The up and coming archery accessories market offered a perfect opportunity to put Container Specialties' leatherworking experience to good use. Immediately, Darton Archery was formed. It began offering arm guards, quivers, shooting gloves and tabs, and eventually moved into other products such as arrows.
In 1961 Ralph's son Rex came on board to head up Darton Archery. Immediately, Rex began design work on additional products for the line. This was the pre-compound era, so it was natural to expand into recurves and longbows, which Rex did with great success.
In 1969 Darton moved to Hale, Michigan, after outgrowing the facilities in Flint. Things went along great for several years with steady growth. When the compound bow started to show signs of acceptance, Darton became one of the dozen or so companies that received an exclusive license under the Allen patent.
Effectively, this exclusive licensing agreement limited competition and allowed each participant to focus on production. With only limited effort and money involved in the task of obtaining and growing market share, all the companies did well. It was a time of growth and prosperity throughout the archery industry-especially at Darton Archery.
The First Major Hurdle
Things got a lot tougher when the Allen patent ran out and the technology became public domain in the late '70s. "While we were still under the protection of the patent we sold exclusively through distributors," said Rex Darlington. "The process was straightforward and efficient. But when the patent ran out there was no limit on who could produce compound bows. Several more manufacturers jumped into the marketplace. Suddenly, the cost of sales went through the roof. We had to work a lot harder at reaching the ultimate consumer through advertising and dealer-oriented sales programs. That was our first big hurdle-having to deal with the high cost of sales, a reality in the modern archery market.
"We went through a real learning curve, starting with factory reps (they were too expensive) and finally settling on a select group of independent field reps to take our products into the pro shops.
"The biggest challenge today is figuring out where to spend our advertising budget," added Darlington. "There are so many different opportunities out there: magazine, television and Internet. Coming up with the most effective mix is tough."
Darton On The Internet
Though Darlington may wish for the "good old days," he hasn't been slow to embrace changing technology. One way that Darton is keeping up with changing communication and buying patterns is to become very proactive on the Internet. "We have two websites," said Darlington.
"Dartonarchery.com is our primary communications site and is where we offer product information and answer e-mail questions from dealers and archers. We have a person who responds to every question or suggestion as quickly as possible. We sell closeout products through another site--archeryselect.com--at reduced prices. Consumers can buy directly through this site, but we've maintained our dealer emphasis by permitting dealers to buy direct as well, at even lower prices. We haven't cut them out of the clearance market."
I asked Rex if he felt the large e-commerce sites would someday replace the neighborhood archery dealer. "I don't think so," responded Darlington. "The easy money from small items may go in other directions, but buying a bow is still a service-intensive process. If the dealer was that expendable he would have disappeared when Wal-Mart started selling bows. Instead, we will probably see dealers getting into Internet sales in an effort to win back some of the easy money."
Acquiring ProLine Archery
In 1997 Darton Archery purchased the ProLine name and assets and moved them to the Hale plant. "ProLine was strong with the buying groups," said Darlington. "That marketing plan proved to be too restrictive because there are so many avenues for getting product to the consumer now. ProLine struggled as a result of relying too heavily on one form of sales. Darton has never been very strong with buying groups, so we saw the acquisition as an opportunity for us to get involved with those dealers without having to change the marketing plan that has proven effective with Darton bows.
"We viewed ProLine as the mass merchant and buying group product line while Darton would be more exclusive and sold mostly dealer-direct. I'd like to say the strategy has worked the way we planned, but it really hasn't. As a result, we are planning to explore other marketing strategies with ProLine going into the new millennium. This gives us a way to experiment without having to take any risk with the Darton product line."
Growing The Business
The two areas in which Darton has expanded in the past several years are polar opposites: traditional bows and crossbows. In 1996 Ron Pittsley joined Darton Archery with the specific purpose of working with the company to redesign and produce a version of his popular Predator recurve bow. The goal was to provide pro shops with a quality traditional bow line that they could use to compete with all the custom bow makers that only sell consumer-direct. The Predator has been a very successful extension of Darton to the point that the company has also released the new Predator longbow for 1999.
In 1999 Darton started a new crossbow company called Great Lakes Crossbow. "After three years of research we used the experience of both the Darton and ProLine engineering departments to put together one of the best-performing crossbows in the marketplace," said Darlington. "Our top-of-the-line Durango takes performance to a new level. At 165 pounds draw force shooting a 463-grain arrow it achieves 320 feet per second. With a 535-grain arrow it still produces 305 fps.
"Our number one goal is to offer a product that can be used very effectively by disabled archers and non-disabled archers in the states where crossbows are legal," Rex added.
The Next 50 Years
"The millennium marks the beginning of Darton's second 50 years of business in the archery industry," said Darlington. "We feel we still have a lot to offer. Our C/P/S system truly gives the consumer a viable option in single-cam technology. The system is definably different, visually different and physically it feels different. Its shootability is unmatched. Darton's number one marketing strategy going into the next century will be a continued focus on products like the C/P/S. We will focus on offering bowhunters a better way to do things."