David is the business writer for the Bay of Plenty Times and Rotorua Daily Post.

At the sharp end of the darts trade

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Relationships key today, says manufacturer
Peter McCormick's Puma Darts exports to 70 countries. Photo/John Borren
Peter McCormick's Puma Darts exports to 70 countries. Photo/John Borren

The global darts market has changed rapidly in the past decade, with a significant increase in online selling platforms, says Puma Dart Products managing director Peter McCormick.

"A lot of our key accounts now sell their products online," said McCormick who took over running the Katikati-based business founded by his father, John, on his passing in 2003. His sister, Julie Carlson, also joined the company in 2003 as marketing director, and the business remains family owned.

The company sells Puma and Shot! branded darts to more than 70 countries and to large international sporting chains, specialist darts stores and e-commerce sites globally. The Shot! brand is used to get around Puma AG Sporting apparel conflicts in the US and Europe. McCormick estimates Puma Darts sits at around fourth globally in darts production, and has expanded significantly into Asia.

"We deal with our global customers the same way, but a lot of their product is sold online and no longer through a bricks and mortar operation."

He was six months old when his family relocated to Katikati from Auckland in 1970, after his father, an accountant with an entrepreneurial flair, bought a small local business making dartboards. McCormick and his sister were involved from a young age as his father built the business from making dartboards to also manufacturing darts and expanding into overseas markets.

He completed all his schooling in Katikati, then did a business management degree at Waikato University before working for companies in Tauranga and Auckland in production management planning. He then became operations manager for Hoverd Industries, which eventually became McAlpine Hussman. From there, he moved to London in 1995, but returned soon after when his father came calling.

"Dad bailed me up and said it was time to come home," said McCormick. He returned the following year and began running the factory operations. His father died suddenly of a heart attack in 2003, and with "a six-year apprenticeship" behind him, Peter McCormick took over running the business.

"The changing global environment has changed a lot of the requirements," he said.

Darts are typically sold to key customers in parts - barrels, shafts, and flights. Puma now produces an active range of about 620 different dart models.

"You're no longer looking at supplying a barrel or two to America for that market," he said. "You'll be supplying a barrel that could end up anywhere."

A major change has come about since Asia embraced darts 15 years ago, and darts had moved from being a hobby into a sport, he said. "Asian interest changed the nature of the industry overnight. The nature of the market there is for a completely different style of barrel."

Whereas a typical western darts player was primarily focused on functionality, in Asia - and especially in Japan - while the dart had to be functional, darts players were a lot more concerned with appearance.

"The dart also has to be sexy, trendy and colourful, as well as having beautiful packaging. The whole display system has to be right. It's completely different to the way we had been doing it, but it's been very good for the business. It has really lifted us up and made us very customer-focused."

Puma designs all of its product in Katikati and makes all parts of its high-end darts, with entry level models manufactured in Taiwan and China.

In a break with the past, as of this year, Puma no longer makes the dartboards which were the foundation stone of the company in New Zealand, because the cost of importing raw materials and freight no longer stacked up.

Puma is now focusing on darts, which is where the growth is. In addition, the company is ramping up the production of accessories - everything from arm compression sleeves to dart cases and tool kits.

"Accessories are probably the fastest-growing side of the business," he said. "Design has become a key aspect for us and we now have a six-person design and marketing team."

Puma employs 21 people in Katikati and more than half the staff have been with the company for over a decade.

He works closely with sales manager Peter Edmondson. The pair were named finalists in this year's BOP Export Awards in the Beca Export Achievement Award category.

"Pete handles the day-to-day sales manager customer visits, while I follow up doing purely relationship calls," he said.

"The higher-level relationship visits into Asia, especially, are very important. There's no talk about products or orders, it's all about the relationship. It spreads the workload and the travel and has been really successful for us."

The sales team have spent years on some export sales calls before making their first sale.

"It takes a long time before there is enough trust. You have to be incredibly persistent and keep on getting out there. But New Zealanders are like that - we front up and are perceived as being different and as a result doors get opened for us."

As for his darts skills, Mr McCormick acknowledges that customer calls - especially at meetings in Asian darts bars - can turn into darts challenges.

"I can hold my own," he said. "You have to be good enough to not embarrass yourself."

Katherine Sanford, a business consultant who worked with McCormick during a previous assignment for NZTE, said his genuine care for the Katikati community and the importance of employing local staff came through strongly. "And he calls a spade a spade. He's really up front."

- Bay of Plenty Times

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