Listen to the Market

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PROFILE: Oakley Woods Croquet, Brighton, Ont.
Oakley’s first employee, still there, Jay Parnell, attends to applying the sighting groove to a set of mallet heads. Office manager Vanessa and Don’s wife, Diana, round out the team.

Oakley’s first employee, still there, Jay Parnell, attends to applying the sighting groove to a set of mallet heads. Office manager Vanessa and Don’s wife, Diana, round out the team.What do you suppose your life will look like when at 20 all you know is motorcycle mechanics? If you’re asking Don Oakley of Oakley Woods Croquet in Brighton, Ont., not good.

Oakley recalls getting his ass chewed by a boss back then, and he says he went into a sort-of detached state, much like you see in Homer Simpson, where whatever is going on in reality, Homer is off in his mind, talking to himself. In this case, the boss was yelling away, and Oakley was asking himself if this is what he wanted to be doing for the next 40 years. He said the answer turned out to be no, and he resolved to be his own boss by age 24.

However, that was easier said than done. Following his resolve, Oakley looked up renowned local woodturner Bert Thompson and ended up apprenticing with him for three years in the early ‘70s.

Oakley’s first employee, still there, Jay Parnell, attends to applying
the sighting groove to a set of mallet heads.

From there, it was on to working as a single-man shop doing chair spindles, porch posts, table legs, cabinets, stairs or whatever he could find to keep going, and gaining skill, business sense and experience in the process.

Along about 1990, a neighbour came over with the remains of a Canadian Tire croquet set. The mallets were all chewed up, and he wanted to know whether Oakley could fix them up. In a bit, Oakley had half-a-dozen newly done mallets, but he figured he had $50 in each one, and couldn’t see it fair to charge that much, so he charged $25 each, but he wondered.

There was an internet in those days, but not a worldwide web, so internet searches were not as comprehensive as now. Nonetheless, he finally found a really nice croquet set at Abercrombie and Fitch for — gasp — $1,500 for a set.

Oakley figured he could do better than that, but he had to identify and approach the market, so after a year of searching bookstores and libraries, he identified two contacts: the U.S. Croquet Association and Croquet Canada. These were the upper level of the croquet world.

As the heads become more advanced, length is required for sighting, but weight has to be minimized — in this case with cutouts. According to Oakley, the metal plates in back of the facing material can make up as much as 70 percent of the mass.

Then it was time to lobby, so Oakley went on the road. The then-president of the U.S. Croquet Association could see Oakley was serious, so he said, “If you’re serious about making mallets, I’d be happy to help.” So they got together and started getting into the details of swing, balance, specs and style. Then, Oakley said, the feedback loop began. He would make a mallet, take it to a match, ask people to critique it, go back to the drawing board and then back to another tournament.

In a year, he finally felt he had a saleable product, but he saw it as just a side-hustle — something to fill in when he didn’t have other work, and he decided to join the newly burgeoning worldwide web of the internet and launched a website.

Then, Oakley started to get really busy, and hired his first employee in 1998 to help with volume.

Suddenly, a couple of things happened. First, Jack Osborne, thenpresident of the U.S. Croquet Association, died. Osborne had been adamant about outsourcing croquet products, largely from England, but in the aftermath, somebody at a meeting noted that, “this guy up in Canada makes croquet sets.”

On to the painting and coating booth.

Concurrently, somebody called one day with a bunch of questions – many of which went well beyond the normal, “what length are the shafts?” sales questions, but Oakley answered, happy that somebody shared his newfound passion for croquet.

Then, the guy called back, announced he was from the Wall Street Journal, that a story about Oakley was to appear in that Friday’s edition, and hung up. According to Oakley, his phone started ringing at 7:30 a.m. that Friday, and by mid-day he had to hire an answering service to keep up with the calls. “It was a roller-coaster ride for the next six months, he said, and he and his staff, “were hanging on by the skin of their teeth.”

He hired some summer help, even if just to bore holes in heads and grinding points on hoops, and in the winter he hired some co-op from the local high school.

Don Oakley maintains a palpable sense of balance between technology and artisanship. His machines are not all new, but they do what they’re told. Oakley is, however, anticipating the installation this month of a brand-new, Chinese-made CNC router he feels will make a quantum change in accuracy, repeatability, and, of course, efficiency.

Quickly, he ended up with a steady demand, with 90 percent of all sales going to the U.S., 5 percent to Canada and 5 percent to the rest of the world, with 2/3 of sales going to e-commerce.

Oakley wryly notes that Brighton is not a bright spot for finding lots of available labour, and his contact with the schools and summer work have petered out. One lad, for example, said he was concerned about social distancing, started collecting Covid from the government and decided to self-quarantine “up at the cottage” with his girlfriend.

By 1993, it had become clear to Oakley that if he wanted to give credibility to his mallets, he had to play the game, so he started entering tournaments, and used them to ask people to critique his equipment versus theirs. Before long, he was invited to the board of Croquet Canada, where he served for 15 years as their technical specialist, and is now over nine years as second vice-president of the U.S. Croquet Association, and is a certified instructor and certified referee.

As he got better, Oakley began to provide “swing clinics,” in which he would attend a tournament, and then coach people on their stance and swing, and, incidentally, how the balance, weight and size of their mallets affected their game.

As I bent over to take this photo, Nigel Retford’s Covid-masked voice came over my shoulder: “People are always taking pictures of our balls,” he said.
Not to be outflanked, I said, “I was wondering why most of them are either red, or black and blue.”
Retford shot back, “You have to get the right grip on the shaft so the stroke will put the balls in the right position.”
I was beat, but I suspect he’d had practice. Croquet guys have to be tough to survive.

While this was clearly self-serving, it was also to everybody’s benefit, Oakley says. “The better somebody is at their sport,” he says, “the better they will enjoy it and the more they will bring their friends into it.

Hmmm. Maybe by getting good at a job, having a passion for a sport and gaining a following that supports your business makes croquet more like motorcycle mechanics than it first appears. It has to do with learning and understanding your market, not marketing to suppliers to your market. Do that, and you end up with a Canadian Tire set that falls apart in your garage under its own accord.