Martin Archery holding on by a string

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WALLA WALLA — The end may be near for Walla Walla’s storied bow manufacturer, Martin Archery.

After more than 60 years in business the company that makes recurve and compound bows used by hunters all over the globe — not to mention in Hollywood films and once used in the lighting of the Barcelona Olympics caldron — is on the verge of shuttering.

Deep in debt, down another half of its work force and reeling from the death last month of its founder and patriarch, the company is at a crossroads, said Chief Executive Officer Tim Larkin.

“We’re at a point where we’ve got to get the business sold or we’re going to have to close it down,” he said. “It’s not clear yet which one of those is going to happen.”

The business has been for sale for some time, and potential buyers have come forward. One was 24 hours from closing last spring before the transaction fell through, Larkin said.

But time is running short. A purchase agreement would need to be completed in the next month or two. If not the doors will be closed on one of archery’s biggest names.

The loss would be devastating — not only because it’s been a leading innovator in archery and a stalwart manufacturing employer but also because the company has actually experienced a major turnaround, Larkin said.

A former owner in Tumac Outdoor Equipment and Tumac Machinery, Larkin joined Martin in May 2012, in essence to help get the financially struggling company going after a couple of seriously lean years.

At the time, he said the company’s debt between the bank and creditors was around $4 million, much of which was overdue already.

“So when I came in and looked at it, I basically concluded the company was bankrupt and there was no hope,” he said.

But Martin persevered. A new sales manager was brought in to help. Changes were made on the operating side. This calendar year it has reported about $240,000 in profit.

“On the face of it, you would say that’s a terrific turnaround story. Why don’t you keep going?” Larkin explained. But how many of those stretches would be needed before the debt could be paid down?

“That’s why we need to sell and recapitalize,” he said. “There are suitors, but right now we don’t have an offer.”

The death on July 21 of founder Gail Martin, who with his wife Eva grew the business from a fletching hobby into an inventive bow-making operation, was another blow.

At 89, Martin remained an active leader in what had become a three-generation business with upward of 100 employees at its height and annual output of at least 50,000 bows a year. Known as a gentleman and sportsman, he revolutionized bowstring making with a jig he designed. Bowhunters would ask for his autograph at trade shows. Last year he was inducted into the Archery Hall of Fame.

“He was a giant in the industry,” Larkin said. “He would be one of those people who would walk through the production facility and people would stop and applaud.”

His death, linked to heart failure, hit the business hard.

“Even though the company was struggling, he was a motivational force among the employees,” Larkin said. “On a practical and tangible level, people in the trade to whom we owed money were inclined to cut us some slack because of who he was.”

The transition has not gone unnoticed by archers and bowhunters.

In threads on “Archery Talk,” the online forum and archery community run by Martin’s son Terry, who is behind numerous patents for the company himself, participants have long been discussing concerns about the future of the company.

Indiana resident Charles Roche said via email he’s cheering for the company’s survival. He purchased his first Martin bow online in 2010. He picked up his second last year.

“I sincerely hope that someone can arrive on the scene and turn the ship around,” he wrote. “The Martin family has developed so many patented improvements to the modern compound bow, I can’t help but believe the foundation is there for an astute business person to turn a profit.”

But the uncertain future may be a deterrent for other consumers, leery of investing in a pricey compound bow with the potential that its maker might not be around to uphold the warranty, Larkin acknowledged.

“Our higher end bows used by the sophisticated hunters have done OK but not as well as they should have, because who’s going to take care of the warranty? Who’s going to repair them?” he said. “It’s been a struggle to get those bows sold because of the health of the company.”

Larkin said the archery industry is strong, largely because of new interest driven by “The Hunger Games.” A broad section of young people are becoming interested in shooting like Katniss Everdeen. “We’ve still got a lot of orders,” Larkin said.

In an effort to help retain the business, the Port of Walla Walla has stepped in as a possible player. During negotiations last spring, the Port had committed to purchasing the more than 4 1/2 acres of industrial property where Martin operates on Heritage Road. It had intended to lease the land back to the potential new operator, reducing the cost of the business as well as the Martin debt.

“We thought the potential buyers had a pretty solid business plan of keeping the Martin Archery tradition alive,” Port Executive Director Jim Kuntz said. “We were trying to get all the specifics between the buyer and seller and it just didn’t happen.”

He said the Port would entertain a similar arrangement if another capable buyer came forward.

“It would be disappointing to lose it. It’s always difficult to lose manufacturing jobs,” Kuntz said. “For decades Martin Archery has been known as one of the premiere archery manufacturers in the country. It’s been a standard-bearer for the Walla Walla Valley.

The property — including more than 58,000-square-foot industrial office and warehouse, a 1,280-square-foot single-family residence and 4.67-acre site — has been listed with Coldwell Banker First Realtors for just under $1.7 million.

Vicki Hillhouse can be reached at vickihillhouse@wwub.com or 526-8321.

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