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St. Croix sets sights on creating the best rods on Earth from scratch
Photo: Paul Schluter, company president.
By PAUL NICOLAUS
During those peaceful stretches of time that exist between nibbles, have you ever wondered about the rod you’re holding, the process that went into its creation, and the people who stand behind that product?
Touted as the “Best Rods on Earth” and a big fish within the industry, St. Croix Rod is a family-owned and -operated company that continues to innovate while maintaining ties to its time-honored commitment to handcraftsmanship.
Venture a few hours away from little Park Falls and not many have heard of this small community nestled an hours drive south of Ashland. Talk to a fishing enthusiast, though, and the name tends to draw out a nod and a look of recognition.
As the longtime home of St. Croix Rod – a company that has grown to become the largest manufacturer of fishing rods in North America – the city and the company have become synonymous in many respects, helping establish one another’s identity over the years.
“There are a lot of people who associate Park Falls with St. Croix,” said Paul Schluter, company president. “I hear this a lot. It’s good for the community. We promote the fact that we’re from Park Falls, that we’re from northern Wisconsin. It’s part of our mystique – that we’re surrounded by thousands of lakes and rivers and streams as well as the Great Lakes – all opportunities to use and test our product.”
Spend a bit of time at the St. Croix headquarters and the handcrafted characteristic is unmistakable. Walk into the retail store, for example, and you’re sifting through rods that have literally been made right next door. With a window leading into the rod-building facility, you can even watch St. Croix rods come to life.
“We manufacture our own product,” Schluter said. “We engineer from scratch.”
And this creative process that starts at the design phase produces new and innovative products time and again, all dreamed up within the walls of St. Croix. A full slate of 2014 rods will be available soon, including seven new musky sticks added to the Premier series. The line-up features three fast-action, two-piece rods measuring nine feet in length that have been designed to meet the demand for longer musky poles and make travel and storage even easier.
Within the facility itself, one can’t help but notice the human touch that – in conjunction with the latest technological advances – goes into each and every rod that makes its way out of the building and onto the waters.
From manipulating 3-D models on a computer to winding threads on guide feet to adding the decals that assure buyers it’s a genuine St. Croix rod, there are more than 30 distinct steps, and sets of hands, that go into the process.
This type of setup has become scarce, noted Schluter, explaining that many fishing rod companies have turned into distributors, leaving the manufacturing to contractors.
“The situation that we have here today is becoming increasingly unique in the world of consolidation where big companies own many companies and the independent companies have consolidated and don’t exist,” he said.
In Schluter’s eyes, this is a large part of what makes St. Croix both unique and successful.
“Our management strategy, because we are independent, is geared toward long-term growth,” he explained. “We can make decisions quickly, but there’s another aspect of it and that’s just the friendly family atmosphere out on the shop floor. Our team members appreciate having ownership on the floor and the presence of Jeff, Dave, and myself in the everyday affairs of the company.”
Founded in Minneapolis in 1948, St. Croix moved to Park Falls in 1954 as it consolidated operations in one location. In the early 60s, Paul’s father, Gordon Schluter, had been called on to manage the struggling company and was able to bring it back to profitability before it was sold by the owners later that decade.
After moving to New Mexico to raise his family, Gordon and his wife decided to relocate back to Park Falls in 1977 to enjoy their retirement years. They purchased a property on Butternut Lake and were preparing to move back to the area the following spring.
It was around this same time that St. Croix came up for sale, so Gordon bought the company, beginning a family legacy that still continues.
Paul joined the company in 1983 and helped begin a crusade of upgrading the product line.
“We realized that we needed to focus on the avid segment of the market,” Schluter noted. “We couldn’t be price competitive on the lower end of the market with rods made in Japan.”
During that time, St. Croix landed a job that allowed the company to build itself and prepare for the future. When Zebco had a critical need for 50,000 rods they had sold to Kmart for a Father’s Day promotion, St. Croix had an opportunity to deliver the goods and gain a large amount of their regular, ongoing business.
That relationship began an era of manufacturing millions of low-cost fishing rods, and although they realized they would eventually lose the business to overseas markets, St. Croix made money in the meantime.
Those dollars were poured into the company’s infrastructure, making capital improvements in the building and the facility, investing in the marketing of the St. Croix brand, and building it to a point where the company was able to survive when that business and roughly 25 percent of its revenue was lost. It provided enough time and profit to mold St. Croix into a recognized market leader in premium fishing rods.
“The brand represents a promise of performance,” Schluter said. “That’s what a good brand is, and that comes about as a result of a number of things, including heritage. The reputation for St. Croix is earned over many years of delivering reliable, high performance products and backing them with friendly, fast service. Those are the reasons that people wear the hat and display the logo on their boats and automobiles.”
In 1990, Paul (57), brothers Jeff (53) and Dave (49), and sister Pam Smylie (59) purchased St. Croix from their father. The three brothers continue to manage daily operations.
“A lot of people in Park Falls have had friends and family who have been associated with St. Croix over the years,” Schluter said. “Today, we have 180 employees, but over a period of 60 years in Park Falls, you can imagine the number of people who have been a part of that.”
A $4 million annual payroll bolsters the area’s economy, and according to Schluter, St. Croix also looks to support its employees in other ways.
“I see steady employment as our greatest contribution,” he said, “and we see opportunities for people to grow and advance in our organization as we grow and advance.”
Recently, that has included the addition of a new, state-of-the-art facility in Fresnillo, Mexico, where a number of models in their line-up are produced. This has allowed the company to introduce rods at lower price points, Schluter noted, enabling those who otherwise couldn’t afford a St. Croix to experience the brand.
Listen to the calm, soft-spoken leader of this company meditate on the sport for a while and you can begin to understand the draw for anyone, anywhere who has ever held a rod, thrown in a line and waited for the thrill of a tug on the other end.
“You’re seeking something you cannot see, trying to envision . . . what’s beneath the surface of the water,” Schluter said. “You don’t see it. You feel it — especially if you have a sense of a St. Croix rod.”
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