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Ex-timber worker turns passion for archery into bowstring business

for The Associated Press

JOHN DAY ' A bright star in the beleaguered economy of Grant County rose to ascendancy only because Mike Slinkard did not want to leave home.

Timber workers who lose their jobs in the Eastern Oregon city of John Day typically have one option: move out. As the timber harvest plunged in the 1990s, Slinkard knew he faced the short end of what he had planned on being a long career.

I had 16 years in the timber business here, said Slinkard. That all kind of came to an end.

Instead of leaving, he decided he would take his passion for archery and turn it into a living.

Out of that ending came the beginning of a new company: Winner's Choice Custom Bowstrings Inc. Only three years old, the company has been profitable for more than a year, topped &

36;1 million in sales in 2002 and is now a nationally recognized leader in making high-quality strings for hunting bows.

— Slinkard and his partner, Tom Nealy, a former tree-faller, have taken a long-shot startup company in a depressed area of Oregon and turned it into a success. They have found a niche outdoor product where they can compete as the highest-quality provider and still operate in an isolated section of the state. Virtually every shipment can go by FedEx just as fast as if they were shipping from Portland.

It's a darn good-looking project, said Rick Minster, regional development officer for the state's Economic and Community Development Department. It's a light at the end of the tunnel.

Winner's Choice was to be the first tenant to move into the city's new industrial park. Within one year, employment at the firm is expected to increase to 25 employees, up from the current 13.

I knew we had a good product when we started, but I've been surprised how fast it has caught on, Slinkard said.

Winner's Choice strings are used primarily by hunters and tournament archers. They are expensive, &

36;50 or more, from two to eight times the cost of a traditional bowstring.

But they offer a significant advantage. Traditional bowstrings creep, or get longer, the more they are used. That causes accuracy problems in the complex workings of bows.

Winner's Choice completely pre-stretches the bow's fibers prior to assembly, ensuring that the bowstring will stay at its desired length. Before a Winner's Choice string will wear out, as many as 40,000 arrows might be launched. With a traditional string, an archer might expect 5,000 launches, according to Slinkard.

At the Broken Arrow Archery shop in Milwaukie, owner Norm Geertsen said Winner's Choice is popular because each string is custom built. Because of the high price, he sells only about 30 to 50 annually.

Customers that do a lot of shooting buy them, both hunters and target shooters, he said. Their product has been quite well received nationally.

It has not always been this good.

Initially, Slinkard used money from his 401(k) retirement fund to start the company. Banks, he said, were a dead end.

They just looked at you like you were nuts when you said you wanted to build bowstrings for a living, he said.

His credit union loaned Winner's Choice some money, Slinkard said. Then, using a mix of state grants and federal assistance in the form of disabled employees whose pay was subsidized, he began production in earnest in 2001.

In 2002, revenues first broke the &

36;1 million barrier, something the company did not expect for five years. Although Slinkard will not reveal precise figures on net income and gross revenue, he said Winner's Choice is profitable.

Total revenues come from a mix of sources: About 50 percent comes from a network of 1,100 dealers nationwide, such as the Broker Arrow Archery shop; about 35 percent comes from archery manufacturers who use Winner's Choice strings; and 15 percent comes from direct Internet sales.

Insistence on quality is paying off. Precision Shooting Equipment, a Tucson, Ariz.-based manufacturer of archery equipment, will use Winner's Choice strings on the best bows for its 2004 line. Precision is the largest archery manufacturer in the world. Production has already begun, with initial sales showing promising results.