WTFTR: From Push-Button Reels to the Fortune 500

Dale Elliott was fresh out of college. The year was 1979, and the young man who had spent much of his childhood manning presses in the die and tool trade was about to be inducted into one of the largest tackle companies on the planet: Zebco.

Zebco was the starting point of a journey that would take Elliot from the beginner’s ropes on to the C-suite of a multi-billion dollar Fortune 500 company (Snap-On Tools) and—eventually—back into fishing as the President of Keweenaw Tackle Co. Along the way, Elliott picked up over 30 years of experience in marketing, management and product development.

In today’s world, we would call that growth-hacking. In this week’s WTFTR, we caught up with old-school Michigan growth hacker Dale Elliott to see what it’s like to come full-circle in the fishing industry—and to discover what tips he was willing to share for small businesses hoping to move up the Fortune food chain:

[divider]Motor City Motivation[/divider]

“I started out pushing a broom in my father’s shop at 11 or 12,” Elliott reminisced over the phone on an idle Tuesday morning. “Later I worked on a punch press and eventually, was standing on a wire milk crate running a Bridgeport milling machine. As I got older, my role shifted to making deliveries to customers, who back then were GM Truck and Pontiac Motors. That provided the opportunity to see how big companies worked and didn’t work as a small vendor and small supplier”

“My interest in fishing goes back to my father. He was a fisherman and got me inoculated early in life, as a young kid. After graduating with an MBA from Michigan Tech, I was hired by Brunswick Co. and ended up at Zebco for my first five years out of college. I went from Michigan down to Oklahoma.”

At Zebco, Elliott said, “I found product management. I had a tech background growing up in the tool and die business, and marketing was always an area I was drawn to. My background really helped me understand what it takes to manufacture products of various types.”

It was at Zebco that Elliott met the John Scully to his Steve Jobs. Understanding a process is one thing; running an entire company is another. And Elliott, like many who eventually find themselves leading companies, says one man in particular at Zebco helped shape his future.

“John Charvat,” Elliott said. “He, back then, was kind of a legend in the industry. He was was a real forward thinker. He recognized the future of fishing. He was instrumental in getting kids fishing going, and way back then he realized we had to reinvest in the sport to keep it fresh.”

It was John Charvat who took Dale Elliott under his wing; it was John Charvat who taught him a vital lesson about business. “He recognized you had to get in and get out into the big box stores. A lot of people poo-poo’d them and tried to wash them away, which is kind of a common response to big box retailing. He knew that business was about understanding what the customers wanted.”

[divider]Keeping a Product Focused[/divider]

After five years cutting his teeth at Zebco, Elliott spent time at several major companies, including Emerson Electric, before eventually becoming CEO of the multi-billion dollar Snap-On Tools. There, the lessons from Charvat stitched into a new fold.

“Our philosophy at Snap-on was that successful products are not about the lowest price, and that’s something a lot of companies fall victim to today. It is really about value, and if the product provides enough to justify the price. You don’t start with the price and back into the product. One technique I have used in my consulting practice to illustrate this to firms is to require that any new product must deliver more value than its predecessor. And you must be able to list the features that support that on the back of a business card. If you can’t, you do not have a clear idea and have more work to do. You’ve got to have that kind of sharp focus to be successful.”

“All of us fall in love with new products,” Elliot said. “That’s the nature of the beast. It’s that perspective that makes the difference.”

[divider]Back to the Tackle Box[/divider]

Fin-Wing, a patented stamped fishing lure dating back two generations is Elliott’s latest project, and it is a natural extension of his roots in fishing and manufacturing. To make Fin-Wing a success, Elliott is combining lessons learned from the big leagues of fishing, manufacturing and growth-hacking. They are lessons he’s applied before through his consulting company, FCM Advisory Group.

“Fin-Wing was a patented idea that lacked capital to get out of the blocks. Story one of every new product that’s out there is, ‘How do you get it out of the blocks?’ Story two is ‘How do you sell it and get ready for sales?’ That involves Trademarking of the name and business licenses, getting your tax number, getting your software set up, and in our case putting it online and getting it set to sell.”

Getting Fin-Wing ready, Elliott said, required building a CAD representation of the lure, which was previously made individually by hand.

Now, some three decades after beginning a career where so many anglers began fishing, Dale Elliott has come full circle back into fishing. This time, he’s not manning the helm of a Fortune 500 company, but he just might be manning the helm of something a little more fun—a fishing boat.