Pitchers and catchers report to spring training in just a few days, but at Hillerich & Bradsby, manufacturer of the iconic Louisville Slugger baseball bat, new CFO Lawrence Writer has been on the field since November.
In a sense, Writer will serve as the corporate equivalent of a player-coach, since he holds the dual titles of CFO and COO. He was brought into the 127-year-old, family-owned company to help oversee day-to-day operations and to expand its global footprint.
That means he will build on both a historic product legacy (the company’s museum displays Louisville Sluggers used by Babe Ruth and dozens of other baseball legends) and a long-standing relationship with Major League Baseball (MLB), while also addressing everything from “nonwood bat technology and gloves to a social media strategy that gets our name out there for the next generation of baseball players.”
The company makes all of its wooden bats in the United States, usually from ash and maple trees grown on 6,000 acres of land that it owns in New York and Pennsylvania. The manufacturing process is highly computerized, but Writer explains that the staining and engraving is all done by hand in Louisville. “It’s fun,” he says. “We put a board up that says, ‘Now making bats for Derek Jeter,’ or whomever.”
One critical role that Writer will play is in guiding the company’s innovation agenda. Sounding much like a major leaguer himself, Writer says that “you have only one product season a year — you get one shot.” So the company holds an annual Innovation Summit that brings together everyone from its own test engineers to coaches and players from Little League to MLB. It debuts its concepts in the spring and brings new products to market in the fall. Those products include not only the company’s famed baseball bats, but also PowerBilt golf equipment and the Bionic Gloves line of sports and outdoor gloves.
That schedule requires careful coordination, because aluminum and composite bats are now made in the Far East, which poses a challenge regarding manufacturing and shipping lead times. (Writer, in fact, spent a week in China almost immediately upon assuming his post at H&B, solidifying a spirit of partnership with the company’s vendors there.) Further complicating the company’s production cycle, H&B must build in time for quality testing and, in the case of Little League and some other organizations, certification testing.
As a result, Writer wants to revise the company’s production calendar in order to bring products to market more quickly. “We’re looking at what that means for all pieces of the pie,” he says, “from the supply chain to forecasting to the ways in which marketing is aligned with operations.”
As for expanding H&B’s global presence, Writer says that while baseball remains a predominantly American pastime, the Asian market is growing, most notably Taiwan and Japan, but also Korea. The Caribbean, Mexico, and Latin America market is promising as well, although it is considerably more price-sensitive, which further underscores the need for greater efficiency.
An accomplished triathlete, Writer did something of a farm-team stint at H&B before assuming his current post, by spending six months with the company as a consultant while a director at AlixPartners. He reports to CEO John A. Hillerich IV, who is part of the fifth generation to run the family firm. (For more on the dynamic between family-owned firms and nonfamily CFOs, see “In the Family Way.”)