PASSADUMKEAG, Maine — When James, Ron and Don Wallace formed Wallace Brothers Woodcrafters LLC five years ago, they made about 2,500 fish landing nets a year. This year, they will likely hit the 6,000 mark, and in 2011 they plan to make 10,000.
Why the sudden burst of growth?
Besides making an excellent range of handmade products, of which the landing nets are the top seller, the Wallace brothers say their company has begun selling a new, premier line of their items for Cabela’s, a national retail chain that proclaims itself the world’s largest direct marketer of outdoor merchandise.
The company has also received help from a University of Maine pilot program called the Knowledge Transfer Alliance that will help them aggressively market themselves next year.
“This winter is when [KTA] will begin marketing us very hard to go out west. We have sent nets to Canada; we sent them to England,” 52-year-old Don Wallace said. “It’s just what we needed. We are hoping to get Ron here full time, and with the three of us, there’s no doubt we will do 10,000 a year, easily. It feels great.”
“We need more marketing,” Ron Wallace said. “Out west, where fishing is huge, we are barely scratching the surface.”
Funded since Jan. 1 through a three-year, $1.8-million federal Economic Development Administration grant, KTA pairs university graduate students, professors and all the resources of UM with stressed or fledgling local businesses to analyze and improve all aspects of those businesses for free, said Hugh D. Stevens, director of the School of Economics Office of Special Projects.
The effort organizes a broad coalition of experts with a wide range of business, manufacturing and innovation skills to create a statewide network among researchers, faculty and students at UM campuses — plus private, public and semi-public enterprises — all dedicated to helping the businesses overcome flaws or improve the way they work, Stevens said.
The participating UM entities include the School of Economics; College of Business, Public Policy and Health; College of Engineering and Cooperative Extension programs.
“We collaborate with just about every center on campus,” Stevens said. “If somebody needs expert advice about something, anything, chances are we’ll be able to get it for them.”
In the case of Wallace Brothers, KTA workers did a cost analysis and accounting and energy efficiency audits. It analyzed production methods and suggested efficiencies and ergonomic improvements to bolster the businesses’ strengths while eliminating several weaknesses, Stevens said.
A university engineer greatly improved the company’s production speed and ergonomic safety by recommending that certain machines be moved and processes altered, while the students designed a new logo and created a marketing campaign, Stevens said.
Wallace Brothers “produces an excellent product and are very knowledgeable about that product and the industry they are in, but they didn’t have a lot of marketing experience or product-to-market experience,” Stevens said. “They were a little reticent about marketing themselves. Not all businesses have the time or energy to pursue that.”
Don Wallace said, “They have a few professors on board, too, but it more or less boils down to getting these college people a chance to step up and help these businesses, whether it’s marketing or whatever it is” that is needed.
Besides making 30 types of fish landing nets, Wallace Brothers makes cribbage and cutting boards, fish landing-style and wood block clocks, plus landing-style picture frames and artwork. Available through Cabela’s, L.L. Bean and Orvis, the company’s products can be seen online at wallacebrothers.us.
KTA wouldn’t be possible without Maine’s federal representatives, particularly Republican Sens. Susan Collins and Olympia Snowe and Democratic Rep. Mike Michaud, Stevens said.
“Mike has been extremely instrumental to us,” Stevens said. “He helped us identify this grant and secure the funding for the program, and he dealt with the local folks and helped us find businesses that needed help.”
The program has done more than 100 jobs for businesses since Jan. 1 and has about 20 clients. Any business that wants the help can contact Stevens at 581-3111, email him at email@example.com or visit umaine.edu/kta, he said.
KTA workers will meet with inquiring businesses within two weeks or sooner, depending on the urgency of the need.
“Our focus is business in the northern Maine region from northern Lincoln County right on up,” Stevens said. “We never turn anybody away.”