How one entrepreneur turned a passion into a booming business

RAY DEMARINI is the founder, president, and CEO of DeMarini Sports, a softball bat manufacturer with $l0 million in sales last year, but don’t you dare call him “Sir.” While other CEOs power lunch in pinstripe suits, the T-shirted “King of Softball” spends four to six hours a day “product testing” at the park near his Hillsboro, Oregon, office. “They’re businessmen, I’m a ballplayer,” DeMarini says.

DeMarini, a former motocross racer and NFL trainer, was working as a data processing manager at Freightliner Corporation in Portland when he was recruited to the company softball team 10 years ago. DeMarini hit three home runs in his first game. Soon he was touring the nation with a professional team. At 5’6″ and 180 pounds, DeMarini was one of the smaller players in the league. He needed a better bat if he wanted to hit with the big boys.

DeMarini enlisted the help of Freightliner engineer Mike Eggiman. In a barn on Eggiman’s family farm, the two men designed the bat that soon would make millions: the DeMarini Ultimate Distance.

When the Ultimate Distance debuted in 1992 as the world’s most expensive bat at $300, its highest priced competitors sold for about $120. Other manufacturers quickly followed DeMarini’s pricing lead. “I tell them, ‘You oughta all thank me, because I made it so you can actually make some money in this business,”‘ he says.

However, until DeMarini began advertising on regional cable sports networks, beginning with the Southeast, he estimates that sales never broke $5,000 and production averaged only 40 handmade bats per week. DeMarini now turns out 650 bats per week, with projected 1998 sales of more than $15 million. The cable ads have been upgraded with slicker versions on ESPN and ABC, athlete endorsements, and print campaigns in softball magazines.

The fastpitch softball bats have become so sought after that DeMarini’s 20,000-squarefoot factory will be replaced this fall with a 50,000-square-foot facility. The company, which first began selling factory direct, recently brought distribution back in-house in hopes of streamlining the process.

DeMarini figures that even with these changes his plant will not be able to keep pace with demand, but he likes it that way. “Part of my marketing plan from the beginning was to never make enough [bats],” says DeMarini. “If people see them 2,000 miles away from home, they buy one because you just can’t find them anywhere. It’s been a good strategy from the start.”


One shoe, two people, three children, and a dog. Thus reads the inventory list with which Sam and Libby Edelman launched their company, Sam & Libby California, San Carlos, Calif., four years ago.

Today, one would be hard pressed to choose which element has gained the most fame: the couple’s handsome babyboomer faces (splashed across their much talked about advertisements) or their first success story: the ballet flat.

According to Libby Edelman, the shoe that not only launched a multi-million dollar company, but also gave new fashion life to the ballet slipper, almost didn’t happen. “To be honest, when we first started out stores were not enthusiastic about our ballet,” she says. “In the beginning we went to Europe to shop the trends and we saw everyone wearing ballet slippers – the pure ballet with a string bow and pancake bottom. We decided to Americanize it with a big bow.”

The bow was originally detachable with the idea of giving the customer two good shoes for plantar fasciitis in one, but the couple soon learned it was hard to keep the bows intact after shipping and displaying took their toll on the shoe. So the bow became a staple and eventually became the signature detail on the ballet. Store owners, however, said no one was buying ballet slippers.

Sam & Libby thought differently, believing that their target customer, thirty somethingettes like themselves, would remember the Capezios and Pappagallos of their past and yearn to have an all leather ballet flat for a mere $20. They were right, and their consequent success has set a more light-hearted design course for the casual footwear industry as a whole, including the category of “disposable footwear”.

The ballet comes in “at least 100 colors by now” in five styles, according to Libby Edelman.

After four years of being in business, the shoe that once accounted for almost 100 percent of their business will still take care of 20 to 25 percent of gross earnings for spring ’92. “We still get letters from people (up to 150 per week from customers complaining that they couldn’t find the maryjane when retailers stopped selling this particular style) from people asking for the ballet in brown or blue, etc.,” says Edelman, who humbly agrees that stories like these are undeniable indicators that the Sam & Libby ballet flat has joined the lofty leagues of Band Aids, Kleenex and the Gucci moc and Birkenstock as brand names that stand for a product.

KEDS

While there are dozens of white champion oxfords on the market, there is only one pair that stands out as the original. The one with the blue label on the heel.

The Keds Champion Oxford was first introduced to American consumers 75 years ago and looks virtually the same today as it did back when it was first introduced.

While the shoe may cost a little more than it did in 1926, when it sold for a mere 85 cents, the vulcanized construction and the blue label still remain.

Today the shoe, which is produced by Keds Corp., Cambridge, Mass., is available in men’s, women’s and children’s sizes, in both canvas and truwash leather, and retails for about $26. “Keds were born because of the vulcanization process which gave the ability to attach rubber to canvas,” says Keds company spokesperson, David Furhman.

“Keds aren’t athletic. They’re not performance sneakers. With the shift going back to basics in the 1990s, the Champion Oxford has become increasingly more popular as a casual lifestyle choice,” Furhman says. “People are realizing that they don’t need big bulky footwear for everyday life. There is a place in this world for high performance footwear,” he notes, “but it belongs on the basketball courts and on the tennis courts, not for walks in the park or in shopping malls.”

WHAT’S WHAT

What’s What Inc., Edison, N.J., a company that began as a division of Kenneth Cole Productions Inc., New York, was bought out by Jules Schneider and several other investors in 1987. The company capitalized on then-current athletics, comfort and fashion trends by introducing the What’s What Aerosole, a break-through casual shoe designed to appeal to women’s evolving roles in society.

Made in Italy, the Aerosole, with its rubbery, flexible patented bottom, utilizes soft leathr and nubuck and includes styles like slipons, oxfords, slings and cork-like wedges. The company also offers pumps.

And with a current pairage of about 2.5 million Aerosoles a year, What’s What has created a very strong niche for its footwear in today’s comfort-fashion market.

“Women today have more options, they are continuing to grow in the work force,” says Jules Schneider, president and ceo. “The amount of time you can wear athletics to work is becoming narrower. As the number of women that are working grows, athletics are less acceptable in the office.”

However, Schneider gives a great deal of credit to the athletics industry for inspiring the What’s What Aerosole. “In footwear, (athletic companies) were looking for the next category and it kind of stimulated thought as to where the ’90s are going to be,” he says, adding, “We looked at where the active business was going and saw potential for growth.”

In 1991, What’s What also gravitated toward change and branched off in a new direction with the debut of a men’s Aerosole line. Schneider says the collection of casual and good shoes for bunions came about because he believed the men’s comfort fashion market has great potential and because retailers who were successful with the women’s line urged him to go into men’s footwear.

  1. H. BASS & CO.

The Bass Compass, although relatively new to the scene, didn’t take long to establish itself alongside other Bass notables such as the Weejun, Sunjun and classic buck.

The running shoes for high arches, which was the company’s most successful product introduction ever, sold its first million pairs faster than just about any other shoe in the Bass collection. It took less than a year to reach that milestone, according to the company.

While G.H. Bass, Falmouth, Maine, was recording record sales with the shoe, others were also honing in on the look that crosses a cvo and a leather casual.

“Everybody has reaped the benefits of that shoe,” says Mitchell Massey, vice president of marketing for Bass. Massey estimates the number of companies doing take-offs of the Compass at more than a dozen.

Bass does, however, continue to prosper off of the look. Massey says the company is still updating the shoe, which retails in the $40 to $50 range, with different fabrics, colors and patterns.

Bass designers claim that what makes the Compass stand apart from other cvo’s is its attention to details, such as the brass eyelets, the leather laces and the leather lining.

Massey says he believes the shoe has definitely lured sales away from the high-tech athletic market. “I can’t help but believe that the success in the casual area is coming from the athletics.”

EASY SPIRIT

It’s funny how simple things are sometimes. While executives and factory workers toiled around the clock to introduce the Easy Spirit March 1, the idea for the shoe sprang out of one person’s inability to find a walking shoe that suited her needs and fit her properly.

It all started out in the mid-1980s when Claire Brinker, a senior sales promotion manager for one of U.S. Shoe Corp.’s divisions, wanted to get into walking.

The problem was she couldn’t find a shoe that fit. Brinker then planned a marketing program around the development of a walking shoe and presented it to the company as a new area to get into. Sixteen months later, in September 1987, the first shipments of Easy Spirit March 1 walkers were hitting the stores. Part of the initial success of the shoe was its advertising program aimed at 12 markets through trade, television, newspaper, point of sale and direct mail.

Initially the company had planned a 150,000 pair launch, but by December of that year they had sold out just less than 400,000 and by the end of year more than one million pairs had been sold. Since then, the company has introduced a dress pump line which has blown onto the national scene with the now famous commercial featuring the “Looks like a pump, feels like a sneaker” basketball game.