March 7, 2015 – When the snow from this particularly brutal winter finally melts, golfers, baseball players and the like may have Markers Inc. products to thank for helping their local course or field get into playing shape quickly.
Markers Inc., a small athletic equipment company in Avon Lake, wants to help its customers, from athletic directors to golf course superintendents, “do their job more efficiently,” said president Dale Hlavin.
Markers was started by Hlavin’s father-in-law Jack Thompson and Dick Rybak in the mid ’80s as an offshoot of Thompson’s main company, plastic injection molder Thogus.
Today, Hlavin’s son, Matt Hlavin, runs Thogus and its other associated companies, such as rp+m, while the elder Hlavin runs Markers.
Markers, which sells a variety of products, including ground field and golf tee markers, started with the creation of a plastic-injection molded ground socket anchor for golf courses.
In the ’80s, courses often used painted wooden stakes to mark hazard and out-of-bounds areas, Hlavin said, but that meant those areas could shift when workers moved the stakes to mow the course. Markers’ anchor is driven into the ground and sits flush with the surface, so just the removable stake portion is taken out for maintenance. The anchor remains in its designated spot.
When the company began, Hlavin was teaching and coaching in Rocky River, but he had invested in the family-run business and started working there in the summers.
In 1988, he decided to leave education and join Markers full time, and his experience as a coach and an athlete – primarily in wrestling and football – as well as his degree in health and physical education from Baldwin-Wallace College, gave him plenty of experience in what it takes to prepare fields for play.
And Hlavin quickly realized the company had a lot of opportunities to grow.
“We knew we needed to start doing a lot more than just this small niche of product,” Hlavin said.
More than a hole in one
Hlavin had what he called a “light bulb” moment when he saw a flagpole fly out of the ground and hit a child in the jaw at a youth soccer match. He realized the company could make a product, similar to the golf ground anchor, to denote where the lines on the field should go. All coaches would have to do is connect the dots – and Markers made the product out of a more flexible plastic, like a rubberized gym floor, so athletes wouldn’t get hurt.
Markers started offering that product in 1990, Hlavin said, adding color caps like white for football or yellow for soccer so customers could mark the same fields for different sports. The company then put together basic lining packages for different sports and began adding products such as corner flags for soccer and field hockey.
Today, the eight-person company that got its start in golf makes just about 20% of its sales from the sport. Products for other athletics make up the bulk of the rest, with about 10% coming from garden or yard products, though Hlavin declined to share specific sales figures. Its customers range from college programs to intramural leagues, like the Westlake Soccer Association.
Tom Werling, president of the association, said Markers’ products make the process of laying out a soccer field less time consuming. Werling has known Hlavin for years, as Hlavin was his wrestling coach.
The soccer association uses 10 fields, which it lays out twice a year, and about half of them can constantly stay marked using the Markers sockets. The association, which includes about 1,000 children from 3-year-olds through eighth grade, no longer has to start from scratch each time it lays out a field, Werling said.
Markers currently makes about 75 to 80 products of its own, from athletic and golf products to fence products and flagpoles, using Thogus expertise, and working with companies like Humphrys-CoverSports in Philadelphia to offer others.
The company is small enough to be flexible, Hlavin said, and it does try to meet unique requests from customers. Markers offers custom flags for events such as charity golf outings, but it can also make flags for personalized gifts, like for college alumni associations. It even has printed flags for a wedding adorned with photos of the bride and groom, Hlavin said.
The path less traveled
Stone Ridge Golf Club in Bowling Green learned of Markers four or five years ago and began buying the company’s sponsorship flags. Tony Czerniakowski, director of golf and sales, said it’s a “clever way” to sell golf sponsorship rights instead of just creating a sign. It’s an instant memento for the sponsor, and the product is a well-priced, nice quality one.
Going forward, Hlavin said he’d like to put a stronger focus on two package offerings that serve nonprofits or charities, in addition to raising awareness of the company’s recycled tire-based products for baseball and other athletic fields.
The first package is a customizable flag and tee marker set that groups could use to sell sponsorships at golf charity events. The second is the company’s line of lightweight, easy-to-install flagpole products that work well for groups honoring the troops. He said he likes to help people solve problems.
The company has continued to innovate and add new products since its start.
A lot of the company’s innovations over the years have come from customer suggestions, Hlavin said, specifically noting the flag products which had been born of homeowner requests.
“We’re constantly tweaking, adding, trying to find the path less traveled,” Hlavin said.