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  August 29th, 2013 | Written by

To Bait a Sale

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It’s said that if you give a man a fish you feed him for a day, but if you teach that man to fish you feed him for life.

Okay, but what kind of life would that be? Fish day after day—morning, noon, night and fourth meal—until all that oily build-up’s oozing from his pores and you’ve pretty much guaranteed your piscatorial pupil of never getting another date. Think! Perhaps you could have mixed in a class called Cobb Salad 101, or how about doing something that could be beneficial to both of you and give that man a job in the fishing industry? No, we’re not talking about one of those Deadliest Catch gigs where what passes for HR is a guy named Burl removing a hook from your cheek, again. We’re talking about recreational fishing, fun fishing—angling, Ducky; nice clean boat, nice clean companions, big smiles, blue water, the kind of fishing you see on beer commercials and, you know, other beer commercials. Give him the kind of gig Mitch Birt has. Better yet, have him observe how Birt goes about making money for Penn Reels.

Birt is brand manager in Australia for South Carolina-based Penn, one of fishing’s oldest and most respected names and one, like so many companies in so many fields—not to mention streams—that see enormous possibilities for growth outside the United States. The company depends on guys like Birt to find new customers while keeping old ones satisfied. They are both mentor and marketer, people who can offer a sales pitch one moment and a sympathetic ear the next. It’s daunting work, being responsible for an entire country—and continent.

Then again the job has its moments, as it did early one morning last February. Birt found himself standing on the deck of a 56-foot chartered fishing boat 20 miles off the western Australian coast as he suddenly caught sight of the sun coming up over a tranquil Indian Ocean—glassed out and inviting—and stopped.

“I remember thinking, ‘Wow! I don’t think there is anywhere I’d rather be,’” he says. “It was just a moment where not much else mattered and, yeah, that was a work day.” Now before all of you start casting resumes at Penn, know that even in his reverie Birt is quick to add: “Having said that …”

It turns out that during his serene February dawn, Birt was hard at work checking on the spread of rod and reel outfits set up for that day’s product launch designed to get local dealers some water time with Penn products. “It was a showcase of new range but with a particular focus on the premium durables. We had around 25 different outfits on board to share,” he says. The launch was part of the “massive effort that saw us travel the country doing trade shows and water demo days” key to Penn’s reemergence in Australia.

“We just acquired our distribution rights back in Australia,” says Mike Rice, Penn business manager. Those rights had apparently been lost during the company’s decade of changing hands. Founded in 1932 by German immigrant Otto Henze, Penn Reels grew in popularity throughout the Great Depression in part because Henze’s simple and efficient designs—his motto was “Make it simple, make it work”—made it easy for anyone to use, including those who used the products for subsistence rather than sport. Penn continued to grow after Henze’s death in 1948 and was inherited by his son Herbert, who sold the company to two private investors in 2003. Just four years later the investors struck a deal for the iconic reel brand with tackle maker Shakespeare Fishing, but the company would be swallowed up by Pure Fishing the following year.

“Now that we have it we’re reintroducing the brand to both customers and consumers,” says Rice, who manages Penn business under the Pure Fishing umbrella.

ANGLING INTERNATIONAL When Penn launches an addition to its iconic golden reel lineup, brand managers know their buyers will bite if they can test the product.
ANGLING INTERNATIONAL When Penn launches an addition to its iconic golden reel lineup, brand managers know their buyers will bite if they can test the product.

Reintroducing the recreational product in Australia’s saltwater market looks nothing like the beer commercials. “The brand has a lot of heritage here built on the back of stalwarts like the International and the Spinfisher,” Birt says, but rebuilding the brand’s presence after its lost decade is like raising a sunken ship. “I think if a brand could speak, Penn would have busted out of a set of rusty old chains, looked back at the last 10 years and said, ‘Finally!’”

Yes, finally. There is, after all, a lot at stake in Birt’s industry. Last year, recreational fishing generated more than $41 billion in revenue in the United States alone. Recapturing a piece of the international pie requires Penn’s Australian brand manager log 12-hour office days and be on-call for phone conferences at all hours seven days a week, even when on the go. “You take one with the other in our industry.”

In other words, it’s not all days on the lake.

Rice says that whether it’s in the States or overseas, his company does nothing more important than listen to the consumer. For Birt, this meant that in the early days of Penn re-launching its brand in Australia, he would organize the aforementioned demonstration voyages—which yielded a sale that very day—to introduce new products such as the Spinfisher V (an update of the former “stalwart”) and Squall Lever drags, as well as educate people on a complete renovation of Penn’s rod range.

It’s all part of the company’s commitment to ensuring its international brand managers focus on the human touch. In an age of virtual offices, telecommuting, teleconferencing and all manner of technologies designed to keep people from actually meeting in the flesh, successful international businessmen know that the secret to success overseas is that there is no secret to it—that the same thing your customers desire in Stockton is what they desire in Sydney.

Sure, Penn communicates with its brand managers via frequent conference calls, but it also leads annual pilgrimages back to headquarters and Birt says he expects senior management to visit him in Australia at least two to three times a year. The conference calls are usually wide-ranging affairs covering not only general business but marketing activities, challenges and opportunities that may have come their way. At the meetings at U.S. headquarters, managers are not only expected to weigh in with what is going on in their neck of the world, but to lend whatever they have learned to others. In essence, they work apart but together.



Birt’s European counterpart Robert Valkeneer says the world is getting smaller and smaller each day with things like social media. “It’s important to remember that there is a person on the other end of that technology,” he says, something he and Birt are always reminding themselves. “At the end of the day, the angler is our boss. Our goal is to help the angler catch the fish of a lifetime. It’s his quest, his search, his adventure—and we love being part of that adventure.”

Europe is a growing market for Penn and Mike Rice says the company has just recently put people in place to “help us develop the right products for the various markets within the region,” Valkeneer among them.

Not that it’s going to be easy. Every country of Europe and every region within that country has its own specific fishing styles and needs, dictated by topography, heritage and custom. Valkeneer says that England is a tough country to sell because its coastline and grounds change about every 50 miles.

“A sea-bass rod that sells on the southwest coast will not sell on the southeast coast because some areas have rough rocky bottoms and some have sandy bottoms and both need a different approach,” he says. Next the company struggles with preferences for cosmetics. “Again, England is different here than other countries.”

Valkeneer is currently working through the challenge with a rod series he developed this year called Regiment. He says the continent of Europe loves the design but England feels like it is a bit outdated. “I have changed some cosmetics of the typical English rods to their needs. These rods are specific for England and will not be sold in the rest of Europe. It is quite a challenge to serve each country with products they need.” To meet that challenge he tries to visit each country every two years to learn about the individual markets. “I have the luxury that we have some good coworkers and pro staff anglers that give me lots of feedback.”

Collaborating on the designs has led to such smashing successes as the Sargus reel, which Valkeneer says was by far his most successful for a host of reasons. “First of all the product was great and the value for the money was incredible, but above all strategic-wise it was perfect as well.” The Penn brand hadn’t lost its strength, but it hadn’t offered any new products for several years, either. When Sargus came on the market, Penn delivered a must-have product. “It was good for the shopkeepers but more importantly for the anglers who, after all, are the ones who ultimately decide if a product will be a success or not.”

How popular was the new reel? “One of the biggest compliments we had about the Sargus is that one of our customers told us he sold one reel of each size to two engineers from one of our biggest competitors.”



In Vaulkner and Birt, Penn has found brand managers who have become not only the company’s face in their regions, but its ears, eyes and mouth both literally and figuratively. Fortunately for the brand, they’re not only good at what they do but passionate. They live the product. Consider that when Rice is asked about the status of Penn’s brand in Australia, he says, “Business is strong and our team is stoked Down Under.”

But Birt, who describes himself as the kid who “just stood at the end of mum and dad’s bed at four in the morning trying to get dad up so we could go fishing,” is less satisfied: “As far as getting the brand back to where we’d like it to be, I think that road still remains untraveled. We’ve had an exciting beginning to what looks like being a great ride, but our focus going forward is to continue to be the best value-for-money saltwater brand in the market.”

Having devoted most of his professional life to fishing, and much of his life before that, Valkeneer says his love of fishing runs so deep that working for Penn, and its parent company Pure Fishing, amounts to “having my hobby be my work. Who can say that?!”

Like Birt, Valkeneer has had his “Wow!” moment. His occurred while participating in a fishing competition he had organized for Penn off the coast of Kenya.

“We’ve had this competition for five years now and this year there were more than 20 boats, making it the biggest competition on the east coast of Africa,” Valkeneer says. “I was able to go there and do some of the official things like give prizes, do publicity and so on. I was also fishing in the event, which was excellent, and as you’re doing that you think, ‘Wow! What a job!’ I think of that almost every week to be honest.”