Bringing space-age technology to the world of sporting goods lets tiny Worth Sports Co. leapfrog its giant competitors and capture a new market
Each spring, before the dogwood blooms at the nearby Jack Daniel Distillery, the white Dodge vans -- emblazoned with the Worth Sports Co. logo and filled with bats and balls -- pull out of the company headquarters in Tullahoma, Tenn., and hit the road. Before spring training in March, through the season, and past the World Series in October, Worth's salesmen travel, mile after mile, ballpark after ballpark; singing along with Willie Nelson over the hum of the fuzzbuster; packing and unpacking the Tennessee Thumper and Ball Buster bats, the patented Poly-X balls and Doc Joc batting gloves; preaching the company's gospel.
"Let me show you this," the salesman will say, bouncing the ball in front of him. The company has pictures and statistics to document the ball's liveliness and durability. But bouncing the ball a few times still seems to work best. Then he will cut one open, slicing through the hand-stitched leather to the patented polyurethane core.
"Try this," he will insist, thrusting two 34-ounce bats, handle first, into the prospect's hands. "Both bats feel the same, don't they?" That is the old way to buy a bat: total weight.
"Now try this," he will say, retrieving the bats, reversing them, and thrusting the barrel end into the outstretched hands. "One feels heavier, doesn't it? That's how much weight you can put behind the ball." Worth calls it Swing Weight. It is a trademark, and it is the new way to buy -- and sell -- a bat.
A few bats and balls given away, a visit to the local sporting goods store, a promise to check back next time he comes through, and back on the road. For a few days in spring training the salesman may rub shoulders at camp with the Carlton Fisks and Mike Schmidts of the world, but that is the extent of the glamour. For every overpaid pro in center field's sunshine there are thousands of would-be Reggie Jacksons on college campuses, on Little League fields, and on neighborhood softball diamonds. That is where the real market is. In 1982, the estimated 30 million softball players in the United States bought roughly 12 million balls. Nearly 5 million bats (for both baseball and softball) were bought the same year. So the salesman will drive, and he will talk with coaches and athletic directors, park and recreation officials, and every player he can find.
"We're a small company," marketing manager Ted Savage insists. "We can't afford a huge advertising budget -- the dollars just aren't there. So we had to become backwoods evangelists instead."
The technique may be old-fashioned, but it fills the company coffers. Last year Worth had more than $30 million in sales, up from $4 million -- about 650% -- in just over a decade. Ten years ago Worth's main market was in low-grade baseballs, but that market disappeared. The baby-boom generation grew up, changing from Little League players to slow-pitch softball devotees, with dollars, not dimes, to spend for equipment. But Worth thrived, introducing new products for the newly quality-conscious consumer, products innovative enough to let Worth leapfrog such well-known competitors as Hillerich & Bradsby Co., the manufacturer of Louisville Slugger, and Dudley Sports Co.
The Worth salesmen may travel like itinerant preachers, but they carry spaceage sporting goods in their vans: swing-weighted aluminum alloy bats and patented Poly-X softballs. Parish knew that Worth could never compete with Louisville Slugger bats and Dudley softballs at their own game. So he changed the way the game is played.
Tullahoma, Tenn., halfway between Nashville and Chattanooga, is hardly your typical sleepy southern hamlet. You can still buy overalls in the Dollar General Store and savor hickory-smoked ribs at Piggy's Place Pit Bar-B-Que over by the Church of Christ, but the tract houses, Taco Bells, and shopping malls of today have grown up around the core of the old town. The Arnold Engineering Development Center, an Air Force research and development facility, employs nearly one-third of the town's 15,000 people. That craggy-faced man in the Caterpillar hat driving the Jeep down Jackson Street is more likely to be a PhD engineer than a dirt farmer.
Lannom Manufacturing Co, Worth's corporate parent, has grown in much the same way as the town, grafting the new to the traditional for three generations. In 1912, when George S. Lannom bought the tannery that still stands, ramshackle and redolent, on Rock Creek near the center of town, his goal was never simply to sell leather. The tannery was to be his supplier, first for the manufacture of horse collars, then, when the automobile killed that market, for the baseball manufacturing facility he set up in 1919 on the second floor of a Tullahoma drugstore. He believed in vertical integration -- raw materials from the tannery and the mill, a manufacturing facility, and a strong sales force. Eventually Lannom would expand into gloves and shoes to maximize use of the tannery, and he would buy a wool mill to produce the baseball windings. While the glove and shoe line have been sold, the concept remains. The tannery still operates, and the company has added two saw mills to provide wood for the bat division. The development of new product lines -- the sport bag developed eight years ago, for example -- builds on this supply and manufacturing strength.
John Parish -- president of Lannom Manufacturing, who has temporarily stepped aside as chief executive officer to work as Commissioner for Economic and Community Development for the state of Tennessee -- has kept many of Lannom's old-fashioned values. The company has stayed family owned, governed with a stern financial hand. Parish preserved the vertical integration that was his grandfather's creed and the aggressive salesmanship that was his father's faith. But he added his own belief in the blessings of R&D.
Chuck Parish -- later to be George Lannom's son-in-law, John Parish's father, and the CEO and owner of Lannom Manufacturing -- brought his own changes to the company after he arrived in 1930. Parish was an old-fashioned salesman. Known in the trade as "the baron of baseballs," his sales technique would boost sales tenfold. "He'd sell a baseball by bouncing it, by cutting it open, by getting up on his soapbox," his son says. But he attacked new markets as well. "Before Chuck came we'd been selling to small sporting goods retailers," Jess Heald, Worth's president, says. "Chuck got us into the major retail chains -- Sears, Penney's, and Montgomery Ward -- which generated high volume and significant sales growth." To provide product at low cost, Parish became one of the first U.S. executives to manufacture offshore, setting up ball-sewing facilities in the Caribbean. To keep sales high, he insisted that company salesmen carry Worth products exclusively, rather than represent a variety of product lines, something unusual for a company so small. Worth employs its own sales staff, and products are still made in both Tullahoma and the Caribbean.
Young John Parish joined Lannom Manufacturing in 1959, after graduating from Vanderbilt University, and spent his first three years overseeing the company's Caribbean facilities. When he came back home, however, he was eager to put his own imprint on Worth. "I went on the road selling, and I could see new trends emerging," Parish remembers. "We were primarily a manufacturer of junk baseballs for the carnival and domestic trade. We'd always sold price, not quality or service, things consumers were starting to want Sporting goods was becoming a big business. Our company was built on good foundations -- our small aggressive sales force, for example. But a few good salesmen weren't enough anymore. We needed sales technique. Then, to compete into the 1970s, '80s, and '90s, we needed product innovation along with vertical integration -- and the marketing to go with it."
Conflict was inevitable. Chuck Parish's management style was as old-fashioned as his salesmanship. He kept the books in his head and monitored inventory from clipboards hung behind his desk. John Parish wanted to introduce more modern techniques. Chuck Parish wanted to keep the company small. "I hope we never grow bigger than a million," Heald remembers him saying. John wanted to see the company grow. "We'd usually end up hollering at one another," John remembers. But young Parish persevered, and, in 1969, his father finally agreed "to let a young buck try his wings," seeding him $50,000 for a foray into bat manufacturing.
It was a fortuitous time to venture into the bat business. In 1969, production of Louisville Slugger, the brand leader, had dropped because of labor troubles, so there was a market demand that wasn't being met. Adirondack Industries Inc., the No. 2 manufacturer, had just been purchased by a conglomerate, so Parish was able to persuade Frederick Juer, Adirondack's former president, to join the Worth team, where today he is president of Worth Bat Co., a Lannom subsidiary. More important, however, 1969 marked the introduction of the first primitive aluminum bat, developed by a Pittsburgh inventor, and the approval of the aluminum bats by the Amateur Softball Association of America Parish recognized that he couldn't compete over the long run with the brand identification built up by the Louisville Slugger. But aluminum was a whole new ball game. "All the other bat companies were resisting it," he says. "But given our situation it was obvious we had to be innovators in something." So back he went to his father. After all, he said, we are already in the bat business.
Enter Jess Heald. John Parish and Heald had met through their local church, where Heald, a United States Naval Academy graduate with a master's degree in aerospace engineering, then working at Arnold Engineering, had volunteered to help Parish run a local Boy Scout troop. "John knew I had done some metal and structural work in the aerospace industry," Heald says. "So he asked me to do a little analysis as a consultant on the prospect of making a bat from an aluminum tube."
Although Heald was "unimpressed" by the original aluminum bat, the study convinced him that the technology was available to produce a bat that was "far superior" to any product then on the market. The original had a wood knob handle, likely to shear off under stress; Heald recommended a welded metal knob. The original had a rubber plug at the hitting end; Heald suggested a single-piece construction. The original came in just one size, "kid's size," he called it. By using different forming equipment and stronger alloys, Heald said, it would be possible to provide the variety of handle and barrel sizes the market demanded. "I decided that aluminum bats would be worth the risk," Heald says. "Then I outlined a way to get into it with a minimal investment. John turned around to me and said, 'Okay, but you'll have to do it."
Worth's start-up was cautious -- an initial investment of some $20,000, with most of the manufacturing subcontracted in order to avoid premature capital expenditure while Heald perfected the design. At the end of the first year, convinced that the bat had exceptional promise, Heald recommended a major five-year development program, an investment he was sure would give Worth a tremendous advantage over the traditional manufacturers of wood bats.
The gamble paid off. "We became the first company to make wood softball and baseball bats and aluminum softball bats," John Parish says. "We went from less than $4 million in sales in 1971 to over $6 million in 1972. We grabbed 50% of the aluminum-bat market almost immediately."
Chuck Parish sniped from the sidelines -- and sold bats. His rapport with the mass marketers permitted his son to find immediate volume markets and record a profit for the overall bat line in the first year. "He referred to us as 'the Young Turks," Heald remembers. "But we would never have been able to expand into the bat business without his strong endorsement. He would never have made the move himself, but he was backing his son, whom he very much wanted to see take over the business."
While Chuck Parish was selling bats, John Parish and Jess Heald were refining the product. Besides gradually introducing the innovations recommended in his initial study, Heald made further changes in the Worth bat. "We weighted the heavy end for extra power for the slow-pitch softball game. And this made us even more competitive against wood bats," explains Heald. "The traditional wood bats were lighter, and not as effective in the slowpitch game. We kept waiting for the traditional manufacturers to follow us -- but they didn't." To compound Worth's success, the National Collegiate Athletic Association approved aluminum bats for college baseball starting with the 1974 season. "Louisville Slugger was already back in the wood-bat market in force. So we needed an edge again -- and this gave it to us. We rode that crest for another four years."
Metal bats now account for an estimated two-thirds of the total bat market. Worth claims an estimated 20% of the total bat market. The company refuses to disclose a more exact breakdown of sales or market share per bat type. In any case, Heald argues, the company's early entry and continued innovation have given it a strong product identification. "Having a product name where you're first in your field means you'll be the one people ask for, regardless of how many other products like yours come into the market. For us, it's almost like a patent."
The death of Chuck Parish in 1975 left his son in control of the company, free to modernize management and to pursue further growth. "We took stock of our situation then," Heald remembers. "We asked ourselves what we had done to be successful so far. And it finally came to us: When we came out with aluminum bats, we surprised our competition by changing the rules of the game."
Market research pointed the way to the next move, into top-line softballs. "We had 80% of the low-end ball market," Heald says, "but we could see that that market was going to come down." The slow-pitch market, on the other hand, was flowering. Players were willing to spend top dollar for a top-quality product, a product that offered a baseball with a healthier profit margin.
The problem, as it had been with wood bats, was that another company already dominated the market. Traditionally softballs had been filled with kapok. But slow-pitch is a hitter's game, and a kapok ball could rarely last a full seven innings. So Dudley had introduced a cork-core ball -- harder, livelier, and more durable -- and captured a 50% market share. Worth also had a cork ball, "but Dudley had gotten too far ahead," Heald says. "Even when our product was as good we couldn't sell it. Their brand identification was just too strong. So I realized I'd have to do exactly what Dudley had done. I'd have to find a new material, something that would make a better ball than cork."
The answer was polyurethane foam. Heald was familiar with the material from its use as an aerospace insulator; not only was it hard and impact-resistant, but since it would rise and harden on exposure to air, Worth could avoid costly injection molding. Worth first began selling the Poly-X polyurethane-core ball in 1975, and a patent was granted in 1976. Heald kept working on new compounds. "By 1978, I knew I had a winner -- it was harder, livelier, and more durable than cork. So we became very aggressive in our marketing," he says. "We've ridden that crest ever since, selling every ball we can make. In 1983, I expect we'll have some 40% of the market -- or even more."
Even while developing its new softball, Worth continued its bat research. Having changed the product, Worth next changed the way consumers thought about the product, introducing innovations in marketing to parallel the innovations in design. In 1979 the company began marking its bats with a Swing Weight, a measure of the weight at the point of impact with the ball. Top-line golf clubs have always been sold with a comparable measure, but Worth, currently selling bats in 10 different Swing Weights, was the first to bring the concept to the softball diamond.
In 1982 the company followed with Swing Ray, a laser timing device to record a player's bat speed. "I'd always dreamed of an instrument that could help a player find the bat that would give him the most power," Heald explains. "It's a nice engineering problem. How much power you have when you hit the ball means how much bat weight you're swinging and how fast you're swinging it. But no one ever knew the trade-off between bat speed and bat weight.
"So for every player there exists an optimum bat. The perfect bat." The Swing Ray let Worth help players find that perfect bat.
So far the Swing Ray has been primarily a research and promotional tool. Last spring, for example, a Worth van carried the prototype, a cumbersome thing, through eight major league training camps, generating newspaper stories and an appearance on NBC-TV's "Today" show (see box, page 98). This spring, however, the company will take a simplified version on the road, to set up at sporting goods stores and softball tournaments each weekend.
"Grass-roots promotion is the key to our success," insists sales manager Doug Bennett. "A retailer doesn't want to have to spend the time convincing people a certain bat or ball is best. He'll only handle a line if the customers ask for it."
"There are guys that play softball tournaments every weekend from the first of April to the end of August," marketing manager Savage says. "And guys that spend every weekend playing softball don't read a lot. They don't have the time. You can't get through to them with printed material, long detailed explanations of what makes Worth better. You've got to go talk to them one on one."
To make sure its salesmen can carry their end of the conversation, Worth insists that its promotion and sales staff be softball experts before they take to the road. Each salesman must spend time working in every step in the manufacturing process, right down to hand-stitching ball covers. "That way they know what's involved in making the product," Bennett says. "So they end up knowing more about balls and bats than any of their competitors."
"First of all you hit the parks and recreation departments," explains salesman Mike Cunningham. "They're the ones that buy the bulk of the softballs. You take a ball in and explain that it will save money because they can use that one ball over and over again.
"Once you sell them, you go to the sporting goods stores. Then you go talk to the players, to create the demand. You put a ball in their hands and let them beat it up. "Once you get them to hit the ball -- boom. You've got 'em."
It is the kind of salemanship that Chuck Parish excelled in, personal and substantial. And it works. "The leagues and college teams call us now," says Heald "They want to win and they know we can help."
Making baseballs, softballs, and bats is still a handicraft industry, much as it was in the days of George Lannom, although the company can now turn out 20,000 balls and 5,000 bats a day. Inside the aging ball factory, recently refronted in brick, countless cartons of fresh softballs share floor space with modern polyurethane molds. But there are no machines to replace long-time employees like Doris Phillips, an 18-year veteran still hand-packing some 600 dozen balls each day, or grayhaired Stella McEwin, one of Worth's 85 ball stitchers, who laboriously hand-sews the 88 cross-stitches in the hand-cut and hand-graded leather cover of Worth's patented softball. "I've been sewing balls for nearly 40 years," she says. "My mother used to sew, and my daughters still do -- it's kind of handed down from generation to generation."
Over the past three generations, Worth, too, has built on its past. Vertical integration has given the company exceptional flexibility to attack new markets. Eight years ago, for example, Worth test-marketed leather sports bags stitched at the company plant with leather from the tannery. Today most of the bags are made from vinyl and nylon, some with leather hand-grips. But Suzy Heald, general manager of the accessories division and Jess Heald's wife, reports that her division has nearly doubled sales annually for the past five years. More new products will be developed in the same way -- probably something that can be stitched, Heald hints, or perhaps wood and leather furniture -- then sold with Worth's traditional aggressive marketing.
Worth's growth plan remains conservative. "We've always spent our money circumspectly," Heald says. "We aren't high rollers; we want to make sure we have enough money to stay private." Growth planned for the future will be "a bootstrap operation" financed by cash flow.
Innovation, however, remains the key to the company's future. While ball division manager Charles Dale insists that his product is technically "about six years ahead of the nearest competitor," and while no one else yet markets bats with Swing Weight, Heald insists that Worth will make its way into the future through product innovation. R&D has been established as a corporate division in its own right, with a budget of roughly 0.5% of sales. "We've got some things on the drawing board that might well usher in another new era," Heald promises. "I don't want to let any secrets out, but we're looking closely at weight concentration -- the sweet spot that is the batter's target area."
After all, innovation has kept the company alive. "There used to be a tremendous market for low-price softballs and baseballs," Heald says. "But that market doesn't exist today.
"But when we went into the bat business we actually went into new markets as well. You can't make just low-grade bats like you can balls. When you cut a tree it yields 20% top-grade wood, and you've got to sell it. So if you're going to sell bats you've got to compete across the spectrum. And aluminum bats are all top grade. So by going into bats we thrust ourselves into top-grade sporting goods, where the company had never been before.
"We look back now at the low-end ball market and think, Wow. If we'd stayed there the company would have been in serious trouble."