Sports and Safety

Sports and Safety

 

“Own my own business.”

“Be my own boss.”

“Do my own thing.”

“Own my own business.”

“Be my own boss.”

“Do my own thing.”

For many entrepreneurs, the draw of business ownership isn’t tied to a bottomless passion for a specific product or service. The pull can boil down to a simple desire for independence. It did for Kent Water Sports’ Robert Archer.

“It could have been any industry,” Archer said, alluding to the business he’s grown over the past 35 years. “I just felt that this was an opportunity to own and run something, and that was my motivation. To see what I could do.”

With a laugh, he adds, “And it turned out well!”1

Archer didn’t arrive at Kent totally by accident. He enjoyed water sports since his high school days and did a fair amount of water skiing. He was among many who liked the water, and played with its many recreational possibilities, including boating, tubing, barefoot waterskiing and disc riding.

When he worked for the Hoover Co. of North Canton, Ohio, his boss was an avid water-skier, so Archer accompanied him a few nights per week.

Kent Sporting Goods Co. (as it was originally called) was formed in 1957 as a subsidiary of Eagle Rubber Co. Ashland, Ohio-based Eagle was incorporated in 1916, and first made toy balloons before shifting to military equipment like inflatable landing boats during World War II.2 By 1959, the Kent Sporting Goods had moved to a former bowling alley in New London, Ohio. That same year, Kent Sporting Goods acquired Ben-Sun Products Co., a company specializing in life vests and other personal flotation devices.

During the late 1960s and early 1970s, mergers and acquisitions were the industry trend, and Kent was sold to the Brown Group in 1971.3 As a part of Brown Group, Robert Archer became connected to Eagle Rubber and Kent Sporting Goods around 1973.

By 1981, the economy and industry trend had shifted, and Brown Group looked to divest itself of Kent Sporting Goods. A private group of six aimed to buy the company, with Archer positioned to become president.

Unfortunately, the recession was on and money was tight. The group went to several banks looking for a loan.

“Everybody said, ‘No.’ They said, ‘This is a small business and we don’t see a future and we don’t want to loan you any money,” Archer said. “A guy named Ike Stage at that time was president of Huntington Bank in Ashland, Ohio, and he just believed there was an opportunity here.”

So Stage, who is now Grove City, Ohio’s mayor, visited Huntington’s Columbus headquarters to try to land the loan.

“The first time, he struck out,” Archer said. “The second time he went back to a credit committee down in Columbus, struck out again. So he decided to take me down there to make a pitch.”

Archer accompanied Stage to Columbus and spoke with the bank’s credit team and Huntington’s then-CEO Frank Wobst.

“Around 3 o’clock they said, ‘Well, we’ll study this.’ Ike said, ‘Hey, we’re tired of studying. We need to make a decision today. I think we should do this, and we’re not leaving until we get a decision.’”

On the strength of Stage’s recommendation, Huntington extended a $1.5 million line of credit.4

“If Ike wouldn’t have gone to bat for us, I wouldn’t be talking to you today,” Archer said, “plain and simple.”

Kent went on an acquisition spree — buying 32 companies from 1982 until 2015 (Kent has held onto all but three of these), including major water sports and life vest equipment manufacturers like Black Sheep, HO Sports, O’Brien, Liquid Force, Connelly, EP Skis, Absolute Outdoor and Wakekite. In all, the companies comprised “a full line of high-action recreational water sports products including wakeboards, kneeboards, kiteboards, towable tubes, skis, ropes and life jackets.”5

Archer credits his bank’s partnership as a major factor in this success.

“We saw opportunities and we were able to have enough money to pull it off and get it done. Huntington supported us in every one.”6

After Ike Stage, Huntington’s Ken Milligan took over as the primary banker for Kent Water Sports. Archer lists Bill Shivers, Lou Poppovich, and, most recently, Sandy Upperman as Huntington colleagues who have continued to provide great customer service over the years.

“Huntington has been loyal to us and we’ve been loyal to them and it’s a relationship that I hope goes on and on because it’s been a very positive relationship,” he said.

The relationship has been so positive that Robert’s daughter Pam Archer ended up working at Huntington for over 20 years, serving as vice president of strategy and market development. Meanwhile, his sons David and John have taken leadership roles at Kent Water Sports, with the latter serving as its current president and chief operating officer.

“I’m sort of a tough-minded guy. And when my son is the COO, he’s the COO. And that’s the way I treat him. … We sit down and talk about it as businesspeople, not as family,” Archer said. “But on the other hand, we spend a lot of time together. I believe in family.”

Nearly four decades later, Archer remains fiercely independent, yet loyal to the core.

So far, it’s turned out pretty well.

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The Archer family has led the growth of Kent Water Sports since the early 1980s, when Robert Archer became president.

Photo Credit: Kent Watersports

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With support from Huntington, Kent Water Sports has acquired major water sports and life vest equipment manufacturers, including Connelly. Photo Credit: Kent Watersports

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Kent Watersports booth at the International Marine Trade Show in Chicago, 1995. Photo Credit: Kent Watersports