WEST POINT — Even Mark Bernegger is surprised — pleasantly — by the success of his company, Southern Outdoor Technologies, LLC (SOT), and its Sportsman’s Condos shooting houses. What began as a family backyard project has evolved into a business that counts customers throughout the U.S. and Canada, and sales continue to grow. In fact, the biggest challenge facing SOT is keeping up with ever-growing demand.
“I never dreamed that we would be where we are right now,” Bernegger said. He added with a laugh, “My wife says it’s a hobby that has gotten out of control.”
Mother of invention
A native of Wisconsin, Bernegger is a commercial pilot with more than 20 years of experience. One of his early jobs was as a pilot for Bryan Foods/Sarah Lee in West Point, where he met his wife.
Bernegger grew up an outdoor enthusiast, and he shared that enthusiasm with his two daughters as they grew up on the family farm outside West Point. When they reached early elementary school age, the girls asked if he would take them hunting with him. So, Bernegger set about building a blind for them. It proved a painful experience.
“Let me tell you, digging postholes in August in Mississippi isn’t fun,” Bernegger said. “I built one, spent about $200 to $300 on it, and still needed a couple more. I looked around at products on the market, and they were, like, $1,200. I just thought there had to be a better way.”
In the great tradition of entrepreneurship, Bernegger traced out a design on a napkin. What he envisioned was a plastic, one-piece shooting house that would be durable, easy to install and affordable.
Bernegger wanted to just build a few blinds for himself and a friend, and approached Larry Rice with his design. Rice owns Remple Roto-Cast, a West Point-based plastics manufacturer offering boat bumpers and lifts. Rice and his team produced the mold and the first Sportsman’s Condos appeared in the latter part of the 1990s.
That is where Bernegger expected the story to end. But, his phone started ringing. People had seen his shooting houses and wanted to order. So, more were made, which led to more inquiries and orders.
When the terrorist attacks occurred September 11, 2001, Bernegger was flying for U.S. Airways. (He now flies for FedEx.) He was furloughed, and spent his free time focusing on SOT and its Sportsman’s Condos. With that, SOT’s sales mushroomed.
Today, SOT’s products are in approximately three-dozen stores across the U.S. and Canada, while Internet sales (www.sportsmanscondos.com) comprise approximately 45% of total revenue. Now in its eighth year, the company has recorded triple-digit sales increases over the past three years. Bernegger estimated that SOT is in the top three in sales in the industry in the U.S.
Bernegger said SOT’s Sportsman’s Condos have several key selling points, most hinging on design and manufacturing. For instance, Bernegger said customers find the shooting houses attractive, and the plastic makes them durable. Due to their seamless design (the blinds come out of the mold as a single piece with doors cut and hinges applied after molding), the shooting houses are quiet. And, there are no parts or assembly, resulting in easy installation.
SOT’s original offering was a one-person blind. It followed that with a three-person design, followed by a two-person unit in response to dealers’ request for SOT shooting houses that would allow the company to ship more product to their store on a single truck.
The latest design is called the Scout, which is a low-cost offering. And, SOT has developed a full line of accessories, the majority of which are original designs and are made in Mississippi.
SOT’s success has meant growth for two Mississippi manufacturers, which between them have more than 35 employees working on SOT products. Dixie Craft Trailers in Eupora manufactures the shooting houses’ bases, and Bernegger said he understood that Dixie Craft has had to add more welders to meet demand. And, Remple Roto-Cast continues its relationship with SOT.
In fact, Rice has joined Bernegger as a partner in SOT. Sonny Jameson and Lee Blair, both of West Point, have also come on board as partners.
Yet more is envisioned at SOT. Bernegger said he is currently working on a design that would allow customers to build their own blind. That would bring Bernegger full circle.
“I saw that a lot of folks might want to build their own shooting houses,” Bernegger. “They want to get in the woods or deer camp with friends and family and spend quality time together.”
Bernegger attends tradeshows and advertises, but the Internet and word-of-mouth have proven strong marketing tools, as well. Early on, he targeted the Midwest for penetration. Having mastered that area (Bernegger was headed to Ohio for a tradeshow when the interview for this story was conducted), he is now focusing on the Northeast.
However, Bernegger said if that doesn’t happen, even if SOT never sells another Sportsman’s Condo, that is all right.
“If I walked away tomorrow, the company has more than met my expectations,” Bernegger said. “I tell my dealers all the time, ‘You’re not in this industry to get rich. The margins are too thin. You’re in it because you like hunting and hunters.’ That’s why I’m doing this. If there’s a paycheck, great. But for me, it’s the people I meet, the pictures and letters I receive from happy customers.”
Contact MBJ staff writer Wally Northway at firstname.lastname@example.org.