Business is smooth for maker of rocks

In Fred Veale's market space, sales cycles are measured in decades. "We don't have sales spikes," he says. "In fact, our products are made to stand the test of time, 40, 50 years and more."

And Veale has the stones to back up his claim. When the founder and president of London-based Canada Curling Stone Co. refers to modern stones, he's talking about those made in the 1950s and '60s.

Canada Curling Stone is the main source for stones, each weighing 38 pounds (17.2 kg) and used at curling clubs across the continent, although the market is expanding. "The sport is now gaining momentum in the Pacific Rim and more than 50 per cent of our new stones are destined there, as well as to more traditional markets such as Sweden, Ireland and Denmark," Veale says.

And when a stone's glide becomes more of a grind, they come back to Veale, who reworks the rock, refinishing and repolishing it to pristine smoothness, ready to again run the rink. "About 75 per cent of our sales are generated from remaking old stones; the rest in new stones costing $525 each," Veale says. "Not a huge turnover, but it's always steady."

Peter Tiahur, Business Edge
Fred Teale of Canada Curling Stone has had plenty of practice manufacturing and refurbishing curling stones at the firm's London factory.

Clubs have between two and 16 sheets of curling ice and each sheet uses 16 stones. Veale says most clubs have four sheets, which means 64 stones. For clubs where the curling is done on hockey ice and those catering to once-a-week curlers, a lower-quality stone costing about $260 is available.

Although the popularity of curling has waxed and waned since the first hand-hewn circular stones whisked down ice surfaces in Scotland in 1750, the sport has experienced a resurgence following its Olympic debut at the 1998 Nagano Winter Games.

Today, curling rocks are precisely fashioned by machine. "Balance has been improved, better handles are used and weights have become standardized," Veale says.

The raw granite used throughout the world comes from two main sources: The Scottish island of Ailsa Craig (designated as Ailsa Blue or Red Hone stones) and from the Trefor Quarry in Wales (known as Red or Blue Trevors). The granite must be tough, dense, abrasion-resistant, resilient, non-absorbant and uniform in colour.

"Pros prefer a Trefor granite stone," Veale says. "The most popular curling stone used in clubs is the Trefor granite stone with the Blue Hone granite inserted into the running surface."

A curling stone first takes shape at the quarry, where one tonne of usable stone is gleaned from up to 100 tonnes extracted from the Earth.

If the granite surface reveals any hairline cracks, it is rejected because it could split or chip during play. Diamond wire saws cut the unformed granite into desired widths.

The blocks are shipped to Canada Curling Stone, where the stone is shaped and its striking banks (where the rock meets the rink) are smoothed and finished. The handles, generally aluminum and plastic, are inserted to complete the balance.

"The end product is a true-running stone," Veale says. But even the finest stones must be refinished every 15 to 20 years - and that's when Canada Curling Stone renews the stone's lifecycle.

"Perhaps it's because of the longevity of granite that so few curling stone manufacturers are around today," Veale says. "Or maybe it's because our industry doesn't depend on innovation. Curling stones have been made this way for many years. As for marketing, we don't need much since players and clubs already know the quality of our stones."

It's a different game afoot for curling shoes. Curlers may not be particularly partial to which stones they use, but they're positively rabid about their footwear, says Scott Taylor, co-owner of BalancePlus Sliders Inc.

The Barrie company makes curling shoes ranging in price from about $100 that are targeted at recreational curlers to the $260 Delux model worn at national and international bonspiels.

"Pros believe shoes are their key piece of equipment," Taylor says.

Formed in 1996 by Lino Di Iorio, who also runs a successful patio sliding- door business, BalancePlus incorporates the same slippery science for its shoes.

As a new curler, Di Iorio experimented with regular curling footwear to produce a faster, more balanced slide.

"The results of initial trials with our sliders were outstanding," Taylor says.

The BalancePlus shoe has a patented design related to the recesses in the slider or sole.

"The recesses (generally circular) allow a more balanced delivery and increase the distance of the slide," Taylor notes. Conventionally, the sole of a curling shoe is a flat, smooth plate that may cause wobble, resulting in an unbalanced feeling during the stone's delivery.

"By creating a reduced thickness under the portion of the foot that bears the greatest pressure (usually the ball of the foot), our shoe improves slider flexibility. There is less resistance during the slide, so the same shot can be made with less effort," Taylor says.

BalancePlus plays against five main competitors, but the 1996 world curling championships, when the Slider was first tested, catapulted the company on to the world stage and it now markets to curling pro-shops and sports retailers around the globe.

Because there are only about a million curlers in Canada (and just another 100,000 worldwide), the shoe niche hasn't attracted the likes of Nike or Adidas. And shoes tend not to wear out as quickly as in golf, baseball or soccer.

"Our shoes can last up to 10 years, so though we're achieving annual sales increases of 30 per cent, repeat business will be a major challenge," Taylor says.

To help boost sales, BalancePlus markets directly to curlers through clubs and trade publications. "But it's a relatively small community, so big advertising campaigns aren't needed to reach our audience," Taylor adds.

In less than a decade, BalancePlus has scored a 25-per-cent curling-shoe market share. "It's an expanding market, but not growing by leaps and bounds," Taylor says.

"Currently, we're also looking into areas such as making curling gloves and mitts," he says. "To stay viable in the curling business, you have to keep exploring new areas."

Ted Brown, founder and president of Brown's Brushes, agrees: "New people are always coming to the sport and they need brushes to play the game."

In the past, most players used brooms made of horse or hog hair, but bristles kept breaking off, causing the stones to veer sideways. From the 1940s to '80s, Canadian players chose the corn broom.

"It made a nice noise swishing the ice, but left too much corn pulp on the ice," Brown says. "The stone would slow down or go off track."

Kingston-based Brown's Brushes boasts it was ahead of the curve with its line of synthetic brooms that it developed during the 1980s.

"We took a regular hair broom, removed the hair and covered the block with a nylon upholstered fabric," he says. "We took the prototype to the Kingston Curling Club, where its performance wowed everyone. Customers began ordering our brushes from Day 1."

Old-fashioned wooden-handled brushes (retailing at $40) remain available from Brown for curling purists, but with more recent innovations, including a lightweight glass-fibre handle (selling for $45), and the latest carbon-fibre model (priced at $170 and weighing less than a pound), Brown's Brushes continues to sweep up sales across North America.

"We produce about 8,000 brushes a year," Brown says. "But our brushes can last up to 20 years. The nylon may wear out, but is easily replaced for $16. We're looking at a new brush with a rotating swivel head to keep the brush surface flat against the ice at any angle. It's a small innovation, but like most things in curling it's enough to keep us in business."

(Jack Kohane can be reached at kohane@businessedge.ca)