Wisconsin business supplies curlers all over US
By JANE BURNS | The Wisconsin State Journal | Published: February 6, 2014
MADISON, Wis. — There are many advantages to moving a home business out of the home, and Steve Brown is about to discover one more.
The founder of Steve’s Curling Supplies plans to go to the business on Pflaum Road during many of the wee hours Olympic curling will be on TV from Russia, watching his daughter or the rest of the U.S. curlers he knows.
“That way if things don’t go well, I can go in the back and kick a box,” Brown said.
The Brown family — Steve and his wife, Diane, as well as their children Erika and Craig — have been at the center of U.S. curling for decades. Part of that is from playing — Erika is on the U.S. team in Sochi and Craig is an alternate. Part of it is also taking the sport that has served the family well and creating a business out of it. It’s now in its second generation, as Steve and Diane have transferred ownership to Craig.
Steve’s Curling Supplies has been on the city’s East Side for 38 years, the first 35 being a mail-order business run out of their home. Shortly after the last Olympics, the Browns found a building to buy that is both near their home and near the Madison Curling Club in McFarland.
While the Browns’ business had been grandfathered into their residential neighborhood for zoning, it was becoming tough to run from there. In the new space, they have 4,000 square feet, nearly four times what they had before. And, the space is just more practical than it was at the house.
“We’d have a truck pull up to our garage and they’d unload stuff into our garage and we’d take it through the house downstairs,” Diane Brown said. “Then if we’d get an order for it, we’d bring it upstairs and pack it in the kitchen and take it back to the same garage and wait for UPS to come pick it up. It was crazy.”
The move wasn’t to create a storefront for walk-up customers, it was to keep up with a growing mail-order business. Curling made its Olympic debut as an exhibition sport in 1988 — with 15-year-old Erika on the U.S. team — and became an official sport in 1998. That kind of exposure has helped the sport grow, and would-be curlers all over the U.S. are looking to buy supplies. The Browns’ business is believed to be the largest distributor of curling supplies in the country.
Brown said shoes and brushes likely make up 80 percent of his business. In curling, a competitor slides a granite stone into a target area called the “house.” Teammates sweep the ice to help guide the stone’s path.
The shoes are mismatched; those whose turn it is to throw need one that is slick and one that has traction. They can range from $80 to $300 a pair, with another $20 for the gripper to slip on while not throwing. The brushes teammates use to sweep can range from $67 to $250, depending on how lightweight they are.
The stones are among the highest-price curling items, made from granite that comes from a specific island off the coast of Scotland. The Browns’ business doesn’t deal with new stones, but has connections to clubs to purchase their used stones when they upgrade. The used stones would work well for a new club just starting out, Steve Brown said, and would provide a savings since 16 of the $250 used stones would be required to get going. Other stones are sold for souvenirs and props, he said, including a call he took this week from a guy in Hollywood.
“He wanted a stone and wanted it sent next-day air,” Brown said. “The stone was $250, next-day air was like $220. They’re going to use it for a commercial. Somehow, the stone is going to be going down a hallway. I don’t know how they’re going to do it. He can figure it out.”
The larger space has allowed the business to expand its products into more accessories. There are books such as “Curling for Dummies” and T-shirts, as well as a tabletop ESPN curling game that sells for $25. A set of official U.S. Olympic curling pins, designed by Steve Brown, sells for $25. Used stones that have been hollowed out are much lighter and retail for $75, for use as a planter or any other ideas a curling fan might have.
There are other smaller dealers in curling supplies, and a Canadian company that will ship to the States. Yet Brown says his family’s business has the advantage of being so intimately involved with the sport for so long. When new customers call, the Browns can match them to the supplies that suit them best. And their knowledge of the sport can send the sales call in an entirely different direction, he said.
“We’ll have someone who’s ordering shoes or brushes who says, ‘Last night we got beat and this is what happened’ and all of a sudden I’m talking strategy with someone I don’t even know,” said Brown, who will coach the U.S. Paralympic team in Sochi in March. “That’s what they love about calling, and that’s what I love about my job. Then it’s no longer a job.”
Curling club members do visit the business when they are in town, and when they do they can see what was another perk for the Browns to move their business — display space. The business’ walls are decorated with posters and photos from curling events all over the world, and displays range from a poster of the current women’s U.S. Olympic team to a pin that Steve Brown got from a high school curling event in Wausau in 1964. With so much on display, Steve’s Curling Supplies also serves as a mini Curling Hall of Fame. (The U.S. Curling Hall of Fame is in Stevens Point.)
“I was able to dig through tons of boxes, all the photo albums and find things for the walls,” Brown said. “Now if I feel down in the dumps, I can walk in here and feel pretty good about life.”