By ANDRA BRYAN STEFANONI
The Joplin Globe
LAMAR, Mo. (AP) - Two blocks from the former O'Sullivan Industries, which closed in 2007, a small locally grown company has capitalized on an autumn ritual to bring some jobs back to this community.
Redneck Blinds, in its second year of production, will turn out 2,800 elevated deer blinds this year, shipping them as far away as Pennsylvania, Texas and Canada.
Their chief product will be front and center this weekend as thousands of deer hunters take up positions in woods and along farm fields in Kansas and Missouri.
"We will sell all we can make," CEO Danny Little said of the blinds.
Little, a Lamar native who formed the company with three former O'Sullivan employees, said the hole in the community left by the closing of O'Sullivan Industries drove unemployment past 13 percent in 2007/2008. The community is still working to find a new tenant for the large plant.
"At one time the peak (O'Sullivan) employment was 1,700 for a town of 4,500 people," said Little, who retired a few years ago as president of Lamar Bank & Trust. "You can imagine how devastating that was to the community.
"But you're not going to attract an 800- to 1,000-employee company to a town this size. The way for small towns to prosper and grow is going to be through the development of small businesses. It's a lot better to have several small companies employing 25 to 50 people."
Between Redneck Blinds and Little's companion company, Big Green Targets, about 50 jobs have been created in the past four years.
Little, a banker for 26 years, had set a goal by age 50 to begin exploring a different career path.
"I wanted to sit on the other side of the desk," he said.
He experimented with a number of business opportunities, including a recycled foam that proved to be the perfect fill for archery targets - something he and his brother discovered in the backyard one afternoon four years ago. A year later, Little and Russ Worsley, a former O'Sullivan employee and hunter, began manufacturing Big Green Targets using the foam from a company in Michigan.
They relied on local hunters for research and development, then took samples to one of Little's former classmates, who owns Roger's Sporting Goods in Kansas City.
"He bought a truckload, and that got us started," Little said.
Little also was a partner at the time in another business with another former O'Sullivan employee, Tim Riegel, who manufactured high-end fiberglass bodies for replica 1930s cars under the label Redneck Street Rods.
"But when the economy tanked, the cars weren't selling as well. Rather than just give up and close the company, we started looking at, "What can we make?"' Little said.
They found their answer at a hunting trade show: fiberglass deer blinds.
Worsley helped in developing the design, and Riegel was the head engineer on the project. Another partner and former O'Sullivan employee, Russ Hurt, got on board, and the four were soon busy building a prototype.
Roger's Sporting Goods ordered 200 blinds, and two years later, Redneck Blinds employs 35 people and runs two shifts to keep up. Little serves as CEO, Hurt is the chief operating officer, Worsley is the vice president of engineering, and Riegel is the director of manufacturing and design.
The blinds are shipped across the country on the company's own fleet of flatbed trucks by six part-time drivers. The 10-foot and 15-foot metal stands that support the blinds are fabricated in Kansas. Accessories, such as curtains for the blinds, employ local Amish women who manufacture them at their homes.
The all-fiberglass construction and gel-coat finish of the blinds requires no maintenance and keeps out critters. Carpeted walls and floors muffle sounds made by hunters, while tinted glass windows prevent deer from seeing movement inside. Horizontal windows allow for rifle hunting, while vertical windows allow for bow hunting. Models such as the Buck Palace allow for both on all sides.
The screen printing for the targets is done by clients of Lamar Enterprises, a workshop for individuals with developmental disabilities.
"We source everything we can out locally," Little said.
"A lot of what we're doing here is trying to help grow jobs," he said. "It's as much about growing jobs as anything. I grew up here, I love the community, and I want to see it grow and prosper."
It's not unusual for some customers to buy multiple blinds for use in several hunting spots - one customer who owns 20,000 acres in Alabama bought 34 of the blinds this year. They have been purchased as playhouses, for bird-watching and photography, filming football games, and to use as bus stops in rural areas.
This week, just as archery season begins, the company is about three weeks behind.
"Our demand is exceeding our supply right now," Little said.
Now the men are considering developing related products, including a deer feeder next year and possibly duck blinds in the future.
Lamar City Administrator Lynn Calton called Little and his partners "very forward thinking."
"We applaud them. It's great that we still have people out there with the entrepreneurial spirit to start a business from nothing and see that grow," Calton said.
The company is among about a half dozen, Calton estimated, that have cropped up in Lamar in the last five years as a grass-roots attempt at survival.
"What's happened, since O'Sullivan closed, you had many people who went out on their own and created their own small companies," Calton said. "We're very enthused about these small companies like this - startup companies. It's probably more realistic and viable than trying to get some new industry that employs 1,000 people. What are the odds on that?"
Information from: The Joplin Globe, http://www.joplinglobe.com