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Published: Wednesday, 7/5/2006

Softball equipment maker looks to score big with 'Toledo' bat line

BY GARY T. PAKULSKI
BLADE BUSINESS WRITER
Dave Kidd, of Toledo Sports Equipment, lifts a Toledo brand Katana Dragon slow-pitch bat. Dave Kidd, of Toledo Sports Equipment, lifts a Toledo brand Katana Dragon slow-pitch bat.
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Garett Gillen isn't swinging for the kind of worldwide name recognition once achieved by Toledo Scale Co.

But he does hope to knock out a niche for his firm's Toledo-brand aluminum bats.

"We want to become a larger part of the baseball/softball market," said Mr. Gillen, general manager of Toledo Sports Equipment Inc., 3934 Concord St., off Sylvania Avenue in West Toledo.

Known as J. Richard Industries until late last year, the firm was given not only a new name but a new mission by the venture capital firm that owns it: continue to develop its Toledo line of aluminum bats while studying opportunities to market gloves, balls, and other baseball paraphernalia.

For now, the focus will stay on bats, including the Toledo Katana, the Toledo Inferno, the Toledo Nitroglycerin, the Toledo Buzzsaw, and the Toledo Collision, officials said.

The firm produces bats for men's slow-pitch softball, women's fast-pitch softball, and youth baseball. (Adult softball bats differ from wood bats in length, weight, and diameter.) Prices range from $90 to $300.

It also makes bats and bat components for other firms.

Customers include MetalWood Bats, of Eleanor, W. Va., which combines aluminum handles supplied by Toledo Sports Equipment with wood stocks to produce a hybrid bat that is less likely to break.

"We're satisfied with the handles," Jim Sovel, MetalWood operations manager, said during a telephone interview. "I'm sitting here working on one right now."

The Toledo firm isn't new to bat-making.

Founded in 1948 in Temperance, J. Richard Industries was a pioneer in producing aluminum bat housings, according to a former owner. The company, which also made tapered metal tubes for tables and other uses, moved to its current location in 1984.

It had numerous ownership changes before being bought by PNC Equity Management Corp. in March, 2005. The new owners sold other parts of the business, leaving managers to concentrate on development and production of bats.

A major change took place in 2002 when the then-J. Richard Industries began producing its own brand of bats.

Shells are made with a "proprietary nine-step heat-treating process" that produces a bat with a "more consistent sweet spot," according to reviews.

A number of models combine aluminum with high-performance materials to improve performance and durability. Promotional material for one bat boasts that its shell is covered with "weapons-grade fiber mesh."

The firm, which has 20 employees, produces 75,000 bats a year, the general manager said. Seven in ten are sold through catalogs and over the Internet, he added.

Bats also are sold through a small nationwide network of retailers, mostly small independent sporting goods stores.

Retailer Mike VanDine, of MVD Sports in Ashland, Ohio, points out that Toledo Sports Equipment is a little fish in a much bigger pond of better-known brand names.

The firm created a stir two years ago when it introduced a bat that combined aluminum with high performance materials. But the buzz died down, and sales have stalled at his store.

"They've got to come up with something that is better than the better-known brands," he said.

It's a challenge that managers willingly accept.

"We're going to get better at what we do best," said Chris Block, manufacturing engineer. The firm's Web site is Toledobats.com.

Contact Gary Pakulski at:

gpakulski@theblade.com

or 419-724-6082.



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