupont in Crafting of a Legend: The Normark Story.
The lure dramatically increased Rapala’s trout and pike catch. Encouraged, he continued to refine his invention, switching, for example, from cork to pine bark for the body. His luremaking endeavor was sidetracked, however, when Finland was invaded by its towering neighbor to the East. Rapala went off to war for six years, first fighting the Soviet Union and later Nazi Germany.
Once at home, Rapala found that postwar vacationers to Lake Paijanne had heard about his lure and were eager to buy one. A family business emerged. Rapala’s four sons, Risto, Ensio, Esko, and Kauko, helped with production, and wife Elma handled the packaging and bookwork. Gradually, the men fabricated devices to mechanize what had been entirely handmade. An old spinning wheel was adapted as a sander and a circular saw was constructed to shape the wood. Lauri continued to be a stickler for accuracy: the action of each of the 1,000 lures they produced during the year was tested in a tank of water or in the lake.
The Rapala family lures made their way to North America by various means during the 1950s. Athletes participating in the 1952 Helsinki Summer Olympic games picked up the lure from a shopkeeper who had begun stocking them following a vacation to Lake Paijanne. Finns who immigrated to or were visiting the United States also helped to create a Rapala lure pipeline.
Minnesota Connection: 1960s
Ron Weber, a Minneapolis-based fishing tackle sales representative, had heard rumors of a prolific “Finlander plug,” and, as an avid angler, he was eager to try one. During a frustrating Canadian fishing trip in the summer of 1959, Weber’s fishing partner pulled out an unfamiliar lure and tied it on his line. “Suddenly, where there were no fish, there were fish galore,” wrote Dupont.
On his way back to Minneapolis, Weber stopped in Duluth, which was both his home town and home to numerous Finnish immigrants. The Finnish owner of an outdoor clothing store had some Rapalas behind his counter and sold Weber a few. After trying them out for himself, Weber wrote to Lauri Rapala and asked for 500 of his lures. Rapala first had to have the letter translated. Next, he sought help from Helsinki’s Foreign Trade Department on how to proceed. In early 1960, Weber received his order.
As the Rapalas tended to matters on their end, Weber convinced his friend and sporting goods storeowner Ray Ostrom to help distribute the lure. Initially named the Rapala Company, the part-time business operated out of Ostrom’s store—the men renamed the company Nordic Enterprises before settling on Normark, or “north land,” in 1965.
Weber and Ostrom first test-marketed the lure in Minnesota and Wisconsin. Sales were initially slow; the $1.95 price induced sticker shock in retailers accustomed to selling lures for less than a buck.
Even though the Rapala was twice as expensive as popular lures such as the Johnson Silver Spoon, the Jitterbug, and the Lazy Ike, it was well positioned for the changing fishing tackle market. Early Normark sales rep Bill Cullerton, Sr., said in Crafting of a Legend, “The timing was perfect. With new mono line and lighter fishing tackle, the industry needed lighter lures.” Sales began to pick up.
Normark, now armed with an exclusive North American distribution contract from Rapala, turned to the news media to spread the word about the lure. During the 1960s, Ostrom cultivated relationships with local and national sports and outdoor reporters. The company would also finance fishing films targeting sportsmen’s shows and fishing clubs. The company’s greatest exposure, however, was generated by a 1962 Life magazine article.
A Life reporter, in the Twin Cities to cover the newly formed Minnesota Vikings, met Ostrom at a dinner party given by the outdoor editor for the Minneapolis Tribune. Ostrom, who just happened to have a couple lures in tow, sparked the reporter’s interest in Lauri Rapala’s story. “A Lure the Fish Can’t Pass Up,” hit the news stands in an issue adorned by Marilyn Monroe, shortly after her death. Millions bought the magazine and orders barraged Normark.
Weber and Ostrom could fill only a fraction of the three million requests. Tales of a Rapala black market and a Rapala rental market surfaced, as did copycat plugs. Storeowners paid retail prices just to put the product on their shelves. Weber and Ostrom dropped their other enterprises and devoted themselves full-time to marketing the lure.
The amazing demand for the lure compelled Weber to go to Finland to ask Rapala to increase production. Rapala was overwhelmed: “There’s so many of you and so few of us.” Weber responded with an offer to finance a small factory.
Once the production problem was solved, Weber set his sight on growth. Two models of a new Rapala lure, the Original Finnish Jigging Minnow, joined the Original Floating Rapala in the U.S. market in 1963. Since the new lure was also intended for ice fishing, Weber and Ostrom began carrying a Finnish-made ice auger.
The company’s sales climbed steadily. In 1965 the national trade magazine Sporting Goods Dealer named Normark Importer of the Year. The hot-selling Rapala lure was tops in pulling in contest winning fish as well, according to Field & Stream magazine.
Once again capitalizing on their knowledge of fishing, in 1967 Weber and Ostrom brought out a fillet knife, one modeled after a well-worn butcher’s knife. Weber had to convince Finnish knife maker Lauri Marttiini to take on the task of fabricating the very thin, flexible blade he envisioned. When the Rapala Fish *N Fillet Knife hit the market, it quickly became a popular item, producing more than 40 percent of Normark revenue for a time.
Throughout the 1960s, U.S. anglers embraced Lauri Rapala’s lures, which now included a sinking model called the Countdown. “Normark Corp. has received some 20,000 voluntary letters testifying to the Rapala’s fish-catching ability,” wrote Schara. Back in Finland, the lure vitalized the region. A branch of Finland’s largest bank was established in Rapala’s home town, and the president of Finland honored Rapala for his contribution to the economy.
Casting a Wider Net: 1970s
In 1970 Normark and Rapala Oy, the Rapala family company, introduced its first salt water lure, the Rapala Magnum. The feat reflected the level of interdependence the two businesses had developed. “Weber and Ostrom not only marketed and distributed Rapala lures, they astutely interpreted the needs of American anglers and communicated those needs to the Rapala brothers,” wrote Dupont. Normark relayed information about species of fish the Rapalas had never seen and clued them into the peculiarities of a market which revolved around producing new and improved products year in and year out.
A lightweight lure that no one knew how to use, with a name no one knew how to pronounce. The back room of a south Minneapolis bait-and-tackle shop. A beat-up metal desk. And lots of enthusiasm.
What began as a simple dream in 1959 has evolved into one of the fishing tackle industry’s most influential organizations. Based in Minnetonka, Minnesota, with companies in 12 countries and distribution in more than 130 countries, the Rapala-Normark Group is the world’s largest fishing lure company, as well as one of the world’s largest premium fishing tackle distributors.
Fishing tackle companies have come and some have all but disappeared since 1959, but the Rapala-Normark Group endures.
As demand increased, Lauri’s sons upgraded the production facilities with state-of-the-art equipment. Ever mindful of their father’s concern with accuracy, each new product, even just size variations of an established lure, faced rigorous design and manufacturing standards.
Meanwhile, Normark broadened its mission to include customer education. How to Fish a Rapala by the Book and How to Clean a Mess of Fish Without Making a Mess of the Fish advised anglers on how to get the best results from their Normark and Rapala products. Angling tips from professional fishermen filled other books and pamphlets. (Keeping up with the times, educational video tapes were added in the late 1980s, and a web site was established in the 1990s.)
Normark also added compasses, rod racks, clothing, and a variety of knives to the product mix during the 1970s. In 1977 orange-handled Finnish-made Fiskars scissors caught the imagination of homemakers as well as outdoor enthusiasts, helping Normark go on to capture a majority of the U.S. scissors market. The company was the leading scissors seller in North America for about a decade.
Normark’s cross-country ski venture proved to be less successful. When introduced in the early 1970s, the Norwegian imports appeared to be a sure winner, but growing competition from downhill ski makers, a couple seasons with meager snowfall, and a shift toward more high-tech gear sideswiped the operation. (Normark exited the business and restructured around 1980, a period of general economic recession in the United States.)
The company succeeded in turning around another one of its operations. Weber and Ostrom purchased the National Expert Bait Company in 1968. The 36-year-old Minneapolis-based lure manufacturer produced high quality spoons, a product which complemented the Rapala line. Interestingly enough, the decision to purchase the manufacturer was also influenced by the Cold War. Weber and Ostrom feared that any aggression against Finland by the U.S.S.R. would cut off their supply of product.
The new lure line lacked the luster of the Rapala. After a decade, Weber made some dramatic changes in the operation. The business was renamed the Blue Fox Tackle Co., relocated to prime Minnesota fishing country, and revived with smart new lures, ones which catered to an industry increasingly fascinated with a scientific approach to fishing.
In 1979 a line of spinner baits designed in conjunction with noted bass angler Roland Martin gave Blue Fox entry into the Deep South. The company followed with the Super Vibrax spinner and Pixee Spoons which gained admirers among salmon and trout anglers in the Pacific Northwest and Alaska.
Changing Times: 1980s–90s
During the early 1980s, many industries experienced flat or falling sales. The fishing tackle business was no exception. Weber and the Rapala brothers hoped to animate the sluggish industry with a new product. The Shad Rap, a project which was shelved when Lauri Rapala died in 1974, was tapped for production. Unfortunately, a potential problem surfaced. If the lure was a big hit, the Rapala brothers would not be able to keep pace with demand. Normark, through its longtime ad agency Carmichael Lynch, executed an ad campaign which turned the weakness into a strength.
“Beg One, Borrow One or Steal One,” proclaimed Shad Rap ads. “When word spread among fishing tackle circles about the Shad Rap’s ability to catch fish, as well as its unavailability, all hell broke loose,” wrote Dupont. Normark had to allocate lures among retailers. Shad Rap backorders hit a million, and lure rental and black markets surfaced. Normark had prepared to ward off knockoffs by means of new packaging which featured Lauri Rapala’s image and the phrase “Hand Tuned, Tank Tested.”
Times were good. Combined sales for Normark and its affiliated companies in Canada, Great Britain, Sweden, and Finland had hit the $40 million mark. (Weber and Ostrom held stock in the foreign operations as individuals, but not through Normark Corporation.) Ostrom retired from Normark in 1984, leaving the company in the hands of cofounder Weber.
Weber and his new management team faced a number of challenges during the later half of the 1980s and into the early 1990s. The marketplace had changed: angler numbers had dropped and mass merchandisers replaced the independent bait-and-tackle shop as the primary point of purchase. Normark worked to both satiate giant retailers’ voracious appetite for product and maintain customer loyalty.
The company’s product portfolio gained new accessories, including blade sharpeners, fillet gloves, and digital scales. The Rapala Fishing Club, established in 1988, offered angler members opportunities to share fish stories and fishing tactics as well as field test new lures.
The period was also marked by the entry of a new generation of Rapalas into leadership positions. Jarmo Rapala, the first professional businessman to lead Rapala Oy, broadened the company’s international presence and tightened the relationship with Normark. In 1990, Weber and Rapala moved to consolidate the two companies as Rapala-Normark Group Ltd.
Lure introduction, of course, continued amid all the changes. Breaking from the traditional balsa wood lure, the first hard plastic Rapala was introduced in 1989. Bass and walleye anglers loved the Rattlin’ Rapala, and the way was paved for additional plastic offerings. Blue Fox products also created some excitement in the market during the later half of the 1980s thanks to a line of fish scents and a soft plastic lure, the Foxee Jig.
By 1991 Normark had sold more than 150 million Rapala brand lures in the United States, and the offerings continued to grow during the first half of the decade. The Rapala Husky Jerk, another plastic rattler launched in 1996, created the next sensation. Southern bass anglers, walleye, northern pike, and inshore saltwater anglers all took to the suspending jerkbait, according to Dupont, while the Wall Street Journal took note of its widespread success. In 1997 the Risto Rap, a deep diving castable lure—one developed by Ron Weber’s son Craig, a Normark employee since his teenage years—was honored by the American Sportsfishing Association.
The 225-millionth Rapala lure was expected to be produced sometime in 1999. Jarmo Rapala credited the lure’s continuing success to its versatility. “It’s as effective on Florida bass as it is on tarpon located along the west coast of Africa,” he said in an early 1999 company news release.
In addition to racking up impressive sales over the years, Rapala lures continued to bring in world record fish, 61 as of March 1999, the most for any lure. Continued commitment to quality and innovation carried on by a new generation will most likely keep anglers pulling in record catches well into the next millennium.
Anderson, Dennis, “Finn’s Knifes a Steel Deal,” St. Paul Pioneer Press, April 29, 1983.
_______, “One Man’s Passion,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis), May 9, 1999, p. 18C.
“Buy a Rapala, Get a Big Fish Free,” Minnetonka, Minn.:, Normark Corporation, June 8, 1999.
“Cashing in on the Cold,” Corporate Report Minnesota, December 1973, pp. 26–28.
Cothran, Thomas C., “The Rapala Lure: the Customers Always Bite,” Corporate Report Minnesota, November 1984, pp. 72–73.
Dupont, Stephen, Crafting of a Legend: the Normark Story, Minnetonka, Minn.: Normark Corporation, 1998.
“The Fishing Lure of the 20th Century?” Minnetonka, Minn.:, Normark Corporation, March 1999.
Peterson, Susan E., “Don Addy Tackles the Top Spot at Normark Corp.,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis), July 6, 1992.
Schara, Ron, “Finnish lure Is Hottest Fishing Item in U.S., Minneapolis Tribune, May 11, 1969, pp. 4–5.
_______, “Hooked by Rapala,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis), October 11, 1995, p. IOC.
_______, “Luck Isn’t All That for Lure Makers,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis), August 13, 1997, p. 8C.
_______, “Lure of the Rapala Spurs Angler,” Star Tribune (Minneapolis), September 4, 1991, p. 1C.