Whether a company has just left the bench or been in the game for more than 30 years, the key to innovation is simple: maintain a startup mentality and growth is sure to follow, said Andrew Dowis.
“One of our core values is embracing innovation,” explained Dowis, CEO of Pro Athlete — a Kansas City-grown bat and glove shipping company that recently acquired Milwaukee-based apparel and sports accessories retailer Routine Baseball. The hard-hitting small business is best known for its Just Bats and Just Gloves brands.
“We’re a great example of a company that was a brick and mortar store [and pivoted.] If we wouldn’t have embraced innovation [by moving business online in the 1990s], we wouldn’t be an online company [now] and we wouldn’t be making this next acquisition,” he continued, detailing the Pro Athlete promise to continuously seek creative opportunities for growth — which led to the development of the company’s innovation division.
“We call it, ‘Phenom-X,’ short for phenomenal experiences. The whole goal is to go out and create experiences for our customers that will blow their minds,” he said, indicating the mission is embodied by the acquisition — which saw two of the Routine Baseball’s 10 employees called up to Pro Athlete.
“Operationally we’re pretty sound, but honestly … we don’t know how to design and get shirts made and stuff like that,” he said. “So these are the two key positions [from Routine Baseball.]”
While it might sound simple, acquiring a company is no light lift and years of preparation went into perfecting the deal that brought the two companies together, Dowis explained.
“About four years ago, we reached out and wanted to see if they wanted to do some kind of collaboration. We’ve always kind of admired their product and their brand, and we talked a little bit about some stuff and the timing never really worked. So we kind of put it to bed,” he recalled.
Fast forward to Spring 2019 and Dowis came across the correspondence once again, archived in his inbox.
“We went [to Milwaukee] several times and met with them, looked at their facility, researched their website … did some research on what we thought the world thought of the brand — and came to the conclusion that it’s really strong,” he said. “It’s a very similar demographic to the customer base that we have for bats and gloves. We thought it was a good value add.”
The acquisition closed Dec. 6, 2019, he noted.
Now a legacy company that acts as a startup — it’s workplace north of the river boasts such amenities as a swimming pool, cafe, free lunch, sauna, library and full gym — Pro Athlete’s decision to acquire Routine Baseball is but another example of the company’s ability to pivot, Dowis said.
“We’ve done a couple of things in the last year that we hope is going to keep innovation at the forefront of what we’re doing,” he said, highlighting the company’s innovation lab — comprised of teams from within the company who collaborate on innovative ways to push it forward.
Such a line of thinking kept the company open to expanding its offerings — despite having scaled back in the past, Dowis acknowledged.
“We’ve been laser focused for over 20 years just selling bats and just selling gloves and you know, this is definitely a new challenge,” he said, noting intense excitement and a dose of nerves.
“We’ve never been in the lifestyle apparel space, so we’ve got a lot to learn for sure,” Dowis added. “But the main factor in this acquisition was the ability to have our own brand with our own products.”
And while chasing growth isn’t always easy, no company would ever score big if they didn’t take risks, he said.
“We’re obviously realists in the fact that there’s a lot of things we don’t know how to do. There’s always that worry in the back of your mind that you won’t be able to do what you did with the previous business,” Dowis said. “But I think we’re ready. We’ve got good people. People seem excited for a new challenge and just kind of ready to try something new.”
For founders eager to sell their startup or larger companies looking to buy, Dowis advised one thing: let relationships drive the deal.
“We tried to really understand the business and the people running the business first. … We weren’t trying to pull one over on them and they weren’t trying to pull one over on us,” he said, noting it was important to connect with the founders of Routine Baseball, opening the door for them to remain part of the company’s story.
“We wouldn’t be able to acquire their company had they not taken that chance to start it back in 2011,” Dowis said. “We were obviously interested in the brand on the surface, but we really tried to dig in and you understand more about the business, talk to the employees, and really understand what makes it tick.”