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Bat inventor becomes bat manufacturer

By TED GRIGGS
Advocate business writer

Published: Mar 9, 2008

Livingston entrepreneur Joel Albin thought the hard part was over after he successfully shepherded his invention, a device that eliminates the vibrations in a baseball bat, through the three-year-long patent process.

With his freshly minted patent in hand, Albin met with bat maker after bat maker. All of them liked the device. All of them wanted Albin to make it for them. The problem was no one wanted to pay much for the privilege.

“They weren’t what I would call Albin-friendly offers,” said Sean Richardson, vice president of Albin Athletics.

For example, Nike’s proposed five-year contract with Albin would have required him to invest around $1 million in facilities and machinery, Richardson said. Unfortunately, at the price Nike was offering for each harmonic dampener, it would have taken Albin seven years to reach the break-even point, at 300,000 to 500,000 units per year.

Meanwhile, Nike wanted the right to market the device in whatever way the company saw fit, Richardson said. This meant if Nike decided to shelve the Albin-modified bats, no one else could sell them. It was possible the idea might gather dust for five years.

And after the five years was up, if Albin decided to take his invention to another manufacturer, that firm might have reservations, Richardson said.

“It’s been on the market, it didn’t sell, so now it comes back to the market again and your market people are like, ‘Oh that’s already been tried. It must not have worked,’” Richardson said. “I said, ‘Joel, I just don’t think that’s a good idea.’”

The bat makers were telling Albin to his face how much they liked the product and how much they wanted it, Richardson said, but they weren’t saying the same thing in the contracts.

“I said, ‘I think you’re cheating yourself. I think there’s a market out there, a phenomenal market,’” Richardson said.

So Albin decided to go into the bat business.

“It’s not what I originally planned, but I think the opportunity is greater. We’ll have more control now,” Albin said.

The U.S. wholesale market for baseball and softball bats was $213 million in 2006, compared to $180 million in 2005, according to the Sporting Goods Manufacturing Association.

High-end bats sell for more than $300 retail. Albin is hoping to grab a small slice of the market initially and then expand his market share as word-of-mouth spreads.

“Honestly, if we do 4,000 this year we’ll be tickled, but we could do up to 5,000 to 10,000,” Albin said.

The Albin Harmonic Dampener is a round slotted piece of rubber surrounding a small plastic cylinder. The device is built into the bat’s knob.

The process appears simple, but it took Albin Athletics nearly two years to get the dampeners into its own bats.

The company initially met with lots of resistance from bat makers, Richardson said. There was little information available about the manufacturing process. Other bat makers were reluctant to share their knowledge but more than willing to tell Richardson to get lost.

“I’m one of those people if you tell me, ‘No,’ I’m just going to come back harder and harder every time,” Richardson said.

Richardson kept making phone calls. Nine months later, he found a former bat maker willing to consult on manufacturing and design ideas. Richardson’s background in industrial engineering helped him design the bats.

Richardson was a senior at Southeastern Louisiana University when his independent study adviser asked him to tackle a facilities planning project for Albin. Richardson designed a factory, worked out the production numbers and turned the finished project in to Albin.

He never expected to see Albin again, even though the inventor repeatedly assured Richardson he would be hired if the company got off the ground.

Four and a half years later, Albin called. He needed help taking some weight out of the harmonic dampener. Six months later, Albin convinced Richardson to join the firm.

Eventually, Albin’s family-owned firm bought some equipment from a small bat company that had folded. Albin Athletics then signed a deal with a tubing company to make the bats in Connecticut.

For now, Albin Athletics is trying to get regional and semi-regional retailers to pick up the bats, Richardson said.

Albin said he worried at first about how the company could market to sporting goods stores. But with the Internet, word of mouth about a new product spreads almost instantly.

“We’ve been really fortunate they (sporting goods stores) are starting to contact us now,” he said. “They’ve seen our Web site www.albinathletics.com, gotten word of mouth. We’re getting an e-mail a day from a new user.”

Steve Taylor, head baseball coach at Plains High in Texas, spotted the bat at an athletics equipment show in Waco and said his team likes the bat.

“I haven’t had one kid take one swing with it where they made contact with it act like it hurt their hand,” Taylor said.

That’s common with the other bats, Taylor said, especially this time of year in Plains, when the temperatures hover in the high 50s and low 60s, and there’s lots of wind.

“Typically with most aluminum bats, if you don’t hit them down in the sweet spot, they are going to vibrate, and they’re going to hurt,” Taylor said.

Taylor said he has not hit with the bat, but the Albin bat sounds different from the team’s other bats. It sounds a lot more solid, he said.

Richardson said the company is learning a lot about ballplayers’ buying patterns.

“They want it now. They don’t want to wait on it in the mail,” Richardson said.

Players might see the bat in a game Saturday and decide they want it for their game the next week, Richardson said. So they’re going to the stores and asking for it.

Albin Athletics is also planning to post some videos of people using its bats on YouTube, Richardson said.

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