Group Created with Sketch.
Volume 23 No. 24
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.
  • Created with Sketch.

Thinking Back, Looking Ahead: Richard Pope

Entrepreneur helped define licensing industry

Richard Pope was raised on a farm and molded by Midwestern values. He grew up around the principles of growth and cultivating. He went from farming to the novelty business, which he has seen move almost entirely offshore. But Pope and WinCraft steadfastly remained a domestic manufacturer, and WinCraft now dominates nonapparel sports licensed products.
    WinCraft started in 1961 as a business that sold “cheer products” to high schools. It still counts high schools among its customers, and its product line still includes pompoms and megaphones. However, the privately held company now has 10 plants, more than 550 employees, and sells tens of thousands of items festooned with images from hundreds of licenses, including every American big league sport, many colleges, and the FIFA World Cup.
    At this year’s MLB All-Star Game in Minneapolis, Pope spoke with SportsBusiness Journal’s Terry Lefton about his years in the business and how his wife thinks he still works too much.

“Everyone else was importing when I started; my model from the beginning was that you can’t build a business unless you make something yourself. Now, when someone shows us a new product, the first thing we look at is whether we can make it ourselves.”

I was born and raised on a farm in Cleveland, Minn., (current population: 712) so I thought I’d be a farmer. My whole family had been farmers and I was the first to go to college. My high school graduating class had 12 students. I had an academic [college] scholarship, so my mother insisted.

WinCraft Chairman/CEO Richard Pope and President John Killen
I started at Jostens in 1959 and was there for 20 years. They were primarily a graduation company, selling rings, yearbooks, diplomas, caps and gowns.

No one had ever done a championship ring for professional football before, so I got the job no one wanted: pitching Coach [Vince] Lombardi on a championship ring.

I ended up selling rings to four of the first five [Super Bowl] winning coaches. It was such a different time. When I went to pitch Hank Stram at Kansas City, he picked me up at the airport and drove me back.

I was the third person Jostens sent through the University of Minnesota executive program. There was an eight-hour battery of tests after which the psychologist asked me, “What are you doing working for somebody else? You fit the profile of an entrepreneur.” Two years later, I was.

I can’t say I had any great vision. The business then barely existed, so I certainly saw some opportunity. Licensing wasn’t even a business then, really.

If you wanted something with a team name on it, you went to a game and bought it from a concessionaire, who didn’t even have to buy it from a licensee.

Pope says the NFL was among the first to follow strict quality control, “which helped everyone’s licensing business.”
Photos by: AP IMAGES
The entry level to building a licensing business is a lot different. Product is important, but if you have great product and you can’t get it to retail, it really won’t matter.

The bar on logistics, quality control, compliance, and technology with the biggest retailers is so high now, it’s a different game.

I can recall when we first started with championship events, we didn’t start selling until the game was over, and I couldn’t figure out why we weren’t selling any. Now, we start shipping as soon as the event is over.

At an NFL licensing meeting in the early ’80s,

a Sears EVP stood up and said, “If you guys don’t improve your quality and make your colors consistent, we’re going to get out of the business.” There were 11 different shades of Houston Oilers blue in one of his stores. … There really was no quality control. After that, the NFL was the first to get strict on quality control, which helped everyone’s licensing business.

I follow a lot of basic rules:
1. Winners sell, almost regardless of the product.
2. We aren’t going to grow any faster than our retailers, so customer service is No. 1.
3. Money doesn’t make you smarter. Some licensing companies had some success and right away got too many properties … and a lot of advertising and marketing commitments. I don’t care much if a consumer knows WinCraft, because the brands we are selling are the teams.

We’ve never advertised in all of our years, because we’re a B-to-B company, so the reputation that’s important is the one with our retailers and our licensors.

When you look at the investment all the leagues are making overseas, certainly we’ll follow. We’ve had every soccer program in the U.S. since Pelé, but the only big success was when the U.S. had the World Cup [in 1994].

“My wife [Sandy, above] says I work too much, but I still feel like I’m seeing friends when I go to work.”
We really saw the fan interest this time around. It did better for us than any before, so we’ve got the next one all taken care of.

There is some maturity in all of our licenses, but at the same time, I see more opportunity today than ever.

My wife says I work too much, but I still feel like I’m seeing friends when I go to work.

When I started in this business, I didn’t set a financial goal and I didn’t set a retirement date. If I had set a goal, I would have quit too soon.

At WinCraft, we don’t have any [mandatory] retirement age, and I guess that includes me.