Heavy metal

There are few visual clues to distinguish the home of Marucci Sports from the other businesses lining McCann Drive, a nondescript row of corrugated metal buildings in the Industriplex area off Siegen Lane.

There is the address over the entrance, numbers affixed to a replica of a wooden bat. To the left is a pair of roll-up metal doors, a distinctive looking “M” stamped onto each one.

Those letters might not mean much to most people. But show them to a Major League Baseball player, and his eyes will widen, like the sight of a fastball running right over the heart of the plate.

In eight short years, Marucci has gone from a backyard stress reliever for Jack Marucci, LSU’s head athletic trainer, to the maker of what’s arguably the hottest bat in the major leagues today.

According to the company’s Web site, 313 current or very recent major-leaguers swing Marucci lumber, from Dodger Stadium in Los Angeles to the new Yankee Stadium in New York. The Marucci-wielding roster includes St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols, the two-time reigning National League Most Valuable Player; second baseman Chase Utley of the NL champion Philadelphia Phillies; and Tampa Bay Rays third baseman Evan Longoria, the 2008 American League Rookie of the Year.

“You’re used to getting two bats in a dozen that are good and the rest are crap,” says Jose Cruz Jr., a 12-year major-leaguer who retired in 2008. “With Marucci, they’re all gamers. [The company is] obsessed with quality. You pull [the bats] out of the wrapper and they’re ready to go.”

From its inception, Marucci says, the company has striven to be discerning about the wood in its bats and the men who swing them, a strategy that added to the company’s early mystique.

“We know these guys will be our salesmen,” he says. “If we get a quality individual swinging the bat, it will be a good reflection on us.”

References from current major-leaguers and major-league clubhouse workers are part of the process. That led to the partnership between Marucci and then-Seattle Mariners outfielder Raul Ibanez, who now also plays for the Phillies.

“Teddy Walsh, the Mariners’ clubhouse manager, told us he [Ibanez] is ‘a good guy, a Marucci guy,’” Marucci says.

Having won the devotion of many of MLB’s heaviest hitters, Marucci now is rolling out some heavy metal. Earlier this month, the company launched its first aluminum bat, targeting the youth baseball market, which represents the San Francisco Giants-sized share of the two million aluminum bats sold annually in this country.

For a company housed in such humble digs, it’s been a most ambitious project. And it probably wouldn’t have gotten this far without the prodding of its new CEO, Reed Dickens.

Even if the literary last name doesn’t ring any local bells, you probably have seen the face. Dickens, a Monroe native, served during George W. Bush’s first term as assistant White House press secretary under Ari Fleischer. He then made the rounds of the cable news programs while serving as national spokesperson for the 2004 Bush campaign.

Leaving politics following Bush’s re-election, Dickens started a California-based public relations firm called Outside Eyes. Working with clients like the Jonas Brothers and New York Yankees third baseman Alex Rodriguez, Dickens quickly learned he enjoyed creating brand identities and raising growth capital, and he began seeking opportunities to develop, as he put it, “underexploited” companies.

About the same time, the two driving forces behind the company, Baton Rouge native Kurt Ainsworth and Lake Charles native Joe Lawrence, were looking to find a way to grow the business they founded with Marucci in 2003. Ainsworth and Lawrence are former major-leaguers with memorable baseball résumés.

Ainsworth was an All-American pitcher at LSU, a first-round draft pick and a gold-medalist in the 2000 Sydney Olympics before spending four seasons with the Giants [2001-03] and Baltimore Orioles [2003-04].

Lawrence was a first-round draft pick out of Barbe High School in 1996 before making it to the majors with the Toronto Blue Jays in 2002. After his baseball days were over, Lawrence, who originally had signed with LSU, finally made it to Tigertown and played football for the Tigers in 2004.

Ainsworth was rooming at LSU with the late Johnnie Thibodeaux, a four-year baseball letterman who played third base and outfield on the 1997 and 2000 national championship teams, when he met Lawrence, who also was a friend of Thibodeaux’s.

“We shared a common drive for business and for thinking of things in the entrepreneurial world,” Lawrence says. “We took Jack’s hobby and said, ‘We can make this work.’”

Not that the work of building the company was easy.

“We didn’t have employees at the beginning,” Ainsworth says. “We were the employees.”

“We blue-collared our way through this thing for years,” Lawrence said. “It’s hard for me to think what even made us come to work every day seven years ago, because we weren’t making any money. We came because that was all we knew to do.”

Marucci bats gradually became a hit with pro ballplayers. Ainsworth and Lawrence’s standing as major-league alums earned them entrée into big-league clubhouses. The quality of the bats they were selling kept them there, often long after other bat company representatives were shown the door.

“We do get preferential treatment,” Lawrence says, attributing it to their product and to “how we conduct business.”

The wooden bats caught on with a growing number of pros, but Marucci was limited because it lacked commercial growth potential. Wood bats are used only in professional baseball and a select few amateur leagues. Aluminum bats are not allowed in pro baseball, but are used almost exclusively from T-ball through college ball, and that’s where Ainsworth and Lawrence wanted to take Marucci next.

“As a wood bat company, we were never going to get to the point where we would be that big of a company without getting into the consumer side,” Ainsworth says.

Last year, two important tumblers clicked for Marucci: The company acquired the proprietary anti-vibration technology to produce a bat it calls the Cat 5, and Dickens came calling.

Reed’s younger brother Ragan, who lives in Baton Rouge, turned out to be the facilitator during Reed’s visit to speak to a group of local Merrill Lynch financial advisers and investors.

“It’s almost a little eerie how I met these guys,” Dickens says. “They said, ‘We’re looking for national P.R., we’re looking for growth capital, and we’re looking for a way to manufacture aluminum,’ because they had just discovered a patented aluminum bat technology.

“My brother said, ‘I think my brother can help you in all these areas.’ So he sort of matched us up on a ‘blind date’ and said, ‘Hey, you should talk to these guys.’”

For Ainsworth and Lawrence, Dickens was the key to Marucci’s untapped upside.

“Joe and I always had a vision that this thing could be big,” Ainsworth says. “It’s always been sort of a hobby for Jack, which is understandable. He’s a full-time trainer at LSU; [whereas] we were finished with our [baseball careers].

“But we had no idea it could be something this big. Without Reed and his market capitalization, it couldn’t be this at all. We needed Reed to take it to the next level.”

And Dickens wanted the opportunity that Marucci provided.

“I don’t think anyone knows that Joe and Kurt took Jack’s hobby and turned it into a business, and that it became a hot enough brand for me to want to move from California and bring with me capital and a brand team,” Dickens says. “Our capital involvement is all because of Kurt and Joe’s hard work.”

The name on the door and the man behind the bats—Jack Marucci—will remain in the background when it comes to the aluminum side of the business. The aluminum bats will be made elsewhere in the U.S. and also in China; the wooden bats are made from Pennsylvania-grown maple and ash but are cut and finished in Baton Rouge.

Marucci said he would continue to focus on making wooden bats for major-leaguers, while lending his name to the aluminum bat line through a royalty deal. Most of the bats these days are cut by former LSU pitcher Brett Laxton, who as a freshman struck out a championship-game record 16 batters in an 8-0 victory over Wichita State in 1993—the Tigers’ second College World Series title in three years.

“People always ask if Jack is still involved,” Dickens says. “I say yes, he chose royalties instead of equity, but he’s still involved.”

Jack Marucci says the wooden bat line is receiving a couple of tweaks for 2010, which also should help the marketing of the aluminum bats. Not only is every major-leaguer’s name stamped on the bat he uses, but the trademark Marucci “M” has been “cleaned up” [to use his term] to make it more visible to high-definition TV cameras.

A key for Marucci Sports’ future is bringing in bigger names than Marucci itself. That’s why Dickens has created a player advisory board for the company. The 12-man board includes Pujols, Utley and Boston Red Sox slugger David Ortiz, players who will lend their names to the new aluminum bat line and have lent their money to Marucci’s bottom line in return for a stake in the company. Dickens, Ainsworth and Lawrence own equal shares of the company, but Dickens declines to reveal the players’ percentages or their total investment.

Dickens admits Marucci is crafting an unusual and precarious business model: conquer the professional market, then try to carve out a piece of the commercial market share. But it is essentially the only path available to Marucci Sports given that its wooden bat business developed first.

“These guys [Ainsworth and Lawrence] with the wooden bats created the Marucci brand,” Dickens said. “Then I come along, and we’re spending a lot of money to build a platform. Then our partnership with our player board is our runway. The bats are our vehicles.”

Marucci’s wooden bat business has always been different from competitors like Louisville Slugger and Easton. The company spends zero dollars on player endorsements, a “strategy” that began because the company had no money to dole out.

With the advent of Marucci’s aluminum bat, Dickens plans to adhere to a business model different from his competitors’. Disdaining a large payroll of bat reps marketing to thousands of local and national sporting goods stores, Dickens plans to go with a viral Web-based strategy and keep the Cat 5 deliberately hard to acquire for now.

The bats will only be on sale online through the company’s Web site, maruccisports.com; a chain of West Coast-based sporting goods stores called Sports Chalet; and one local retail site at Big Leagues of Baton Rouge on Burbank Drive. The cheapest Cat 5, for youth players, retails for $239; the most expensive, for adults, sells for $379.

“Are we going to sell a ton of bats in 2010?” Dickens says. “My answer is, I don’t care. Our No. 1 goal this year is building our brand.

“If all we’ve done this year with millions of dollars in viral strategy is that kids have gone from not knowing who Marucci is to going, ‘Oh, that’s the bat the pros swing,’ that’s all I want. I don’t care if they swing our bats. I know that’s a stupid thing to say because we’re selling bats. But this year, I want them to associate Marucci with ‘That’s what the pros swing.’”

Dickens’ core demographic is the 9- to 14-year-old baseball player, whom he believes isn’t reached by the marketing strategy used by his competitors.

“We’re going to attack the 9-to-14 market in two places I think the other companies are neglecting completely: tournaments, where they physically hang out, and online,” he says. “Nine- to 14-year-olds live online. And when they’re not online, they’re at their tournaments.”

Marucci’s first big push was at a huge youth baseball tournament March 19-21 near Atlanta. The company went armed with bat demos, members of its advisory board giving lessons and a video of Pujols swinging the Cat 5.

As for the future? A new aluminum bat line that Marucci is designing in-house is scheduled to roll out in 2011. And Dickens foresees the need to build a new, modern headquarters too big for McCann Drive to hold.

“Being from Louisiana, I’m very proud and excited that we’re going to build this here,” he says. “I want to build a baseball mecca of the South. I want to build a headquarters here that’s modern and high-tech.

“Building a company and having a place that LSU graduates can work that’s fun and exciting would be one of the most rewarding things.”

Ainsworth agrees.

“I have a lot of pride in the city and the state of Louisiana,” he says. “I hope [the company] is something people who live here can be proud of as well. I hope it can create a cool place in the city, just like some of these other companies—like Under Armour has done in Baltimore and Nike has in Oregon. I hope we can do that with Marucci in Louisiana.”

To be profitable enough to make a good return for its investors, Dickens figures Marucci needs to eventually claim a mere 2% to 4% of the market.

How many days, weeks or months comprise eventually? Dickens can’t say.

“Let’s say our ambitious plan is naďve and overambitious,” he says. “When we’re done implementing this strategy, the Marucci brand is going to be hotter than it was when we started.”

“If you take Basic Business 101, which is to create value where there wasn’t any, I think we’re creating value around the brand. Will that translate into sales? Only time will tell. Will we financially succeed? Only time will tell. Will we turn into a huge company? Only time will tell. But when it’s over, and by that I mean a couple of years from now, we will have made a hot major-league brand into a national brand one way or another.

“Now, there are a lot of tragic stories in the business world, and of someone creating a hot brand, and the next group making the money. That’s always possible. We may not end up making the money off of this if I make a mistake or we don’t manage this properly. But I’m not going to make the mistake of letting anything damage or taint the brand. If we above all else guard the brand, then no matter what happens in terms of sales, we will have succeeded.”

Click here for more about Marucci CEO Reed Dickens.

MARUCCI TIMELINE

2003
Former LSU, San Francisco Giants and Baltimore Orioles pitcher Kurt Ainsworth, former Toronto Blue Jays second baseman Joe Lawrence and LSU Director of Athletic Training Jack Marucci form an LLC. Today, Ainsworth serves as director of product development, Lawrence as director of baseball operations and Marucci (left) as senior adviser.

Marucci Bats makes its major-league debut with Eduardo Perez of the St. Louis Cardinals. All-Star shortstop Barry Larkin is the first major-leaguer to score a hit using a Marucci bat.

2008
Marucci Sports purchases a wood mill in Pennsylvania.

2009
Former White House Assistant Press Secretary Reed Dickens joins Marucci Sports as its CEO.

More than 300 players swing Marucci wood bats.

Twenty-nine All-Stars swing Marucci bats, and 18 players in the World Series swing Marucci.

St. Louis Cardinals first baseman Albert Pujols swing Marucci to claim his third National League MVP.

2010
Marucci Sports introduces the Cat 5, an aluminum bat featuring advanced, patented, anti-vibration technology.

SOURCE: Marucci Sports

Click here for a list of more than 300 professional players that swung Marucci bats in 2009.

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