More on the Winston bamboo shop debacle

Discussion in 'Bamboo, Fiberglass & Classic Reels' started by Kent Lufkin, Dec 27, 2005.

  1. Kent Lufkin

    Kent Lufkin Remember when you could remember everything?

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    This story appeared in the Christmas Eve edition of the Missoulan. I was particularly impressed by Glenn's comment that he figures his hands travel about a quarter mile for every rod he builds.

    K


    End of an era - Longtime craftsmen of fly rods leaving Winston Rod Co. over changes, clashes with management

    By PERRY BACKUS of the Missoulian

    “It's the tragedy of the whole affair that I'm trying to come to terms with,” says master fly-rod builder Glenn Brackett, who, along with his crew, is leaving Winston Rod Co. after a dispute with management. “What's being given up. What's being lost. It's certainly a great loss.”
    Photo by PERRY BACKUS/Missoulian

    TWIN BRIDGES - For more than 30 years, the door to Glenn Brackett's home away from home was in a back alley just off Twin Bridge's Main Street.

    For decades it's also been the entrance to a bit of nirvana for fly fishermen from around the globe - a living museum where everyone was welcome.


    Inside that signless unassuming steel building, Brackett and a cadre of dedicated craftsmen built some of the finest bamboo rods in the world for the Winston Rod Co.

    The walls inside the shop are lined with snapshots of fishermen and friends, children's drawings and other odds and ends. Bamboo rods, some finished, some not, lean against one wall. Equipment, some dating back to Winston Rod's beginning in San Francisco, is scattered about.

    Today the phones are ringing. Fishermen from all over the country are calling to offer their condolences. They've heard the news.

    Brackett and the rest of the crew have resigned after getting sideways with management. At the end of January, Brackett will leave the company he's known since childhood.

    As a youngster, he used to tag along with his grandfather to the R.L. Winston Rod Co. in San Francisco. He developed a passion for fishing and bamboo as he talked with the rod builders who were quietly pioneering the techniques that pushed the company into the forefront for fly fishermen everywhere.

    After earning a degree in fisheries and exploring the far reaches of the world with his fly rod, Brackett joined Tom Morgan as part-owner of Winston Rod. He helped facilitate the company's move from California to Twin Bridges in 1975. In 1991, the pair sold the operation to David Ondaatje.

    Brackett stayed on, continuing to build bamboo rods. He'd hoped to pass along those skills to a new generation of rod builders at Winston. However, when his choice of talent was passed over by management, Brackett chose to resign.

    His crew followed suit. Jeff Walker and Jerry Kustich worked alongside Brackett for 20 years. Jeff Maca - a pioneer in the snowboard industry turned bamboo rod builder - had spent the last six years learning the craft.

    “There's been an unbelievable outpouring from grateful people,” said Brackett. “It's nice to know that so many believe we've contributed to our craft ... that we've been able to do something right.”

    “I'm just overwhelmed,” he said. “It's the tragedy of the whole affair that I'm trying to come to terms with. What's being given up. What's being lost. It's certainly a great loss.”

    Brackett will miss most the people who've come in the door, unexpected, yet always welcome.

    “We were always an open-door shop,” said Brackett. “We've always allowed anybody and everybody to come in here, look over our shoulders and see it with their own eyes.”

    “It was the same as what I experienced at the shop in San Francisco as a boy,” he said. “To me, it's always been about people. Life is about people. You just can't take that out of the picture.”

    But, they all say that's changed at Winston as the company has transformed into a corporation that puts profits ahead of the people.

    Between management and those in the bamboo shop there was an undercurrent of politics, said Kustich.

    Management didn't like the relaxed atmosphere found in the shop, he said. It didn't like the fact that the crew might decide to take a morning off to fish when the hatch was on. It certainly didn't like their liberal politics. And perhaps most damning was Brackett's decision to stand up to management when it decided to outsource a line of rods to China.

    “I think they thought we must be stopped,” Kustich said.

    But for Kustich and Walker, the operation at the bamboo shop was part of the appeal of working for Winston Rod.

    “There never were set hours,” Walker said. “If a trout stream was beckoning, you were expected to go. Everyone knew you wouldn't be doing a good job if you didn't have that opportunity now and again.”

    That's all disappeared at the main shop just down the road in Twin Bridges, they say.

    “What Woody wants here and there is mass production,” Walker said. “It's that corporate mind-set ... people used to take pride in being craftspeople. Nowadays, those people are interchangeable. They're just cogs in the wheel.”

    Transforming a heavy stalk of bamboo into a lightweight cane rod capable of dropping a fly onto the water without so much as a dimple takes patience and know-how.

    To carefully assemble 12 separate strips of bamboo into a hexagonal 2 1/2-ounce rod, Brackett figures his hands travel more than a quarter mile. The task is exacting. Each strip must be planed to within 1/10,000th of an inch. Each rod requires nearly 4,000 hands-on procedures before it's ready to ship.

    Brackett holds out his hands - weathered with time, the lines etched deep.

    “This is what it's all about,” he said. “These are the tools you need. These are what people pay for. It's as simple as that.”

    Over time, good rod builders take their craft to another level, said Kustich, who's recently authored the book “A Wisp in the Wind,” which describes the workings of the Twin Bridges shop.

    “They sense what needs to happen, rather than having to think about it,” Kustich said. “It's the Zen thing. You no longer strive to get things done, they just happen.”

    “Glenn has mastered that,” he said.

    Over the last few years, as anglers have matured and grown more discerning, there's been a huge resurgence in bamboo.

    “We were one of the last bastions of the old-time rod company,” said Walker.

    “All of the people in the know about bamboo rod building have been amazed that we've been able to sustain this kind of loyalty over the years,” said Kustich. “We had people literally coming to our door to order a rod.”

    They've also come to see and to experience something different than bright offices and blinking computer screens.

    “We've had people come in here who make a half-million dollars a year. They spend an afternoon watching us, talking with us, listening to our stories. When they leave, we often hear them say they wish they could do this.”

    “We're living the kind of the life many of them seek,” said Walker.

    Making a bamboo rod requires the kind of skill that's slipping away in the modern fast-paced world. It requires incredible attention to detail and the desire to find perfection.

    “Those are all intrinsic values to what we do here,” said Kustich. “Working here is like taking a step back into time to the days when old craftsman guilds were the norm. We're like a living museum and people find some kind of solace in that.”

    Winston's appeal to the bamboo rod aficionado has been its willingness to innovate while preserving the tradition of the past.

    “Glenn has continued that to the point that his rods now have an unmatched elegance,” Kustich said. “In my opinion, these are as perfect a rod as ever has been made.”

    Fishermen from all parts of the world have been willing to spend up to $3,000 to own a Glenn Brackett-era Winston Bamboo Rod.

    Winston Rod CEO Woody Woodard is betting that fishermen will continue to look to the company to provide the best bamboo rod on the market.

    “We intend to keep on making bamboo rods,” said Woodard. “Nothing in the company has changed other than a couple of people have resigned.”

    Two Winston Rod employees have volunteered to begin learning the art of building bamboo rods - Brackett said he'd stay through Feb. 1 to help them learn.

    “We know it's going to be difficult to learn. It's going to take some time,” Woodard said. “Glenn had to learn ... so will these people.”

    “We're not going to ship out rods until they are as good or better than what we have now,” he said.

    The bamboo portion of the Winston business is actually a small component of the company's business. More high-tech rods made from boron and graphite are the mainstay, and Woodard said that portion of the business remains strong.

    “Bamboo is a very small percentage of Winston Rod,” he said. “The company is stronger than it's ever been. Our market share is much larger. That's customers saying they like what we're doing. That's what the market is telling us.”
     
  2. gt

    gt Active Member

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    thanks for posting that article. it is unfortunate that this has occurred and even more troublesome that a tiny band of craftsmen are out. i fail to understand, if the other company lines of business, are so profitable, why tinker with the bamboo end of things. sometimes 'as is' i more than good enough.

    i thought of kerry burkheimer when i read that article. another craftsman not too worried about total production. i just hope some of these people survive to pass the skills and the deditication to a craft along to those next in line.
     
  3. Porter

    Porter Active Member

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    Thanks Kent for posting....interesting and depressing. I like the part ...My hands are the tools and that is what you pay for....it's that simple.

    It's about people...to few think this way...for most it's about the almighty dollar and how to get more.....
     
  4. alpinetrout

    alpinetrout Banned or Parked

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    You can say that again... I gave up on him when he told me my blank would take a month, 3 months later he said it was just being finished up and would be done in a couple days, afterwhich time he stopped responding to me whatsoever. You can't worry or care less about production than that!
     
  5. gt

    gt Active Member

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    kick back :D

    e. f. payne took almost 12 months to get my 7' bamboo rod to me, no sweat. kerry is good for 4-6 months, usually. since time is my friend, i really don't care and will continue to patronize the few remaining craftsmen around.
     
  6. Salmo_g

    Salmo_g Active Member

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    I will be very interested to see if Woodard's goal for the bamboo shop of 2,500 rods/year is reached. Two things would have to happen. First, they'd have to be able to produce them. Second, they'd need enough customers to order them. I wonder if there's a demand for 2,500 Winston rods at $3,000 each, made by relative newcomers to cane rod building.
     
  7. Jason Decker

    Jason Decker Active Member

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    If Winston was really smart, they would let Brackett set up a new shop and outsource the bamboo rods to that company. there is no realistic market for mass produced bamboo rods like the envision. With a strict b2b contract, they wouldn't have to deal with all the ego junk that put this deal sideways.

    if not, they will have created a big competitor out of their own company, with whom, they have no chance of competing with. also, if they did achieve the volume they desire, that would take away from their other rods such as the Biix line.......

    j
     
  8. Salmo_g

    Salmo_g Active Member

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    Jason,

    It looks like it started out as a business decision. (However, I have difficulty understanding where they got the idea that there is a ready market for 2,500 $3,000 Winston rods/year.) But after floating that idea, it appears it's been more about egos and emotions than business. Winston bamboo rods will still sell because of the name. But it's a big gamble to believe that they will sell at existing volumes, let alone the projected 2,500 unit volume, with a complete personel change over.

    I don't know what the global bamboo market is like, but I visited Thomas & Thomas a few years back and was surprised to learn that their cane volume was a little over 200 rods/year. I think I read recently that Winston produces and sells something over 200 rods/year as well. This topic fascinates me from both the business and artisan aspects. I wonder if Winston can sell even 200 cane rods/year when they are produced by rodmakers with less than 6 months cane rod building experience, let alone the projected 2,500 units. I've built bamboo rods from raw cane culms, and rolled a lot of fiberglass and graphite blanks over the years. One doesn't become a maker of premium rods without paying reasonable apprentice dues.

    At this point, I doubt emotions would allow an outcome like what you suggest. Besides, Brackett and the 'boo boys can set up their own shop and probably sell all the rods they can make at the going market rate. My guess is that Winston's new bamboo production efforts have a good chance of fizzling, with split cane rods being dropped from the product line in the near future.

    Sincerely,

    Salmo g.
     
  9. Kent Lufkin

    Kent Lufkin Remember when you could remember everything?

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    I don't think many people would argue with you on that.

    To you other point about possible demand for 2,500 rods per year, let's consider Economics 101: a market with high demand but a constrained supply will drive up prices every time. If there is in fact the sort of demand that Woody envisions, he'd have been a lot smarter to keep Glenn and the Boo Boys to keep banging out 200 rods a year and simply raise prices (and thus his profit margin).

    Common sense suggests that the price to market ratio for fishing rods gets very small at $3K per rod. I suspect the number of people who'd plunk down twice that would be in the low double digits in a year.

    K
     
  10. Salmo_g

    Salmo_g Active Member

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    Kent,

    I agree. I think that premium market has been hanging in a balance for a while now. Buying a Winston or T&T rod at current prices is like investing in art. There are lots of excellent artists who haven't established "name" or brand value, and they may not until after they die. Most cane afficianados know there are many outstanding cane artisans in the US and Canada who sell rods of quality equal to these, and I think they will patronize other builders, or Glenn if he establishes another shop, before buying a Winston with the old name and new builders of unestablished reputation.

    Sincerely,

    Salmo g.
     
  11. Kent Lufkin

    Kent Lufkin Remember when you could remember everything?

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    That's certainly an appropriate analogy. It might be fair to say that like Piccaso, Winston has entered its Blue period B-)

    K
     

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