Moving was nothing new for Bear Archery. Fred Bear had moved from his first small plant on Tierman Avenue in Detroit to a second location on Burlingame and finally to Philadelphia and Lindwood to an old Maxwell automobile garage. But the lure of the North was too strong, and he wanted desperately to get out of the big city and back to his small-town roots. He first considered moving north prior to the start of World War II, but had to put it off until that national emergency was over. During the war he got an assignment from General Motors in Detroit to make wooden models of anti-aircraft guns for use in training. He also made instructional models of 2-cycle engines for use by the military. He handled these projects himself as his employees continued to make archery equipment. This is where his pattern-making experience really came to the forefront for the war effort.
LET’S MAKE A DEAL
Finally, in 1947 he moved Bear Archery to Grayling, Michigan into a 170-foot by 50-foot facility he had built, just up the road from his old hunting area in the swamps around St. Helen’s, Michigan. St. Helen’s, incidentally, was the small village where actor Charleton Heston grew up. Here’s how the story of when Fred got the property in Grayling was told in the Grayling Centennial. Fred loved to tell this story, and I must’ve heard it a dozen times at least.
“Sometime during World War II (John Bruun, the president of the Grayling State Savings Bank) came to know a fisherman from Detroit who managed to eke out a living making bows and arrows for his friends. Fred Bear came often to the Grayling area, wading the streams, stalking game in the woods with his primitive weapons and generally enjoying the North. Bear had expressed a desire to move his small business to the Grayling area, where raw materials would be closer at hand and a readily accessible market for his bowhunting equipment could be found. It is only a matter of passing interest that the location on the Au Sable provided excellent fishing and hunting.
“Shortly after the war, Bear made an appointment to see Bruun one Sunday morning to look at a possible site for Bear Archery. At the proper time, Fred Bear showed up at John’s apartment above the Salling, Hanson & Co., offices. But, according to Fred, Bruun was not one to rush into business matters without a few “social amenities.” So, after a couple of hours of this, Bruun asked Fred if he knew how to ride a horse. Fred said he did, that he liked it and that he had had some experience in the U.S. Calvary. So they went to John’s private stable back of the office, saddled up a couple of fine, spirited horses and rode off toward Lake Margarethe. Bruun decided at that point that Fred should meet some friends of his at the lake, so they stopped to visit, tying the horses to a tree in the middle of the lawn. It was long after dark when they left, and Fred does not recollect whether they decided to leave or whether the wife of the man they were visiting threw them out. The latter is probably the case, since the horses, being tethered for so long, had pawed great holes in the well-kept lawn and had generally behaved as horses do.
“When they remounted, John Bruun’s horse took off for town at a dead run right through the woods. Fred Bear couldn’t see a thing in the darkness, so putting his head down, he let his horse go, figuring it would follow John’s. It did, and somehow they managed to get back to Bruun’s stable, without injury to selves or horses. Bruun loved horses and was very fussy about them, so he and Bear unsaddled them and gave them a rub-down after the long run through the woods.
“By this time it was nearly one in the morning, and John announced to Fred that they were going to look at the property. Fred reports that all he wanted to do was go to bed, but Bruun was insistent, so they got in Bruun’s car and headed toward the site, a plot of land slightly more than eight acres.
“Bruun stopped his car on M-72, where the plant is now located, and said to Bear, ‘How does this look to you?’ Fred stated later that only the tips of the trees were visible in the darkness but that he knew it was high ground. Bear, wanting to get it over and get to bed said, ‘This looks OK.’ Bruun replied, ‘Well, what is it worth to you?’ ‘What do you want for it?’ replied Bear. ‘How’s fifteen hundred dollars?’ said Bruun. ‘That sounds OK,’ Bear replied. ‘OK,’ said Bruun, ‘you can have it for twelve hundred.’
“Fred Bear didn’t figure that Bruun would remember the deal at all, and as he headed back to Detroit the next day, he imagined he would have to drive back the following weekend and go through the deal again. But Bruun did remember, and two days later came a letter of confirmation. Thus, was born Bear Archery in Grayling, due to the foresight of John Bruun who knew that Fred Bear would bring to Grayling a business which would grow and would provide jobs for many local people. That he was right cannot be doubted, for Bear opened his new plant with eight employees in May of 1947. Today (1972) the Bear plant provides steady jobs for some 350 people, does millions of dollars worth of business a year world-wide and is acknowledged as the world’s largest manufacturer of archery tackle.”
MAKING ENDS MEET IN GRAYLING
Thus ends the official Grayling history of Fred’s move to the North Country. He had been able to pull this off thanks in great part to the fact that his old business partner, Charles Piper, sold their former Bear Products Company in Detroit and put the money into the newly incorporated Bear Archery following the war. Fred’s patient investor and hunting partner, Ken Knickerbocker, also invested in the project. In total they had $40,000 to build the new plant, handle the move 225 miles north and get into production. Fred brought eight or nine employees with him on the move from Detroit, including Frank Scott. He then hired 35 people from the Grayling area to complete the work force.
It was a difficult first few years in Grayling, and the company came close to going out of business on several occasions due to lack of funds. Largely due to the employees’ loyalty to Fred, they were able to make it through some very trying times. That, plus, a crucial loan from a friend in Grayling at a critical moment in Bear Archery history.
The company slowly continued to grow, thanks in great part to Fred’s determination to make a go of it, plus his genius in knowing what target archers and bowhunters needed and wanted, and in getting free publicity for archery and bowhunting by going on hunts and writing about them in the national outdoor magazines. Then, too, he was a great judge of character, and when he hired Bob Kelly as his sales manager in May 1963, the company really took off. Kelly, through his marketing savvy, took Bear Archery to an entirely new level.
In 1962, the year before Kelly was hired, Bear Archery sales were $1.8 million, and the company lost money for the third year in a row. Losses were $181,700 in 1960 and approximately $45,000 in 1961 and 1962. Kelly and Fred, working together with the hard-working captive Bear Archery sales force and their new advertising agency, Bonsib, (the outfit which I eventually joined) immediately turned it around. In 1963 sales grew to $2.2 million with a healthy profit of $144,000. In 1964 sales were $2.7 million with a profit of $258,250. In 1965 sales increased to $3 million. That’s the level the company was at when I joined Bonsib in 1966 as the Bear Archery advertising account executive. Al Mitchell was the executive vice president of the company at that time.
In all fairness, I can’t tell this story without mentioning Fred’s first advertising agency, Paxton Advertising, of St. Joseph, Michigan and its owner, Howard Paxton. They were a big help to Fred in the 1950’s and early 60’s by relieving him of this part of his workload.
By 1969 our Bear “team” had more than doubled sales to $7 million; unfortunately, we lost $203,000 that year. But that profit picture went back into the black in 1970. When I say the Bear “team,” I mean everyone involved in the company, from production people through the office staff, to our Bear Archery sales force out in the field, and finally our excellent cadre of some 6,000 Bear Archery dealers across the world.
Interestingly, in the archery industry it seems that sales are strongest during slow national economic times. Perhaps people then have more time to hunt. Many might try to cheer themselves up when out of work or on short hours by treating themselves to new archery tackle. Then, too, successful bowhunts can sure help out with the family’s food bill.
After Al Mitchell left the company that summer, a fellow from the Olin Corporation by the name of Ralph “Hank” Benedict was hired. He had spent 16 years with Olin and at one time was the director of special marketing programs for Winchester-Western. I don’t know anyone who didn’t like Hank. He walked through the shop all the time and seemed to know everyone by name. So Fred had a “Hank” (Henrietta) at home, and a “Hank” at the office. Hank Benedict was running the company when I left the Bonsib advertising agency to join Bear Archery full-time as vice president of its in-house advertising agency-Archery Development Corporation.
Unfortunately, Benedict had an opportunity to purchase his own company out East after a year-and-a-half or two and he left us. Alan Beatty, our head financial guy, then ran the company prior to moving on to our corporate offices in Chicago, and that’s when Bob Kelly was promoted to executive vice president and later president of the company.
BUSINESS BOOMS, COSTS LOOM
By 1975, the last full year before the UAW strike, our sales hit $17.4 million! One reason for our dramatic growth by then, of course, is that we were firmly entrenched with the mass merchants, were now selling a hot new product in the new compound bows, plus Fred’s popular new line of take-down recurve bows, and were devoting a serious percentage of sales to our advertising/sales promotion budget which I oversaw. At one time we were spending almost 7 percent of annual sales just on advertising. The highest our annual advertising budget reached during my years at Bear Archery was more than $1 million. We were advertising heavily in the national outdoor magazines going after present gun hunters to convince them to also take up the bow and arrow and become a “two-season hunter.” And several of our press runs on our annual catalog hit 1 million copies. We were blanketing America with Bear Archery catalogs. And it was working beautifully.
As you can see, at the time of the UAW strike Bear Archery was financially strong, was number one in the archery market, and as I mentioned earlier, had begun to make a product, the compound bow, that was easier to build than handcrafted recurve bows. At the time we were making 200,000 bows and 3 million arrows a year, plus numerous archery accessories. We had about 30 percent of the total archery market at the time, more than that of just the bow market, as I recall, I think around 50 percent. And about 85 percent of our sales were in the U.S.
It continues to amaze me how well we were able to do all during the horribly long UAW strike with all of its turmoil, management preoccupation, lawsuits, NLRB court action, and the daily harassment of our employees by the furious strikers outside our plant in this small northern Michigan town and at our homes. Yet, once we hired replacement workers and quickly got back up to speed, our sales continued to grow. In 1976, the first full year of the UAW strike, we increased our sales to $18.5 million and increased our profit. By 1977, with the strikers continuing to harass truck drivers entering and leaving our plant, we still grew sales to $22.4 million, and our profit increased!
That brings us to 1978, the year we decided to move to Florida.
While those of us on the strike committee met almost daily, Bob Kelly appointed a relocation committee from our small management staff to look into that inevitability. On that small subcommittee were Bill Annin, vice president of manufacturing; Bill Granlund, general foreman; Gus Kilstrand, personnel director; and Bert Lawrenz, the corporate personnel director from our owners at the time, Victor Comptometer in Chicago. During 1977-78 these folks looked at numerous possible locations for Bear Archery. These included Gainesville, Ocala, Lake City, Madison and Monticello, Florida; and Indianola, Mississippi. The available labor market, wage rates, available land, building costs, local taxes, housing costs, special tax incentives, living conditions in the community, and other factors were considered. As they visited each location, they came back and reported to those of us on the management staff. Sometimes Fred sat in on our meetings, but generally did not, preferring to putter at his workbench off his office on new product ideas.
It finally boiled down to a choice between three of the Florida cities-Gainesville, Ocala and Lake City. All are located along I-75, just as Grayling is up in Michigan at the other end of this long interstate.
Fred leaned toward Ocala because an available piece of property there was just a short distance down the road from the popular Florida tourist attraction-Silver Springs. His thinking was that we would get a great deal of tourist traffic in our relocated Fred Bear Museum.
We had let the public know about our relocation study on Jan. 13, 1977. And by March we were being openly courted by a number of the Florida cities, who made no secret of the fact they’d like to have us bring our archery company to their communities. For one thing, we were a “clean” (non-polluting) industrial plant. In announcing the relocation study, Bob Kelly said, “We are evaluating the wisdom of remaining in Grayling for purely economic reasons. Michigan has the worst business climate of any state in the union and I would be derelict in my duty if I didn’t explore the possibility of realizing increased profits elsewhere.”
Our management staff, of course, also had to consider moving costs. Here’s the estimate by our controller, Ben Apps, presented at a staff meeting on May 3, 1977.
1. Severance Pay $300,000
2. Employee Relocation 600,000
3. Land Cost 150,000
4. Site Preparation 130,000
5. Building Costs 4,100,000
6. Equipment Moving Cost 200,000
7. Equipment Installation 50,000
8. Maintenance of Grayling Facility for one year 125,000
ESTIMATED TOTAL $5, 655,000
The costs of moving the Fred Bear Museum would be additional.
Also at that meeting, Bill Annin reported the findings of the relocation committee in Lake City and Gainesville, Florida; and Indianola, Mississippi. And Bill Granlund covered the findings in Ocala, Florida. Roger Wilcox, our plant engineer, went over the proposed building plans, and we all discussed those, as well the plot plan and the proposed pictorial renderings from the architectural firm. (Later, as we got into the final construction planning, corporate ownership decided to greatly reduce the size of the office area. This impacted the area that had been set aside for our in-house advertising agency, and I was not a happy camper, but it was either “grin and bear it” or not move down with the company.)
GREEN LIGHT TO GAINESVILLE
In the end, Gainesville won. Not only was its chamber of commerce more aggressive and helpful to us in providing information for our decision, but it was also the location of the prestigious University of Florida as well as a fairly new junior college on the north end of town-Sante Fe Community College. Sante Fe had the facilities to allow us to train new employees prior to our move. Once that decision was made, however, we needed to obtain corporate approval. And by that time Victor Comptometer, including Bear Archery, had been swallowed up by a larger conglomerate-Kidde, Inc. of Saddlebrook, New Jersey. That delayed the final decision by about seven months.
Earlier in this book I’ve detailed how many important Bear Archery issues were quietly discussed and decided upon while we were out bowhunting with our friend, Dick Mauch, in Bassett, Nebraska. That’s where Kelly and I were when we received corporate’s approval of the move.
Needless to say, Kelly had to cut his hunt short, but he insisted that I stay and enjoy the remaining few days of the hunt, which I did. Bassett had no regular air service, so he chartered a plane and flew back to meet with our new owners. I later flew back to Omaha on another chartered plane with Knick and Gordon Ford. Then when I was alone on the flight back to Grayling I wondered what it would all mean to me and my family. I loved Grayling and had hoped to live there the rest of my life. While I had been to Florida on several occasions during the Apollo launches, I was not too keen on moving there. However, as the old North Woods saying goes, “If you’re a lumberjack you go where the trees are.” And in this case my job-selling the idea of bows and arrows-was moving to Gainesville, Florida.
Kelly held a series of meetings with the salaried personnel in the plant in three groups on Nov. 22, 1977 to go over the move with them and to answer questions.
Next up: Bear in Gainesville