Gayne C. Young
Jim Morando and his wife Elisabeth are the founders and owners of African Sporting Creations. I spoke to Jim about ASC, why he and his wife decided to start the company, and what makes their company unique.
How did ASC come about?
We opened our doors in 2003 and there were several reasons why we started this business.
The first was that my wife, who was a prosecutor when we married, was getting tired of taking the bar every few years as a result of following me around the country when I started doing corporate turn-a-rounds, so we were looking for a portable business for her to run.
The second was that I used Shooting Sticks for the first time on my second, 2001 safari and made a shot on a bushbuck that I would never have been able to pull off freehand. When I came back to the US, I went online to buy a set of traditional wood shooting sticks and could not find a pair that met my expectations. At the time, that struck me as an opportunity, but I was too busy with a new turn-a-round to devote the time required to get a business off the ground.
Finally, in 2002 I joined YPO and all the other members were owner-operators of businesses and they encouraged my wife and me to start a business around our passion for Africa. That third signal was the final push we needed to draw up a business plan and jump in with both feet.
Did you have a long-term vision for the business when you began?
We did. A big part of turn-a-rounds is coming up with a long-term plan for success so that is part of my DNA. At the very beginning, we decided to ultimately become a one-stop resource for safari hunters. It took us close to ten years to get there, and while there is more work to be done, that initial plan has withstood the test of time and allowed the company to grow in good times and bad.
While we started in the middle with gear, the initial plan was to provide all the safari preparation and associated timelines for folks to get ready. All the specialized gear (minus guns, optics, and ammo) for our customers to enjoy a safe and successful safari. Then, after customers returned home, we wanted to make it easy for them to purchase all their safari-inspired furniture, home décor, jewelry, and antique African spears and shields to weave the fabric of the Dark Continent into their daily existence without the hassle of importing those items themselves.
Tell us about your early years.
Traditional, one-piece wood shooting sticks were the only item we sold for the first few years. I would work all day and then come home at night and make shooting sticks in the garage on a very primitive set-up after the kids went to bed. Shipping a 72” set to Texas or California was ridiculously expensive so in 2006 we developed a two-piece take down connector and that is when the business really took off. I still make every set of shooting sticks myself and the big difference today is that I now have the equipment to do that in a very efficient manner.
What has changed about your business over the past eighteen years?
Before 2008, almost everything that was purchased from us went on safari. After the 2007 recession, we added more adventure lifestyle products into the mix. Everyone suffered during the recession and safari-related orders were few and far between. We felt that if people were going to find adventure a little closer to home, we should help them make those trips as enjoyable as possible. That approach has proven to be very successful and today only half of what we sell goes on safari and the rest is enjoyed much closer to home.
What all do you carry?
Over 90% of what we sell is not available anywhere else on this continent which in and of itself makes it unique. One of the big advantages we enjoy is that we are our target audience so we understand our customers-if we get excited about it, then our customers usually have a very similar reaction. Some of our best line extension ideas have come from customers who see something in Africa and tell us about it.
We started out hand-crafting traditional wood shooting sticks in house and from there we added the best know adventure brands from Africa; The Courteney Boot Company, Arno Bernard Knives, Melvill and Moon Campaign Furniture, and Els and Co. Fine Leather. In addition to those lines, we also have an extensive range of products we designed in-house and have built by custom makers in the USA.
When your primary product components are exotic hides, exotic woods, African antelope or buffalo horn, and mammoth or warthog tusk it is really easy to come up with a unique assortment that is very appealing to our target audience.
Tell us about a recent introduction that is selling better than expected
Our new Cape buffalo and elephant metal targets are selling much better than expected. They have a 2” popper for instant feedback and are made for use with .22 long rifle ammo. We originally thought people would buy them for their own practice but it appears grandparents are using them with their grandchildren for “backyard” safaris.
Since you started out with Shooting Sticks-tell us a little more about that product.
Our average customer has purchased six sets of disposable sticks before they invest in a set of ours, the last ones they will ever have to buy. We know of sticks with PH’s in Africa that have been in use for over a decade. The big difference is our connector; on every other set of sticks is the weakest part but on ours it is the strongest part. That is why we can offer the only unconditional, lifetime warranty in the industry.
We specialize in traditional domestic and exotic wood shooting sticks. Wood is much more difficult to work with than hollow aluminum tubes, but is lighter, quieter, and more rigid. Each set we make goes through over 100 steps before it is ready to ship. This initial product set the tone for our preference for hand-made versus machine-made products. Since they are made completely in-house, we offer a level of customization that is unique in the industry in terms of height, woods, personalization, and a broad selection of exotic hide tops.
The Courteney® Boot Company…
We added them in 2008 and they had already established a cult-like following among those that seek adventure so it was a match made in heaven. PH’s call them the 10,000-mile boot as that when those that wear a pedometer say they give up the ghost. To put that in perspective, the run flats on Elisabeth’s mini-van had to be replaced at 11,000 miles. They are not built like a sports car, they are built like an old pickup that just keeps on running.
Since we started carrying them, their assortment has grown considerably. They now offer more exotics and both regular and wide widths. We have also added a simple to use “Build Your Own Boot” option on our website where you pick the model, hide, width and sole and you can have them on your feet in less than 150 days. We stock over 500 pairs of their best sellers in Ohio so you can order them today and have them in a couple of days.
Arno Bernard Knives…
We used to buy knives from Arno Bernard Sr. but he was winding down when we were ramping up so we transitioned to Arno Bernard Jr and his three brothers. Since we have been with the four brothers that make up this newer company, they have introduced more products than ever before. This increased new product development tempo includes their first folding knives which is the biggest part of the market. Most knives today are completely machine-made but these have each of the brothers’ fingerprints are all over them, so they were another great fit for us. Their tag line is, “Tough Enough to Use, but Nice Enough to Collect” and I think that is a great description of their offering.
Melvill and Moon British Campaign Furniture…
Another hand-made product that is modeled after actual pieces issued to the British Military during the Boer War that a local museum let them study. Solid African mahogany frames, solid brass hardware, and thick canvas make these as good and some may argue, even better than the original pieces. We offer a full range of pieces that are elegant enough for a trophy room and rugged enough to take with you on your next adventure. They also make super durable luggage from the same canvas that covers most of the safari vehicle seats in sub-Saharan Africa. We like to say almost every one of our products has an interesting story behind it and this holds true for everything they make.
Els and Co. Fine Leather…
This is a premium collection of leather that is hand-sewn by Xhosa women who apprentice for over six months before they earn the right to stamp a piece with their initials. They offer a wide range of slings, ammo carriers, and portable field bars which are very popular with our customers-especially around the holidays.
We offer a full line of Rhodesian Teak Furniture that is stunning and the only wood ever declared a national treasure. If adult beverages or cigars are your thing we also have a unique assortment of products targeted at that market. We also have a full range of private label products made from exotic hides, mammoth tusk and warthog ivory. In addition, we have hand-selected one of the largest private collections of African Spears and Shields in the country and specialize in Maasai lion spears, shields, and Zulu Ikwala spears-many of which have colonial-era battle scars.
Have to ask about one of my favorite products categories – cigar accessories?
We introduced them after we started selling the field bars and leather Scotch Carriers as customers tend to smoke and drink together. Right now we are working on an ashtray and cigar humidor made from 100-year-old fence posts out of the Zambezi valley that were put up to keep cattle out.
Oh my Lord, they are going to be nice.
How do you come across the spears and shields?
We have a network in Europe that contacts us when a museum is being liquidated as many of the items we are interested in have fallen out of favor. The thing about a museum liquidation is that you do not get to cherry-pick the items as they prefer you buy entire categories. Fortunately for us, we have a customer base that allows us to move these types of quantities relatively quickly. I can still remember going to Teddy Roosevelt’s Sagamore Hill Mansion as a kid and seeing Maasai lion spears and shields hanging on the walls of his great room.
What would you say to people who want to start up their own business?
It takes twice as long and three times as much money to get a business off the ground. We were fortunate that for the first eighteen years we had the income from my day job to pay the bills or we would have run out of cash a long, long time ago. Just in time inventory replenishment is something that does not have any good translation to hand-made products, especially those that are made in Africa.
The second thing is that the easiest job in the world is the one you are not doing. If you are going to make a go of something, you really have to be a student of it. Making wood shooting sticks sounds easy but in reality there is a fair amount of science behind it. At the time we opened our doors, I was running the second-largest wood flooring manufacturer in the US. I was around wood engineers all the time and we collaborated with some of the best wood engineering colleges in the country, so I learned how to properly handle and evaluate wood to ensure it performs as expected. Even with all that, we wind up using more than half of our dowels for kindling during the long, cold Ohio winters.
Grow where you are planted. All the experience you collect over the years makes you smarter. Curiosity is key to running a business. After I left the wood flooring company I went to run a fixture company in the plumbing space. That exposure to plumbing fittings helped us figure out how to make our shooting stick connector. Working with domestic and exotic woods is a bit more glamorous than getting into the waste evacuation business, but those two unrelated industry experiences helped set us up to succeed in one key part of our business.
What would you say to people who have never heard of you?
The most common comments we hear from customers are, “I didn’t know you carried that” or “I had no idea something like was even available”. When you go to our site, take your time and go through it category by category. You will be surprised what you find on that second or third click. In total, we stock over 1,000 SKU’s, and the lion’s share of them are unlike any you will find anywhere else. Set aside an hour, grab a cup of coffee and enjoy the experience!