By Brooke Bilyj
As a fifth-generation fruit tree farmer in Oceana County, Michigan, Mark Peterson’s passion for the outdoors started early. So did his interest in becoming an entrepreneur.
“Experiencing that from an early age and watching how dad grew Peterson Farms, planted the entrepreneurial bug in me, and showed me the best way to handle growth and customers,” Peterson says (both pictured above).
He says he learned a lot from his father, Earl, about running a successful business. In 1984, Earl established Peterson Farms Inc., which produced fresh-cut apples and processed tart cherries and apples.
Mark worked on the farm in high school and the processing plant during college. By the time he earned his business degree, he was vice president of operations for the company, which had about 900 employees. And then he left the family business to start MVP Outdoor Adventures, a hunting and fishing booking and video production company.
“When I hit 30, if there was ever going to be a time to transition away from the family business and go out on my own, that was it,” he says.
The move paid off. With a strong foundation and an enthusiastic vision, MVP grew from one employee to 150 in just five years.
“Ever since I followed my passion into this industry, no day feels like work to me,” he says. “Once you get into an industry that you love, it’s very easy to grow because you’re passionate about what you do every day.”
Expanding his platform
Peterson’s dream was to own a booking agency and tag service to help people plan hunting trips with experienced outfitters and acquire the necessary licenses. One of his first moves was to purchase a small booking agency, Worldwide Trophy Adventures (WTA). Less than a year later, he acquired Cabela’s Outdoor Adventure and Trophy Application and Guide Service (TAGS).
“WTA became the largest booking agency and tag service in the world,” says Peterson, who lives in Michigan, although the company’s home office is in Nebraska.
Peterson also partnered with an outdoor media production studio, which produces his TV shows. His digital series, “Triple Threat,” follows his journey toward the Super Slam of North American Big Game®, hunting all 29 species, three times, with three different weapons. He also hosts an international hunting show, “Expedition Series.”
As episodes air, hunting trip sales trend toward the areas featured, but he says that’s not the point.
“The main driver is the conservation story behind each species,” he says. “As I go after a mountain goat, I talk about how population growth has shrunk their range. Hunting is the best conservation tool we have. Hunters are trying to protect species, so they’ll be able to continue to hunt them.”
He says in places like Africa and the Middle East, if an animal doesn’t have value, it’s killed to eat.
“But if that animal has a value from hunting, now it’s a resource, and there’s a reason to keep it around, versus killing them all off,” says Peterson, who on trips to Africa takes school supplies to impoverished villages.
Diversifying his brand
As Peterson’s brand continued to grow, his portfolio of companies expanded into new segments of the outdoor industry.
“I saw this niche that had never been done, where a booking agency owned outfitters, as well,” he says. “To fill that gap, we acquired outfitters in areas that made sense for us, based on inventory and client needs.”
WTA has acquired several outfitters in the U.S. and one in Canada, and plans to close on one in Mexico soon.
In addition, Peterson is a minority owner of a taxidermy and tannery studio, owns a line of supplements for outdoorsmen, and is co-owner of a hunting app, Huntwise, which uses advanced species-tracking technology and mapping, and connects hunters with a community of dedicated sportsmen.
He is also co-owner of Rusted Rooster Media and Hatch Marketing Group, which does video editing and 3-D animation, among other things, and Hatch Marketing Group, which offers branding services, media planning, and graphic design.
This strategic diversification helps bolster the business as it grows.
“One of the biggest challenges is that the market we’re in fluctuates with the economy, because it’s not a need,” he says. “If the economy is doing well, everyone has more expendable income. By adding the outfitters, the app and the nutritional line, we’ve created a business model that’s more protected against economic swings.”
Peterson didn’t just inherit his father’s passion for hunting, he also followed in his footsteps with his banking relationships, which were key to growing Worldwide Trophy Adventures.
“I’ve grown up with Huntington ever since I can remember banking, so it was natural to start my business accounts there,” says Peterson, whose father, Earl, previously served on Huntington’s board of directors. “As I continued to grow, Huntington has always met my needs.”
Huntington’s support gives WTA an edge by providing creative financing solutions for the company’s clientele.
“We’re the only company in the U.S. that floats tag fees for our customers,” says Peterson.
Many states require hunters to pay thousands of dollars upfront for a license, which enters them into a lottery for a limited number of tags to hunt certain species. Most hunters apply in several states, so those fees can add up.
“The Huntington team was incredibly creative when it came to financing solutions and that allowed us to grow in that market where nobody else could,” he says.