Incorporated: 1953 as Champions on Film
Sales: $12 million (2004 est.)
NAIC: 339920 Sporting and Athletic Goods Manufacturing; 454113 Mail-Order Houses
School-Tech, Inc. is a leading distributor of instructional videos and products for sports, science, and safety to schools and institutions across the United States. A number of its offerings, including gymnasium mats, safety patrol gear, and sports backstops, are manufactured at its Ann Arbor, Michigan, headquarters. The firm, which operates through divisions called Schoolmasters, Wolverine Sports, Olympia Sports, and Champions on Film, is owned by founder/CEO Don Canham and his family.
School-Tech traces its origins to 1953, when University of Michigan track and field coach Don Canham started a business in Ann Arbor to sell film loops for use as coaching aids. Canham, born in 1918 in Oak Park, Illinois, had attended the University of Michigan beginning in 1938, where he had been a star on the track team. Following four years of army service and a brief stint as a high school teacher in Illinois, he had returned to Ann Arbor to take a job as assistant track coach at his alma mater, assuming the role of head coach in 1948. In his spare time, Canham pursued a number of other endeavors, including photographing sporting events and writing manuals on track techniques. In 1953, he sold an account of an informal meeting he had had with Russian athletes in Finland to Sports Illustrated magazine.
While in Finland, he had noticed coaches using 16 millimeter film loops to help athletes study a certain play or motion. Though the practice had arisen from a desire to conserve film, the loop configuration proved more convenient to use than a full reel of film, as it eliminated the need to rewind and re-thread for multiple viewings. At the time, the practice was not known in the United States.
Recognizing a business opportunity, Canham spent $250 to buy a negative of the public domain 1936 Berlin Olympics film, shot by Leni Riefenstahl, to use as the basis for a set of 16 different loops. The well-known film featured a number of athletic greats, including Jesse Owens. After advertising his new "Champions on Film" series via direct mail, Canham received orders from thousands of coaches around the United States. To manufacture the loops, he set up a production center in his basement and hired some of his student athletes to splice and package them.
Following up on this highly successful first series, Canham created a second group of more than 20 loop sets on subjects ranging from football to cheerleading. He used as their basis film he had shot at sporting events around the world, including the only footage taken of a record-setting long jump in Mexico City.
In 1955, Canham branched out into athletic goods and began to import Swiss stopwatches for sale in the United States. He also introduced another European training practice, that of using weighted ankle bands and jackets to boost performance. Canham contracted out production of these items to firms in nearby cities like Ypsilanti, Michigan, and they too soon proved popular with American coaches and athletes.
The new manufacturing endeavor, which he called Wolverine Sports, would later be expanded to produce such items as track hurdles, baseball backstops, and disposable sideline markers for football. Like the film unit, its sales were made via mail order, largely to educational accounts. When he began receiving inquiries from sporting goods stores, Canham added a wholesale division to service this sector, called Olympia Sports. In the latter half of the 1950s Canham also began distributing educational science equipment through another unit, which he named Schoolmasters Science.
Despite this growth, the firm's business remained small, with annual revenues estimated at less than $50,000 by the end of the 1950s. Canham continued to work as the head Michigan track coach, and he and a business partner, Phil Diamond, shared most of the firm's workload. In 1959, they hired 23-year-old Gail Green to take orders, and when Diamond retired three months later she became general manager of Don Canham Enterprises, as the firm was now known, and its sole employee. Her duties included creation and mailing of the company's catalogs, processing and fulfilling orders, billing, accounting, and even loading trucks.
Growth during the 1960s
The early 1960s saw the company continue its expansion. A new division, Schoolmasters Safety, was added to manufacture and market items like safety patrol belts and badges, and it would eventually become the U.S. leader in this niche category. During these years, the firm began hiring additional employees, and by the mid-1960s had moved into a new facility on 15 acres south of Ann Arbor. As the company continued to grow, this building would be expanded a number of times.
In 1968, legendary University of Michigan athletic director Fritz Crisler announced his impending retirement, and Don Canham was named to replace him. To avoid the appearance of conflict of interest, he placed his holdings in Don Canham Enterprises in a blind trust and renamed the firm School-Tech, Inc. He would remain involved only as a paid consultant.
By 1972, with Gail Green now serving as the firm's president, annual sales had grown to approximately $4 million. The company employed more than 60 workers and operated plastic, wood, and metal fabrication shops in its facility near Ann Arbor. In addition to items it manufactured, School-Tech distributed more than 6,000 products from other firms, which included such items as science experiments, text books, educational games, and trophies. School-Tech's catalog was mailed to 400,000 potential customers, which included every educational institution in the United States from preschool through college, every municipal recreation department, summer camp, and YMCA, and many other institutions such as churches, hospitals, and even nudist camps. The catalogs, a total of 15 different ones per year, were produced in-house.
School-Tech's strengths included its quick response time and its consistently low prices. Orders were shipped within 24 hours of receipt, and average turnaround time was just four hours. 1,000 orders per day could be processed using the company's manual fulfillment system, which increased after the adoption of computerization in the early 1970s. The operation was run in a spartan fashion, with no fancy offices or special perks, and this helped keep prices to a minimum. The company also took pride in keeping its customers satisfied and offered a no-questions-asked return policy.
School-Tech's personnel were allowed, and even encouraged, to take on different roles at the plant, which helped increase interest in their work and give the firm a more versatile staff. In the mid-1970s, an unsuccessful attempt at union organization by the United Auto Workers served to inspire the firm to improve its benefits package and develop a retirement plan for its workers.
Sewing Firm Acquired in 1970s
Growth continued during the 1970s with the acquisition of a small sewing company which manufactured gymnastic and tumbling mats and other products. In 1976, Don Canham's son Don H. Canham took over as president from Gail Green. Three years later, the company added a second wing to its manufacturing plant, and by 1985 annual sales had grown to $7 million.
During this time period, Don Canham was working hard to build up the University of Michigan athletic program, which featured one of the nation's most popular and successful college football teams. He put his marketing experience to work cutting deals to license the school's block "M" logo for use on clothing and souvenirs, and royalties from that and from selling the right to broadcast the team's games on television dramatically boosted revenues. He also worked on raising attendance, and by the end of his tenure the team routinely sold out its 100,000-plus seat stadium.
In 1988, after nearly 20 years in charge, Canham retired from the University of Michigan and returned to School-Tech, where he took the title of CEO. The 1990s saw the firm branch out into new areas with the acquisition of Wheelchair Carrier, Inc. of Waterville, Ohio, manufacturer of an automotive wheelchair carrying device, and Stage Stop, a Michigan-based maker of garden equipment such as wheelbarrows and benches. Canham increased the offerings of the former firm from one item to 25 but sold the company in 1997. Stage Stop was also sold after a few years. In both cases, Canham cited the inconvenience of managing a company distant from Ann Arbor as a primary reason for selling.
School-Tech has been in business for over 50 years manufacturing a wide selection of products from sports equipment to children's videos.… Some say, "School-Tech has every-thing"—not quite, but we try.
School-Tech in the 21st Century
In 2003, School-Tech completed another renovation of its manufacturing facility. At this time the company was offering more than 7,000 items in its catalogs and via the Internet. The latter outlet was proving a useful new sales tool, as it enabled the firm to take orders online and gave the flexibility to add new products as they became available, rather than when a new catalog was published. Direct-mail catalogs continued to be printed for a number of specific interest areas, including football, track and field, gymnastics, science, safety, children's videos, and marching band equipment. Some items, such as windbreakers, duffel bags, marker cones, and megaphones, appeared in several different catalogs, while many others were specific to a particular one, such as football line markers or vaulting poles. As it had done since its earliest days, the company used the firm's employees and their family members as models for photographs in its catalogs, which lent them a low-key ambience. A number of items that School-Tech manufactured had been developed by its staff, including a portable football helmet rack and an 11-man drinking station. The latter could be hooked up to a hose on the sidelines so that an entire football team could drink as soon as they left the field.
At age 85, Don Canham remained in the CEO position, while his son Don H. Canham served as president and his sonin-law, former University of Michigan football player Steve Eaton, filled the role of vice-president in charge of Wolverine Sports. Canham's daughter, Clare Canham-Eaton, was also on the company's board.
After a half-century in business, School-Tech, Inc. had established itself as a leading source for all manner of educational and institutional specialty items, from stopwatches and football line markers to marching band directors' towers and Magic Schoolhouse videos. Under the continuing leadership of members of the Canham family, the firm was set to serve its customers for many years to come.
Wolverine Sports; Olympia Sports; Schoolmasters; Champions on Film.
Goal Sporting Goods, Inc.; Jaypro Sports, Inc.; Cannon Sports; Toledo Physical Education Supply.
- University of Michigan track coach Don Canham begins selling film loops of athletes.
- Wolverine Sports is formed to distribute stopwatches and weighted athletic gear.
- The firm becomes known as Don Canham Enterprises.
- Canham puts the firm in trust to take a top job at the University of Michigan; Don Canham Enterprises changes its name to School-Tech.
- Canham's son is named president.
- After leaving the University of Michigan, Canham returns to School-Tech as CEO.
- School-Tech renovates its manufacturing plant and celebrates its 50th anniversary.
Barkholz, David, "A Heart of Blue, a Touch of Gold: Canham a Success in New Arena," Crain's Detroit Business, October 13, 1997, p. 1.
Huszczo, Adaline, "Gail Green Is the Company, and the Company Is Gail Green," Ann Arbor News, July 23, 1972, p. 13.
Spindle, Bill, "Don Canham—The Making of a Modern Athletic Director," Ann Arbor News, December 13, 1987, p. C1.