How Kent Sporting Goods Co. found success in the water sporting goods market

Riding the Wave: Building a niche serving water sports enthusiasts

By: Daniel Horowitz

When you’re looking for the perfect location to water ski, wakeboard or spend the day on a boat, Ohio — with its limited waterskiing and boating season — might not be your first choice.
Riding the wave, finding a niche serving water sports fans

But Lake Erie’s short season hasn’t been an obstacle for Kent Sporting Goods Co. Inc., which has grown to annual revenue of more than $160 million under the leadership of CEO Bob Archer. Today, from its New London, Ohio, headquarters, the company serves the needs of water sports enthusiasts throughout the world with its production of high-quality gear for water sports and other products for outdoor use.

Uncovering opportunity

Founded more than 50 years ago, Kent Sporting Goods Co. got its start as a subsidiary of Ashland, Ohio-based Eagle Rubber Co., which manufactured and supplied football gear to Midwest area customers. When the company moved to its current location in 1959, its primary business was to produce U.S. Coast Guard-approved life jackets, golf and bowling bags, and lawn games for its regional customers.

It was not until the early 1980s, when the company came under new ownership, that Kent’s new leaders identified a significant growth opportunity. The company discovered an opportunity to produce products for a growing but largely untapped market — water sports enthusiasts.

Bob Archer, CEO, Kent Sporting Goods Co.

A model of quality

Finding brands that fit Kent’s business model hasn’t always been easy. The company has carefully vetted each of its brands, including O’Brien, HO, Hyperlite, Liquid Force, Connelly, Arbor, Arctic Shield and Barefoot International, to ensure they deliver the aesthetic and quality its customers — and shareholders — are accustomed to.

While this process takes significant time and research, it’s been part of Kent’s mission since day one, Archer says.

“We must produce quality products, as any significant product failures create negative market issues,” he says.

“New London has been good to Kent. Most of our employees over the years have lived in New London, and their children have attended New London Schools.”
– Bob Archer, CEO, Kent Sporting Goods Co. Inc.

Kent has also expanded its offerings from providing basic water gear to providing and anticipating every need of the water sports consumer. The company supplies everything consumers need to safely enjoy a wide range of water sports, from towable tubes to wakeboards, kneeboards, wake surfers, water skis, stand-up paddle boards and kite boards. Kent produces and sells more life jackets than any other company in the world. Its products can be found at specialty retailers, catalog houses and pro shops, as well as big-box retailers.

Success in the water sports market led to other growth initiatives, as well. In the past few years, Kent has dedicated a portion of the company’s portfolio to fishing and hunting items, including rainwear, paddling vests and personal flotation devices designed to aid outdoor enthusiasts. Arbor, a niche snowboard brand, was added to the Kent group of companies as a licensee in 2014.

The company’s care in choosing brands that align with its mission of producing quality products has earned praise from several leading industry organizations, including the BoatUS Foundation, National Marine Manufacturers Association and National Safe Boating Council.

Bob Archer with lifejackest. Kent Sporings Goods Co.

Maintaining momentum

Kent’s forward-thinking strategy hasn’t just served customers well; it’s also proved an excellent investment for the company’s shareholders. The company’s financial success motivates its leaders as they seek out new opportunities and continue to expand Kent’s portfolio of sporting goods products.

“We plan to grow organically and to continue to seek acquisitions which fit our company,” Archer says.

In addition to growth, Kent maintains a strong focus on community involvement. The company’s leaders are committed to reinvesting in the region that has supported Kent for decades.

“We believe in giving back to the community,” Archer says. “We are a major supporter of United Way. We give money to important school projects. We also award academic and athletic scholarships every year to qualified students.”

Last year, Kent awarded $45,000 in scholarships to local students, Archer says. This year, that number could exceed $50,000.

“New London has been good to Kent,” says Archer. “Most of our employees over the years have lived in New London, and their children have attended New London schools.”

Kent’s transition to focus on the water sports business has been massively successful, allowing the company to thrive, and its success serves as a lesson to other businesses: When you see the opportunity to better serve customers, don’t be afraid to ride the wave.

Getting to yes

Loyalty is a recurring theme in the growth story of Kent Sporting Goods Co. Inc. Over its decades in business, the company has maintained a deep commitment to its customers, its employees and to its New London community. Its longtime relationship of 43 years with Huntington Bank has also had a lasting impact on the company’s overall growth trajectory, says CEO Bob Archer.

“We have great relationships, awesome service and support,” Archer says. “Without Huntington, our sales could not have grown from $4 million to over $160 million.”

Huntington showed early interest in Kent and what the company had to offer Ohio. In 1981, four banks rejected Kent and its business model, Archer says. It wasn’t until six Kent team members and Ike Stage – then an executive at Huntington National Bank – scheduled a meeting that the company got the response it sought. “We made our presentations, and Ike would not leave the meeting until we got an answer,” Archer says.

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