The Sporting Life

Orvis goes out of its way to bring an air of authority to its product lines.
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An exclusive resort for more than a century, Manchester, Vt., is one of the few locales in the Green Mountain State where people outnumber cows. At least in part, that ratio can be attributed to the anomalous, 280-worker presence of The Orvis Co., the area's largest employer. But the manufacturing, retail, and mail-order outfit's buildings, sprawled like Army barracks alongside prissy country inns, seem anathema to town fathers, who recently voted to restrict Orvis's planned warehouse expansion. That despite the fact that Charles Frederick Orvis began hawking the outdoor life to urbanites in 1856, well before any of these nouveau bucolics did.

Perhaps Manchester residents ought to be grateful for small favors. A pond next to the company store, where anglers can try out new gear, gives properly pastoral substance to the commercial mystique that has fed the company's growth for decades. Today, the Orvis stamp means fine sporting equipment at equally fine sums. Its carved shotguns can cost $10,000, and delicate bamboo fishing rods, as much as $950.

The private corporation posted record domestic sales this year of about $45 million. Only a small fraction of that, however, was derived from exquisite paraphernalia of the hunt. Rather, clothing and gift items, marketed mostly through mail order, accounted for three quarters of sales. Indeed, some $1 million alone came not from dogged outdoor sports but from sporty indoor dogs. At up to $56 each, the recently introduced Orvis Dog's Nest -- a mattress stuffed with polystyrene beads that Fido "prefers over cheaper compressible polyester filling" -- has become the company's best-selling catalog item. Snapping at its heels is a duck-shaped telephone ($269) that quacks. And to distinguish the fall catalog, Orvis has been considering a putter-cum-reel.

Leigh H. Perkins, Orvis's third and for the past 20 years latest owner, might concede that stapling a golf ball to a fishing line so duffers can retrieve practice putts is a far cry from the bosky lifestyle C.F. had in mind when he began one of the country's earliest mail-order operations. Still, neither could he have envisioned the countrywide glut that almost did in competitor Abercrombie & Fitch, and inspired fellow out-of-door catalogists L. L. Bean and Eddie Bauer to mend their retail fences. Orvis, too, has opened additional outlets in New York City, San Francisco, and Houston, but to little effect. The sites are expensive, and over-the-counter sales seem merely to cut into catalog response. Thus it remains to the Manchester postman to deliver the biggest checks, but to keep them coming, Perkins realizes, "you gotta run like hell to stay even." At 15% revenue growth this year, the 57-year-old chief executive officer has run a helluva lot faster than that, pursuing Bean's 60 million mailing pieces with a record 14 million of his own.

Phona-Duck and all, some of Orvis's pace can be measured in winsome catalog gadgets. In addition, much is generated through list-segmentation techniques that target spenders. Most, though, is in the unseen air of authority that the company fastidiously evokes beyond the printed page. Orvis keeps three gunsmiths on the payroll, for instance, even though they produce no income -- a P&L item that, says Perkins, "we credit to sizzle." Ditto public shooting and fishing clinics, taught by six full-time instructors. And the rod factory remains out back, "because we've been doing it there for 129 years; if we brought rods in from Hong Kong, it would destroy the company."

So jealous of image is Perkins, who often passes lunch hours tying one on in trout streams, that when the company couldn't get precisely colored rooster hackles for Orvis-brand flies, he decided to breed the birds himself. Now the town can boast a species, heretofore unknown to the poultry world, whose necks are so finely hackled that each is worth a cool $60 on the fly-tying market. Unfortunately, the rest of the sinewy fowl fetches nothing. "That's another business I'm sure our controller would like us out of," acknowledges a sympathetic Perkins. Clearly, it takes a tender man to make a tough chicken.

Last updated: Sep 1, 1985




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