November 21, 2014
What's in a name? Potentially everything for Jim Schiefelbein.
"I loved the name Hard Core," said Schiefelbein. "It looked like it made a lot of sense, because there was a lot of upside and it didn't conflict with any of our big-game sponsors."
Those sponsors he's speaking of were the advertisers spending with one of the biggest names in whitetail deer hunting over the last decade, Michael Waddell's Bone Collector. Schiefelbein helped Waddell grow the Bone Collector brand after selling an ultra-successful ink cartridge refill business. He'd bought a high-fence deer property in Wisconsin, and while looking to monetize the new venture, took a phone call from Waddell.
"(The C'Mere Deer guys) picked up their phone and called Michael," he said. "I talked to him for 45 minutes. I was always a fan€¦so it was a really cool experience. We talked about the challenges of the growth of his business. And he offered to take me on a hunt."
So there was the big-time ink-cartridge magnate, who grew up just outside Milwaukee, Wis. chasing big bucks with his dad before becoming a diehard bowhunter in his own right, going on the road with Waddell and filming the first season of Bone Collector. Not a bad introduction to the outdoor industry.
"We spent like three weeks on the road," Schiefelbein said. "He was collecting all the footage for Bone Collector. We became good friends and would talk strategy and opportunities. I just began to work with him and give any advice as he went on."
They formed a plan to maximize Waddell's visibility across the hunting industry. Quickly the company and TV show were a success, arguably becoming the most recognizable name amongst the whitetail crowd.
"Michael was very successful at the time; he had a great personality," Schiefelbein said. "He had a great amount of marketing power, which was helping build brands and companies."
As Waddell's popularity continued to rise, the aqcuisition of Hard Core moved to the forefront. Schiefelbein had taken a start-up ink cartridge company from his garage to $300 million in annual sales. After selling, he hunted ducks and geese with HC's now VP of Product Development, Randy Hill. Randy was a heavy equipment operator back then, laid off during bird season. Jim had spent the falls dividing his time between deer stands, walleye runs and waterfowl, but Hill, a master meat caller, turned the tide.
"We spent the first couple seasons hunting pretty hard. That's where I learned a lot more about waterfowl," Schiefelbein said. "Randy used to be a championship (stage) caller, but don't let that fool you; he's a caller who can kill."
The pair have been together now for the last five years, and industry veteran, Mike Galloway (VP of Sales), came over when Schiefelbein acquired Hard Core in Jan. 2012. The trio immediately traveled to China, developing an extensive waterfowl line few companies can offer. By October of the same year, HC had 500 products, adding another 100 this season.
Why the rapid growth? It's just how Schiefelbein runs the business. He doesn't see much reason for restraint. If you walk around the HC offices in Ottawa, Ill., there's a constant hum of activity, employees giving you a friendly hello and then sneaking off to do more work. The boss won't tolerate anything less.
"Understanding my high-speed growth mentality, I thought we'd be a little further along," Schiefelbein said. "But this is only our second shipping season. Although I am very hard on everyone here and I push everyone very hard€¦and I act like I'm never satisfied...when I stand on the outside and look in, I gotta be pretty proud of what this team did."
Schiefelbein's staff has to slow him down sometimes. You can see he wants to forge ahead, take on all comers and be the most successful company in the marketplace, right now.
"To me that's the fun part. I love the high growth. That's just the way I'm wired," he says. "We've actually pulled back on the reins a little bit. When I get into something, I am in it to win it. I want to make sure we do a good, detailed job to build the best products we can€¦that we create demand for product."
The customer demand is certainly there. Schiefelbein bought Hard Core because he saw a space for a full-service waterfowl line that delivered product on schedule. They're buying up tons of ad space in regional and national hunting magazines (GUN DOG included), and the products are in box stores like Dick's and Cabela's, the ultimate sign you've hit the big time.
And if you hadn't noticed, HC's brand, the little duck skull dog tag Creative Director Matt Dahlstrom designed, is everywhere — from the stage at Stuttgart to mainstream reality TV like American Idol.
That seems to be the unspoken end game, taking HC to the masses. It would seem to be in line with Schiefelbein's M.O. Wherever HC goes, it will likely get there quickly€¦and on time.
"I think everyone can relate to the name Hard Core and is hardcore at something at some level. It doesn't matter if it's a woman, man or child," Schiefelbein says. "There's something in their life they are hardcore about. Hard Core is an emotion, and I wanted to make an emotional brand. It explains that gritty, dirty, dedicated, do-whatever-it-takes mentality that makes you the best at something€¦doing what it takes to be successful. That's Hard Core."