State of play: Illinois sports equipment makers big hitters nationwide
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It was like a scene out of “Field of Dreams” except that Kyle Drone was obsessed with baseball bats — not diamonds.
He fantasized about launching a company that made baseball bats, despite only being 23 years old and living in Ridgway, a blink-and-you-miss-it Southern Illinois village near the Shawnee National Forest that didn’t have a stoplight, let alone a national bat supplier.
“No one ever told me I was crazy, but they just didn’t understand it,” Drone said. “I live in a town of 800 people, and all you see is corn and beans.”
Now 40, Drone’s dreams have come true. He’s the CEO of Dinger Bats, the weapon of choice for Cubs outfielders Kyle Schwarber and Jason Heyward and more than a dozen other successful big-league sluggers. Business is booming for the company, which made 28,000 bats last year and already has eclipsed that figure in 2018. Drone is hoping for 45,000 bats off the line next year.
And while any success story involves some good timing and good fortune — just ask most home-run hitters — it also requires a whole lot of hard work. That’s a common thread among many of Illinois’ sporting goods manufacturers and designers, companies that create everything from bicycle parts and motorcycle helmets to hunting stands and firearms.
Sometimes, these factories make a shelf-ready product, such as Schwarber’s customized KS-10 model of lumber. Other times, the result is one component of a multiple-step operation.
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Take leather from Chicago’s Horween Leathers, for example. A finished piece is sold to another company, often Wilson Sporting Goods, whose headquarters is a few miles away in the Loop, where it may eventually become a football hurled by Bears quarterback Mitch Trubisky. Or a Horween leather product could end up sown into a baseball glove worn by a Little League player with major league aspirations.
“It’s dirty work,” said Nick Horween, vice president of the company. “We’re taking in animal hides and byproducts of the food industry, and they’re not beautiful when we get them. It’s interesting to watch the process because it goes from something that looks pretty rough to something that you can start to use your imagination and see it as a usable product.”
The Horween factory, staffed with 150 employees, has operated along the north branch of the Chicago River in Bucktown since 1920. “We’re on Ashland here because that used to be the edge of the city. That’s where they always put tanneries,” said Horween.
A century ago, workers at the Stockyards would stack animal hides on barges and float them up the river to the tanneries, which would unpack them and turn them into leather goods. The Stockyards have long since closed. But Horween, the last of the city’s old tanneries, is surviving and thriving as a specialty leather supplier.
Yet thousands of people pass the building without knowing what goes on inside. Not that Horween minds.
“We kind of like it that way,” he said. “Our sign is really small. We’re just happy to be part of the history and the fabric of the city, but we’re not necessarily looking for people to recognize us.”
Lone Wolf Stands gets plenty of recognition, but almost solely in the niche world of big game hunting. The small but mighty operation in Kickapoo, just northwest of Peoria, makes more than 20,000 tree stands a year.
“People see the name, they see the mark, and they’re like, ‘Oh my gosh, Lone Wolf, it’s the best in the business,'” said Frank Lovich, president and CEO. “But I think in their mind, it’s some big factory when really, we take everyone’s phone call.”
Lone Wolf is a family-owned business started over two decades ago by cattle farmers who were passionate about hunting. It’s a company committed to localism: they exclusively use American-made components and employ two dozen workers from nearby communities.
“What we do today, it really doesn’t exist much in business anymore at all. We do take pride in that, and we want to continue that for a long time.”
Drone also wants his bat supplier to keep thriving, which is why he spent time at the MLB’s Arizona Fall League hustling Dinger bats to the next generation of big leaguers. He’s felt a lot of highs recently; he was sitting in the stands when Schwarber held a Dinger bat in his hands and wreaked havoc on Indians pitchers during the 2016 World Series. Other major leagues are following in the outfielder’s massive footsteps.
But Drone refuses to take anything for granted. Like many of the pro players, he makes bats for, Drone keeps grinding to make sure his customers are satisfied.
“I’m going to have to see these guys again. If I can’t look them in the eye because I’m not giving them the best or my team’s not giving them the best, it’s kind of embarrassing,” said Drone. “I’ve just always felt like the relationships and the loyalties are some of the most important parts of the business.”
Some dreams are just too good to wake up from.