6111 Shakespeare Road
Columbia, South Carolina 29223
Fax: (803) 754-7991
Wholly Owned Subsidiary of K2 Inc.
Sales: $200 million (1997 est.)
SICs: 3229 Pressed & Blown Glass, Not Elsewhere Classified; 3648 Lighting Equipment, Not Elsewhere Classified; 5091 Sporting & Recreational Goods
An integral subsidiary of K2 Inc., Shakespeare Company manufactures fishing tackle equipment, marine antennas, fiberglass utility poles, and monofilament. For nearly 90 years Shakespeare operated as an independent company, developing a diversified presence in sporting goods and industrial products through its expertise in using fiberglass. Anthony Industries acquired the company in 1980. In 1996, Anthony Industries changed its name to K2 Inc. Shakespeare, with operations in Europe, Asia, and Australia, accounted for a considerable percentage of K2 Inc.’s annual sales and profits during the late 1990s.
The Shakespeare Company was born out of frustration. Its formation celebrated the patented invention of William Shakespeare, Jr., and the elimination of one of the most burdensome chores plaguing fishing enthusiasts during the 19th century. Anglers throughout the world were overly familiar with the problem: If a thumb did not carefully guide a fishing line as it wound up on the reel spool, it would jam against the framework of the reel and become hopelessly tangled. A relaxing morning of leisurely fishing could quickly turn into a maddening exercise of frustration, as the task of unraveling a mess of fishing line presented itself to the inattentive angler. Many who loved fishing hated this peculiarity of the multiplier reel for obvious reasons, but the problem had been around for nearly a century and no one had found a solution. No one until a patent medicine salesman from Kalamazoo, Michigan, set himself to the task of developing a better reel. His creation revolutionized the sport of fishing and gave birth to a diversified enterprise that would thrive for the ensuing century under the corporate banner of Shakespeare.
Although William Shakespeare, Jr., had some training in mechanics and craftsmanship, he spent his days peddling patent medicines in and around Kalamazoo. When not hawking elixirs, Shakespeare often grabbed his fishing rod and reel and bait-casted on the banks of the Kalamazoo River or at one of his home state’s myriad lakes. Like his angler friends, Shakespeare was frustrated by the inherent inadequacy of multiplier reels, and in 1895 he fell back on his mechanical background and attempted to come up with a solution. Using a small jeweler’s lathe, Shakespeare carved precise, curving grooves along the lengths of two round brass rods and created a device that wound back fishing line evenly on the reel spool. He named it the “level-wind,” and took his creation on his next fishing trip. The level-wind worked well, drawing the line in evenly without the aid of a thumb. Those fishing alongside Shakespeare gawked at his homespun reel and asked to use it. Shakespeare made several more level-winds and handed them out. The level-winds were an immediate hit, and that was all the market testing Shakespeare needed. He filed for a patent and quickly prepared himself for his new entrepreneurial career.
Shakespeare was granted a patent in 1896. The following year he formed the William Shakespeare Jr. Company, the predecessor to the handful of Shakespeare businesses in operation during the 1990s. Shortly after starting his company, Shakespeare began working on other reel models and fishing-related equipment, developing a full line of fishing tackle equipment, including split bamboo rods and artificial lures, that could add to the sales generated by his innovative level-wind. From its start, however, the company was best known for its reels, the signature product of the William Shakespeare Jr. Company during its early years. Sold under various brandnames through the company’s first half-century of business, the family of high-quality Shakespeare reels were known to generations of fishing enthusiasts as “Marhoff,” “Ideal,” “Superior,” “Criterion,” “Balcli,” “President,” and “Wondereel.” By all measures, Shakespeare’s venture was a success; business was brisk and the company was etching a lasting presence in the fishing tackle market. Shakespeare proved to be an astute businessman, however, by not letting the parade of one successful reel after another lull him into complacency. Shakespeare realized that no matter how successfully his reels sold, his company would still be fettered to the wide-ranging cyclically of a seasonal business and vulnerable to the same market capriciousness that affected all leisure-oriented businesses. Shakespeare’s response was to diversify, to develop other businesses outside the sporting goods industry and thereby reduce his company’s dependence on the vagaries of the nation’s economy and the changing seasons.
Shakespeare’s first major diversification was into the automotive products industry, a business area that, like all facets of the automotive industry, was growing robustly during the early decades of the 20th century. He formed a subsidiary named Shakespeare Products Company in 1921, which, from its inaugural year forward, figured as a mainstay business for the Shakespeare enterprise. Through Shakespeare Products Company, later to become the company’s Automotive Products Division, Shakespeare Company produced flexible control components used in engine components, making a name for itself as a manufacturer of parts that featured twisted wire cables encased in coiled flexible wire tubing.
The foray into automotive products occurred at a propitious juncture in the nation’s history, giving Shakespeare nearly a decade to build his automotive products venture into an established business before the Great Depression descended on the country and made survival in business a laudatory achievement. The company’s automotive products business helped compensate for the loss of business produced by its fishing tackle business during the 1930s, and, consequently, helped it withstand the devastating blows delivered by a moribund economy. Shakespeare Company persevered through the Great Depression as a result, and after the end of World War II, when restrictions on the use of raw materials for civilian use were removed, Shakespeare Company was able to grow aggressively. The postwar years witnessed the ascension of the second generation of Shakespeares, led by Henry Shakespeare, William Shakespeare, Jr.’s son. Under Henry Shakespeare’s tutelage, Shakespeare Company would proliferate, developing into the multifaceted enterprise in operation during the 1990s.
Post-World War II Diversification
Expansion, diversification, and growth were the dominant themes describing Shakespeare Company during the postwar years, and the push to become bigger and broader got off to a rousing start one year after the end of World War II. During the war, experiments with heat-hardenable polyester resin reinforced with high-strength glass fibers in structural aircraft parts gave birth to fiberglass and the manifold applications of its use. Dr. Arthur M. Howald, technical director of the Plaskon Company, was one of the legions of individuals who experimented with fiberglass’s strength and flexibility to create improved quality in existing products. Dr. Howald’s area of interest was in manufacturing a fishing rod constructed with fiberglass. After conducting experiments with fiberglass fishing rods, Dr. Howald turned over his results to Shakespeare Company. The company took it from there, experimenting first with fiberglass casting rods and then with fiberglass fly rods, eventually investing $1 million in the project before introducing the first fiberglass fishing rod on the market in 1946, the revolutionary Wonderod.
The Wonderod quickly changed the face of the fishing tackle industry, making bamboo and steel rods virtually obsolescent. It also cemented the company’s reputation as a maker of high-quality fishing rods and, equally important, it demonstrated the immeasurable potential of fiberglass. Having scored its first success with fiberglass, the company looked for other applications for fiberglass rod technology and made its move by entering the golf business. In 1946, Shakespeare began manufacturing golf clubs with fiberglass shafts, which led to the introduction of the WonderShaft and marked the beginning of the company’s involvement in manufacturing golfing equipment.
As the company’s designers and engineers celebrated their successes with the Wonderod and their entry into the golf business, strategic decisions at the executive level presaged the energetic diversification that would occur during the 1950s, 1960s, and 1970s. In 1946—a busy year for the company—the fishing rod manufacturing operations were moved to Columbia, South Carolina, and incorporated as a subsidiary named Columbia Products Company. Another subsidiary made its debut in 1946 when the company’s fishing line production operations were moved to Esterville, Iowa, and organized as a subsidiary named Soo Valley Company, Inc. (A decade later, Soo Valley relocated to Columbia, South Carolina.) In the wake of the major developments of 1946, Shakespeare pursued an aggressive expansion and diversification program, using its founder’s initial diversification into the automotive market as a blueprint for future growth.
In 1959, the company widened the scope of its operations by acquiring Waverly, Ohio-based Parallel Products Company, a maker of archery equipment that was organized into Shakespeare’s Columbia Products subsidiary. Next, the company made its first move into a foreign market, forming a subsidiary in Canada named Shakespeare Company (Canada) Limited in 1960. Located in a suburb of Toronto, Shakespeare’s Canadian subsidiary marketed sporting goods to Canadian markets. By the mid-1960s, diversification into the production of automotive parts, golf equipment, and archery, coupled with steady geographic and physical expansion, had created a formidably-sized Shakespeare enterprise. Multifaceted and poised for expansion on three fronts, the company was collecting nearly $50 million in annual sales midway through the 1960s and showed no signs of slowing its growth. In the years ahead, the company not only increased its involvement in its established businesses, but also entered new markets, intent on extending the Shakespeare name into a grab bag of businesses.
After using fiberglass to manufacture fishing rods and golf club shafts, Shakespeare began looking for other applications for the strong yet flexible material, having realized the benefits of using fiberglass as a replacement for steel. Through Columbia Products, the company began manufacturing commercial fiberglass antennas, which developed into a thriving business. Success with antennas bred further diversification, bringing the company into the business of manufacturing utility pole line hardware and other utility-related products that depended on strong and durable construction. This burgeoning arm of the company’s manufacturing operations was allotted expanded production space in 1965, when Columbia Products opened a $1.5 million manufacturing facility in Newbury, South Carolina, that housed Shakespeare’s antenna and utility pole manufacturing activities. The construction of this facility occurred in the same year Shakespeare opened a new production plant in Fayetteville, Arkansas, for its line of fishing reels and golf clubs. Operated by a subsidiary named Shakespeare of Arkansas, Inc., the facility also served as a warehouse and distribution center for the company’s activities in the southern and western United States.
Following the establishment of its two new manufacturing facilities, Shakespeare concentrated on building its existing businesses through acquisitions, taking a temporary reprieve— with one exception—from entering new business areas. In 1966, the company acquired Pflueger Corporation, an Akron, Ohio-based fishing tackle manufacturer whose experience in the fishing industry was as lengthy as Shakespeare’s. Having bolstered its original business, the company next moved to expand its other business areas. In 1968, Shakespeare incorporated steel and aluminum golf shafts into its golf line and purchased Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania-based Plymouth Golf Ball Company, a maker of golf balls founded in 1916. The following year, Shakespeare built up its archery business, acquiring Big Rapids, Michigan-based Root Archery Company. In 1970, the company acquired the manufacturing and sales rights to Golden Eagle Bow, and subsequently consolidated both archery acquisitions into Columbia Products Company. The one exception to the company’s strategy of strengthening established businesses during this period was the creation of a ski division in 1970, facilitated by a distribution and sales arrangement with Yugoslavia-based Elan Ski Company. Operated through the Shakespeare Sporting Goods Division, the ski segment manufactured skis, bindings, poles, and a line of ski apparel.
After consolidating Columbia Products Company and Soo Valley Company in 1971 to form the Shakespeare Industrial Products Division, the company comprised five business segments: Shakespeare Sporting Goods Division, Shakespeare Industrial Products Division, Pflueger Division, Shakespeare Automotive Products Division, and Shakespeare Company (Canada) Limited. Combined, these business segments operated plants in six states and held interests in operations located in a dozen foreign countries stretching from Europe to Asia to Australia. Together, the sprawling Shakespeare enterprise was generating $60 million in sales a year by the early 1970s, having achieved much of its growth by developing expertise in fiberglass manufacturing processes. The company was most widely known for its fishing tackle equipment, but when the company went public in 1972 it was supported by much more than rod, reel, and line production. Fiberglass had opened new doors for the company, creating a much more diversified enterprise than its founder had ever envisioned. When Shakespeare debuted on the New York Stock Exchange during its 75th anniversary year, fiberglass was used in a broad assortment of products, including archery equipment, skis, fishing equipment, and in the company’s WonderThread, which had developed from the company’s fishing-line technology and steered it into the monofilament business. Much had changed at the company since the advent of fiberglass, and certainly wholesale changes had swept through the company and reshaped it since William Shakespeare, Jr.’s days. The company was the product of decades of change, and further definitive developments were in the offing as Shakespeare moved forward as a publicly traded company.
Among the highlights during the remainder of the 1970s were two expansions at the company’s Newbury production facility—one in 1972 and another in 1975—which made the Newbury plant the largest fiberglass pole production facility in the world. Toward the end of the decade, another important development occurred when Shakespeare introduced the “Ugly Stik,” the company’s new fishing rod. Ugly Stiks eventually developed into the bestselling fishing rods in the United States, holding sway as the market leader for nearly two decades, but the chief benefactor of their popularity was not Shakespeare but the company’s future owners. Waiting in the wings at the end of the 1970s was a Los Angeles-based company determined to develop a stronger presence in recreational products and industrial products through acquisitions. Shakespeare represented an opportunity the Los Angeles company could not pass up.
New Ownership in the 1980s
Anthony Industries Inc., founded in 1946, operated exclusively as a pool contractor during its first three decades of existence, but beginning in the mid-1970s the company began to diversify aggressively. The company acquired Hilton Athletic Apparel, a maker of bowling shirts and jackets, in 1974, and by 1978 had acquired Simplex Industries, Inc., a manufacturer of laminated, coated, and reinforced paperboard products. These two acquisitions, and the original in-ground swimming pool business, represented the foundation of Anthony Industries’ recreational and industrial products segments. Under the management of Bernard I. “Bif” Forester, who assumed control over the company in 1973, Anthony Industries was searching to build on the foundation in each business segment, and Shakespeare met the company’s criteria exactly, enabling it to become significantly stronger in both segments with one acquisition. The transaction was completed in 1980, bringing Shakespeare Fishing Tackle, Shakespeare Electronics & Fiberglass, Shakespeare Monofilament, and Shakespeare Flexible Controls into Anthony Industries’ fold. Anthony Industries sold Shakespeare Flexible Controls, the successor to the foray into the automotive market in 1921, the year after the acquisition, but the remaining Shakespeare businesses were embraced wholeheartedly, adding considerably to its parent company’s stature.
Anthony Industries continued with its acquisition campaign after purchasing Shakespeare, adding both recreational and industrial businesses to its operations. The most important of the acquisitions to follow was the company’s acquisition of ski manufacturer K2 Corporation in 1985, precipitating the name change of Anthony Industries to K2 Inc. a decade later. In the years leading up to the name change, company executives paid a great deal of attention to the development of the K2 brand and to targeting other acquisitions that increased Anthony Industries’ presence in recreational and industrial markets. Although much of the company’s strategic focus was aimed at K2, Shakespeare benefited directly from some of the acquisitions completed by Anthony Industries. In 1990, Britain-based Nymofil, Ltd. was acquired and merged into Shakespeare Monofilament and in 1991 the decorative light pole business belonging to Stanhope Inc. was acquired to strengthen Shakespeare Electronic & Fiberglass’s business.
Despite the attention directed at K2, Shakespeare’s contributions to its parent company’s financial health were considerable. Shakespeare’s industrial products businesses, comprising Shakespeare utility poles and its monofilament operations, constituted the bulk of its parent company’s industrial products segment, which accounted for nearly 70 percent of total annual profits during the 1990s. On the recreational products side, Shakespeare’s fishing equipment and marine antennas were also important contributors to Anthony Industries’ bottom line. Shakespeare’s fishing rod business, led by the company’s signature Ugly Stik, continued to reign as a market leader in the years leading up to the name change.
During the 1990s, the success of Shakespeare businesses helped Anthony Industries and its successor, K2 Inc., more than double annual sales from less than $300 million to the $638 million generated in 1997. Shakespeare Fishing Tackle accounted for roughly $85 million in annual sales and the industrial products division, led by Shakespeare Monofilament and Shakespeare Electronic & Fiberglass, contributed approximately $200 million to the parent company’s annual sales total. Without Shakespeare, K2 Inc. would lose a considerable percentage of its financial might and much of what made it a diversified company. For these reasons, Shakespeare’s role as a K2 Inc. subsidiary appeared secure as Shakespeare celebrated its 100th anniversary and looked toward its second century of business, having traveled a long way from the banks of the Kalamazoo River.
Shakespeare (Hong Kong) Ltd.; Pacific Rim Metallic Products Ltd.; Shakespeare International Ltd. (U.K.); Shakespeare Company (UK) Ltd.; Shakespeare Monofilament U.K. Ltd.; Shakespeare Hengelsport, B.V. (Netherlands); Shakespeare (Australia) Pty. Ltd.; Shakespeare International GmbH (Germany).
Beaty, Wayne, “Composite Poles Now Include Transmission Class,” Electric Light & Power, November 1995, p. 42.
Shakespeare Company, “Brief History of the Shakespeare Company,” Columbus, S.C.: Shakespeare Company, 1975.
“Shakespeare on Stage,” Monsanto Magazine, 1972.
“Wildly Still Alive, Says K2; Restructures Outdoor Group,” Sporting Goods Business, February 24, 1997, p. 14.
—Jeffrey L. Covell
"Shakespeare Company." International Directory of Company Histories. . Encyclopedia.com. (January 22, 2019). https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/shakespeare-company
"Shakespeare Company." International Directory of Company Histories. . Retrieved January 22, 2019 from Encyclopedia.com: https://www.encyclopedia.com/books/politics-and-business-magazines/shakespeare-company
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