AFTCO President Talks Freshwater Growth and How Fishing Created SeaWorld

1973—Milt Shedd had just signed the paperwork when his chest started to throb. The ink was still wet on his contract when the newly-minted AFTCO owner found himself flying to a Houston hospital for quadruple bypass surgery. He’d spent a lifetime on the water, fighting island-to-island in the Pacific theatre of World War II, investing his life savings to build a dream called SeaWorld, and collecting fish to fill his new oceanarium with species for the world to study and see.

He’d spent countless days and nights at sea, chasing wahoo and tuna off the west coast.

Milt Shedd had just purchased his own tackle company. He wasn’t going to go out like this.

That’s the story AFTCO’s new book, Meeting Triumph and Disaster, tells. This holiday season, the company is giving away a copy for online customers. To find out what’s inside, I sat down with Milt’s son, AFTCO President Bill Shedd, to get the inside scoop on his father’s life and what retailers can expect right now from AFTCO.

Before we get into the book, let’s talk about AFTCO. You took home best in category awards at ICAST for Best Lifestyle Apparel and Best Technical Apparel. Does that validate your recent push into freshwater?

Shedd: It totally did validate us. In the saltwater world, people already know us. In the freshwater world, it makes a big difference. My son, Casey, just came back from visiting stores in the Midwest. They don’t necessarily know AFTCO for tackle, but they have heard of us in clothing. When you say you won ICAST awards, they go “Oh!” and it opens a different level of listening to you. Neither of the items that won were made for guys fishing in the tropics. They’re made for guys fishing in cooler climates. We made those for bass fishing. Winning those awards was instant validation, and the practical effect is instant credibility.

What freshwater products are really moving right now?

Shedd: The Reaper Fleece was introduced several weeks ago, and we’ve seen probably the best reaction to any product we’ve launched in the history of our company. Since 1989, the AFTCO fishing short has been the biggest item in our company, and the Reaper looks like it has a chance to equal that impact. Retailers like Tackle Warehouse are asking our guys to come up and shoot special videos for them. It’s pretty awesome. Sometimes, things just take off, and it’s pretty fun.

Are custom videos something you’d work with brick-and-mortar retailers to create?

Shedd: You know, we would for the right retailer. We’ll be launching in Fin, Feather, and Fur’s six locations and building a custom in store display for at least one of them, and we’re also working on walleye focused product videos specifically for Fish USA.

We do the majority of our volume with independent retailer, and believe the key to that success relies on tailored experiences.

The new book, Meeting Triumph and Disaster, is about your dad. Where did the idea to write this come from?

Shedd: The book was written so that great, great grandkids that didn’t get a chance to meet Dad could know him. He was such a leader, and had so many life lessons that we wanted a way for future Shedd family members to learn. That Greatest Generation, the guys who lived through the Great Depression and World War II and the Cold War, they were remarkable. If you watched the ceremony for George H.W. Bush last week, what came out of it was a reflection of that generation, an old school approach with integrity and honor.

As much as anything, the book is a story about that generation and the integrity and morals they had. The book talks about World War II and starting SeaWorld, but many people say it reminds them of their father or grandfather.

Milt and Bill Shedd. Image courtesy of AFTCO.

As a World War II veteran, did your dad ever talk about the war?

Shedd: Dad never talked about the war. He got a Purple Heart and two bronze stars and a silver star, but never talked about it. I would ask him about the war stuff and he would just say, “Billy, you weren’t there. I will talk about it with other people who have been in combat. I had a lot of friends that died, and I was in situations that people who weren’t there wouldn’t understand. To talk about it with someone who wasn’t there would do a dishonor to those people who died.”

I think a lot of the men and women of that generation were that way. They went and did what they had to do, and never talked about it afterwards.

How did your dad transition to SeaWorld after the war? Did he just come home and decide to start a theme park?

Shedd: No, no. He was from a poor family, so they didn’t have any money. But, he loved to fish.  I know a lot of people that really love to fish, but nobody loved to fish as much as Dad. He would go on 16-day long range trips out of San Diego to fish for yellowfin, marlin, halibut, yellowtail, and white seabass. Often, I would go along, too. When we got home, I was ready to get back on land. Dad was immediately like a caged cat. He couldn’t wait to go back out again. He always thought he wanted to be a game warden, or something that took him outdoors to hunt and fish; but he figured he could have a bigger impact on the world if he got into business. So, he was a stock broker for a while after the war and he helped people with investment banking.

Dad had a friend from UCLA that ran a restaurant, and initially the two of them decided to open another one together on the water in Long Beach. In this restaurant, they wanted to build a conduit around the water, so customers could look out through glass into the bay. But then, they figured the water might be too dirty and people wouldn’t be able to see out. Then they thought it might be clean but you wouldn’t be able to see fish. To achieve both, they decided to build a tank out in the bay beside the restaurant. Well, with one too many beers, they then decided they could build their own oceanarium.

It sounds like, as with all great ideas,  SeaWorld was born out of beer?

Shedd: Almost. They still needed to raise money to build it. So, dad took his life savings and the other guy did, too. They put everything they had into artist renderings and engineering plans of what this thing could be. Eventually, they raised the money.

Bill Shedd. Image Courtesy: AFTCO

So your dad found a way to spend his life around animals, after all.

Shedd: Exactly. He was in charge of collecting the original fish. And it just so happened that thanks to his days as an investment banker, he made a friend named Herb Bell, of Packard-Bell. Starting in the early ’50s, Herb would take dad fishing with him on his boat, The Five Bells, to Cabo San Lucas. It was a 100-foot boat that really pioneered sportfishing in that part of Mexico. Dad was still young at the time, and he was there to make sure the older guys could reel in fish and that sort of thing.

When Herb passed away, he gave the boat to Dad for the research institute that he’d started. They used the boat as a collection point for fish in Cabo. They netted off part of the lagoon to hold fish until the bait boats coming up from Central America would stop to refuel. Many of those boats had empty bait wells, and dad got them to take the fish he caught up to SeaWorld. All of that happened because of fishing.

You’re saying SeaWorld became a reality because your dad was a fisherman?

Shedd: Right. There was a point in time when Dad was chairman of the board of directors at SeaWorld, and he thought SeaWorld should buy AFTCO as a way to get into the fishing tackle business. When he presented the idea to the board, they told him, “For the first time in your life, you’re thinking with your heart instead of your head here.” When they refused, dad was off the hook from what he considered his first business responsibility, and he was free to purchase AFTCO. At the time, it was a very small company; but the day after he signed the contract he ended up in the hospital. A short time later, he brought me on to help out short term, and that was 45 years ago.

Milt Shedd passed away in 2002 at age 80. He was memorialized by national news networks as the “Walt Disney of the Sea.” In 2017, his son, Bill, received a Lifetime Achievement Award for his work in conservation from the American Sportfishing Association. AFTCO donates 10 percent of its profits to ocean sustainability and freshwater conservation efforts.

The Shedd family book, Meeting Triumph and Disaster, is available free with the purchase of any AFTCO product from their website using promo code “MILT”.