Sportech, Inc. shifts to full OEM supplier mode

UTV roof, windshield manufacturer finds its niche

Editor’s note: This is the first of two parts.

“Uncle Chris” continues to see his role evolving at Sportech, Inc. But Chris Carlson, as president and CEO of the Minnesota-based supplier of thermoformed plastics for a variety of OEMs, doesn’t see the ideal job description on the horizon anytime soon.

With 80 percent year-over-year growth in 2011 and the opening this year of an additional 50,000 square-foot complex assembly building, the gregarious Carlson figures that for now, he’s a strong fit for his role as leader of the company that he founded in 1998 out of his garage. But he’ll know his ideal position when it arises.

“I really want to be a tester,” Carlson laughed during a meeting with Powersports Business at the company’s Elk River headquarters. “I just want to get to the point where I can test vehicles. They don’t seem to be buying into that around here. Break some parts. They say there’s no need for that. Come on, I break stuff.”

Carlson began the company as a snowmobile aftermarket manufacturer. But then UTVs entered the powersports landscape, and earlier this year Carlson sold the company’s last snowmobile aftermarket brand — Holeshot. The company, with some 130 employees, focuses solely on its role as OEM supplier. In the UTV market, roofs and windshields dominate the company’s product line.

“The Ranger was really the vehicle that turned the industry and really opened a lot of peoples’ eyes as to what a UTV could be,” Carlson said. “Polaris and John Deere gave us an opportunity early on, and that’s really what got us going. They have been good to us and continue to be driving forces for us today.”

Carlson, a snowmobile fanatic nearly by birth, appreciated the new-look UTVs when they first arrived on the scene.

“I remember when the UTVs first started getting popular in the 2001-02 era. We were a seen as a cutting edge OE aftermarket snowmobile manufacturer, but I knew we could jump into that market,” Carlson said. “People would say ‘[Entering the UTV market] is really exciting. Where do you think that’s going to go?’ I knew there was business for us. They’re not quite as exciting as a snowmobile, and there aren’t checkered flags and flames and carbon fiber, but some of those features have shown up today.”

Sportech’s product line has evolved as OEMs meet consumer-driven demand.

Sportech president Chris Carlson has overseen unprecedented growth at the Minnesota-based company, which counts windshields and roofs among the side-by-side products it supplies to OEMs.

“We’re making complete enclosures from concept to delivery now,” Carlson said. “Consumers want a better seal, a better look, no vibration, fresh air, climate control, audio features. It’s come a long way from the very first roofs we did. They looked like a chunk of plastic strapped to the roof. But it served the need at the time and volumes weren’t nearly what they are today. If a consumer shows up to ride with a roof that looks like a block of plastic that you molded with a boot over your campfire, that isn’t going to work.”

With year-to-date growth of 40 percent compared to the same period a year ago, 35 new hires in 2012 and the recent doubling of its thermoforming capabilities, there’s nothing archaic about Sportech’s operations.



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