Nearing 35 years at Black Widow Custom Bows, Roger Fulton says he didn’t envision ownership as part of his future when he took a job at the hunting bow manufacturer in 1985.
Fulton was simply looking for a short-term job. He expected to stay on for about six months while looking for something else. Now, he owns the business, along with longtime employees Toby Essick and John Clayman.
“We were just country boys and worked 40 hours, played on the weekends. Then we went to working seven days a week,” Fulton says of the three taking over in 2005.
Today, Black Widow’s ownership trio has logged nearly a combined 100 years of work at the Nixa-based company, first founded in 1957 by brothers Bob, Howard, Jack and Norman Wilson.
“We’ve all worked here a long time,” Fulton says, noting Essick and Clayman both started full time in 1990.
The three co-workers were approached by then-owner Ken Beck in 2004 about his desire to exit. A year later, they were in charge. Beck owner-financed the deal.
“We didn’t have to come up with a penny,” Essick says.
In the 8,000-square-foot Nixa facility, which Beck built in 1995 at 1201 Eaglecrest St., Fulton serves as president and runs the business office, while Essick and Clayman are both vice presidents. Essick is in charge of production, and Clayman handles accessories, inventory and shipping. It’s a leadership combination that has helped the company generate sales of $1.6 million in 2018. Over the past 20 years, Fulton says Black Widow has sold more than $1 million a year.
The Black Widow staff builds around 1,000 bows a year, and Essick says the majority of them are called recurve bows. Recurves allow users to shoot faster arrows, while arrows fly straighter with longbows.
“We do all custom work. We don’t build a bow unless we’ve got an order for it,” Fulton says, adding it generally takes between three to four weeks to build a bow.
Prices range from $1,025-$1,325, depending on the model and wood. Customizable options that can add to the price include arrowhead shape or snake skin overlays.
The company also sells arrows, quivers, arrow-making supplies and arrowheads. The accessories account for about a third of company sales, Fulton says. He says e-commerce has played a larger role in Black Widow’s reach since it launched its website in 1999. Approximately 75% of sales are now online, he says, with the remainder comprising phone orders and a small portion of walk-in sales. All sales are direct to the consumer.
Black Widow also has an international presence.
“We export about 30% of our bows,” he says of the roughly 300 bows of the 1,000 shipped annually to Germany, Sweden, Canada, Australia and other countries.
The company started shipping to China five years ago, bumping the exporting percentage up from 25%.
Wood material for many of the bows also has an international connection, says Mike Pyeatt, owner of Ash Grove-based The Rosewood Shop LLC. His shop began supplying exotic woods – such as Brazilian rosewood, pau ferro and curly bubinga – for Black Widow in 2003.
“We helped them transition into exotics,” Pyeatt says, adding he supplied Black Widow with enough wood for more than 100 bows it created in 2007 for its 50th anniversary.
The incorporation of exotic woods is mostly for aesthetic effect, Pyeatt says. However, it does make a difference in weight, he says, noting they typically are heavier than American woods.
“The weight in the handle really stabilizes the bow,” he says. “It actually stabilizes your shooting.”
Pyeatt says over the past several years, Black Widow has purchased $125,000-$200,000 annually in product from him, equating to about 25% of The Rosewood Shop’s annual sales.
“They’re a very important customer to us, and they’ve helped us build our business,” he says.
Try before buy
While sales have held steady, the Black Widow owners say business starts to slow down in September. After all, it is archery season in many states, including Missouri, and customers are out in the woods with their bows. Essick and Fulton recently returned from a bear hunting trip in Maine.
“When archery season hits, the phone dies,” Fulton says with a laugh. “But then it will pick back up usually in January.”
Because the company doesn’t use any dealers, all the bows are made and retailed in-house. Essick is in charge of the company’s five production employees, three of whom have exceeded the 20-year mark at the shop.
“They know their jobs. You don’t have to micromanage them,” he says.
Black Widow’s lobby area features a large display wall of bows for customers to choose for on-site target practice and even to take one home to try out.
“We can basically sell you a bow, ship it to you, let you shoot it for about 10 days and try it out so you don’t have that buyer’s remorse,” he says.
The program has been in place for about 20 years.
“I’d say 70% of people will wind up buying a bow,” he says. “They’re pretty sure they want one, but they just kind of have to be nudged.”
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