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Hooked on Woolybooger

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  • | 7:21 a.m. August 23, 2013
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Bob Whitlock chuckles when he thinks about buying a fishing-lure company seven years ago with an odd name: Woolybooger Lures.

After all, Whitlock owns Southwest Florida Insurance Associates, a 20-employee firm that sells health insurance in Port Charlotte, Fort Myers and Naples. Right now, he's busy trying to explain Obamacare to his clients.

But fishing's a lot more fun. Whitlock is an avid offshore fisherman and he'd had success catching big-game fish like tuna, wahoo and marlin using Woolybooger lures from his 53-foot Viking called Cajun Queen docked in Islamorada.

Eight years ago, the lures were getting harder to come by because the company's Louisiana owner, Herb Wallace, couldn't keep up with the demand. “He was making them in his garage,” says Whitlock. “It was a one-man show on the weekends.”

So Whitlock bought the company, making him the fourth owner of Woolybooger Lures. “It looked like a fun thing to get into,” says Whitlock, whose company's tag line is “Bite Me!”

Of course, a little thing called the recession got in the way. “The economy went to hell not too long after we bought it,” Whitlock says.

But about two years ago, Whitlock and his son Brad decided they needed to focus on boosting the company's growth. Recently, West Marine agreed to carry Woolybooger lures at all of its Florida stores, ordering 2,000 of the company's lures.

But ramping up production hasn't been easy. The Whitlocks have experimented with different materials, they ran into Chinese manufacturing challenges, marketing, distribution and pricing. “There's no one in the business who'll tell you anything,” Whitlock grumbles. “It's the most hush-mouthed business.”

Fish eat them
When Whitlock bought the business, Woolybooger offered just a few lures, including the popular Sugar Pop and Sugar Baby. Now the company sells 18 lures. “We've got the full portfolio of lures,” Whitlock says, sounding like a financial planner talking about stock diversification.

Woolybooger only makes offshore fishing lures to catch big fish such as tuna, marlin and sailfish. They cost from $15 to $80 each, but there's less competition in this arena because it's a more rarified sport. “There's a million people making spoons,” Whitlock says, referring to inshore fishing lures.

To develop the new lures, Whitlock hired retired Fort Myers engineer Mac McKenzie. “He was a wizard on the lathe,” Whitlock says.

“It's really specialized work,” says Dave Westra, whose family has owned Lehr's Economy Tackle in North Fort Myers for 56 years. “He went through a lot of hit and miss, but Mac got him on the right path.”

The secrets to creating great lures are the molds for the heads and finding clear plastic resins that hold the shape. For example, the top-selling Sugar Pop has an indented hourglass shape that gives it a wiggle when it's pulled through the water. It also pops up and down, creating a “smoke trail” of bubbles that mimics baitfish.

The bright colors attract fishermen. “I don't think color matters [to fish],” Whitlock says.

A colorful skirt made of plastic threads is attached to the head. Ocean Lure Concepts of North Carolina makes the skirts, though Whitlock says the company is slow filling orders.

Whitlock is concerned that if the company has to ramp up production it may not be able to keep up with all the orders. Woolybooger can assemble and package 150 lures a day with its two employees in its 1,500-square-foot Fort Myers facility. “I'd have to hire people, make more molds,” he says.

For a time, Whitlock hired a Chinese manufacturing firm to make the smaller lures. But the costs of labor and shipping rose to the point where it made more sense to make them in Fort Myers. “The bigger lures are more profitable,” Whitlock says. “The bigger ones are our bread and butter.”

Marketing and sales
To market and sell the lures, Whitlock says he called on tackle shops and charter-boat captains all along the Gulf Coast from Texas to Key West. “I beat on every door,” he says.

“Bob's done a real good job reviving the product,” says Mark Matthews, owner of Superior Bait & Tackle in Baton Rouge, La. “He reintroduced it to the market.”

Aggressive pricing helps, too. “A good bit of it is that Bob's reasonably priced,” says Lehr's Westra. “Some of the lures that he sells for $50, comparable lures they're $100 bill.”

Westra is keen to have a local high-quality lure. “We've been in it with Bob from the get-go, and it's nice to have a local guy in that manufacturing business,” he says. “The other good thing for us is that if folks ask for special rigging, he'll have them put together here in a day.”

Another opportunity to market is at fishing tournaments, where Whitlock hands out free lures. Fishermen have been catching prize-winning fish on Woolybooger lures, generating buzz.

“Half the boats in the fleet are using Woolyboogers,” says Caz McKenzie of Strike Zone Charters in Venice, La. “A boat consistently coming in flying blue marlin flags, you want to know what they're using.”

Trade shows are another source of sales. A tackle-dealer show next month costs $1,500 for a booth, which Spiro & Associates in Fort Myers helped to design with eye-catching logos.

Attractive packaging is key, Whitlock says. Sales of hook sets increased significantly when Woolybooger packaged them in a clear plastic box with the company's logo rather than on a plain paperhanger.

But Whitlock, 66, says he doesn't want to be the sales source for the Woolybooger. He'd prefer to sell through distributors such as Rogers Southeast Associates and Big Rock Sports. Rogers helped Whitlock supply all the West Marine stores in Florida, for example.

Still, Whitlock says he doesn't want demand to outpace what he can supply. There's talk of supplying stores such as Wal-Mart and Dick's Sporting Goods, but the volume could be overwhelming. “Don't dump this on me right now,” Whitlock laughs, reminding himself that he still runs an insurance company dealing with complex new laws governing health care.

Whitlock expects Woolybooger sales to reach a modest $50,000 this year, close to profitability. Next year, he says sales could double to $100,000 and he knows that will require more of his time. “We'll have to make a commitment on what we're going to do,” Whitlock says.


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