March 16, 2015
Within eight years, the Ashley Company had become the largest supplier of band headware in the United States. Mike Trull had purchased and renovated a 6,500 square foot building and bought land for eventual expansion. As successful as it was, Mike knew he was serving a niche market and he wanted to grow. He had already expanded into making carrying cases for the Aussie hats, a venture that began with a concern over industrial waste.
“We bought styrene plastic for $1 a pound in sheets to form the hats. It didn’t take all of the sheet to make the forms, so we were left with scrap. If we ground up the scrap, we could sell it back to the supplier for 25 cents a pound,” Mike said.
That waste bothered him. There should be something to do with it that would give him a better return.
“One day, while eating a hamburger for lunch, I noticed the carton the burger had come in,” he recalls, “and while playing with it the idea hit me that if something like it was a lot bigger it could be used to hold the band hat and protect it. Band hats aren’t like uniforms, which can hold up for five to seven years, but hats begin looking old after the first three years if unless they’re protected. Since hats are not purchased separately by school systems, the appearance of a band begins to suffer long before the uniforms were replaced. I was selling hats to uniform makers, so I needed to provide them some way to assure their clients that the hats would last as long as the uniforms.”
Determined to make better use of the scrap styrene plastic, Mike located an engineer and explained that he needed a box similar to the Burger King box but larger, molded to fit the hat, had a handle, and was lightweight. The design also needed to allow for nesting of the boxes to save storage space. When the design was completed, it required $30,000 for a new steel mold in the shape of the hat box, not a small sum in 1985, and there was no certainty that the injection machine for the molten reclaimed plastic would work well enough to make the complete box. Mike and his partner were learning another axiom of business: sometimes it’s a crapshoot.
It worked. Soon bands were “Holding on to their hats,” as the slogan went and walking down streets carrying their hats in the boxes with the Ashley Company logo prominently displayed. Soon schools were specifying in their requests for bids that the hat carriers be included.
“When a business starts to grow, it starts to become fun,” Mike said.
Part of the fun is having the time to take a closer look at the little things that can make a big difference. In Mike’s case, it was fun to be able to change the way hats were held on the head while marching. He did that by incorporating a spring loaded catch that held the hat cords in place much more tightly. Now band members could do more head movement secure in the knowledge their hats wouldn’t be flying off. Marketed as the new Ashley Cord Lock, it was an instant success that helped Mike capture more market share. He had found the new lock on his daughter’s dance shoes bag made in Italy. Mike had learned that ideas can come from anywhere.
More fun was in discovering that your employees can have ideas that increase your business by differentiating your product. The jigs the company was using to cut the brims of the hats were larger than the industry ordinarily used, forcing an extra step in the manufacturing process. An employee showed Mike what a hat looked like with a larger brim and the Ashley Big Brim hat was born. This new hat was the first of its kind and established greater margins for the company. Mike had learned yet another lesson: treat your employees right and they will pay you back with loyalty, creativity, and higher returns.
Nonetheless, Mike was getting restless. What more could they do with the hats? They already had 55% percent of the market and weren’t likely to get much more without getting into a dog-eat-dog marketing fight for the remaining part of a relatively small market. If the company was going to grow it had to find another product line. The natural way to grow was to expand into other products the sewing and plastic molding operations could produce. Flags, kites, and golf-course items like rakes and flag sticks were possibilities.
“We even did some research on making animal caskets on our plastic forming machines,” Mike said.
He was doing what any smart businessman does: keep looking for an unmet need. Another employee supplied the answer, this time in a jacket she had made out of flag materials and worn to work one day. The colorful jacket triggered a thought. “Our salesmen were calling on clients to sell headware anyway, why couldn’t they sell jackets done up in school colors as well?”
It all seemed so obvious, but it turned out to be a crowded market and athletic supply houses were already importing low-cost jackets. Nonetheless, not having any international connections at the time, the Ashley Company forged ahead and set up a unit to make the jackets. Orders were small and success “minimal” until the one ingredient no business can do without intervened: luck. But, like most lucky breaks, it was based on taking a risk and persevering.
“On a sales trip, I met someone connected to NASCAR racing teams in Charlotte. We visited one of the racing shops and I began talking with the owner. He asked if I could make a jacket design for souvenir sales.”
Suddenly the experiment with the school jackets hit the jackpot. Still, it would be a challenge because the design Mike presented to the store owner resulted in an order of nearly 6,000 jackets, far beyond Mike’s capacity. He needed more space, more sewing machines, and more people because he was doubling the size of his operation. It’s the kind of problem he delighted in and he set about to solve it. He leased an abandoned grocery store across from his factory, set up operations and soon was producing fancy racing jackets for racing teams. As the quality and creativity of the jackets became known and appreciated, every one of the half dozen biggest stars in the racing world were wearing jackets made by the Ashley Company.
NEXT WEEK: THE GLORY YEARS.
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