In the 30 years since Ray DeMarini set out to make a better softball bat, the industry has experienced a significant shift as manufacturers that once laid claim to producing a made-in-America product have moved their operations offshore.
The company named after Ray DeMarini, however, has managed to buck the trend. Still relatively small, with just around 100 employees, DeMarini proudly lays claim to producing a line of products made in America. And, to be more specific, in the part of Oregon where they've been made for the past three decades.
This is not to say the company hasn't gone through some major changes over the years.
DeMarini has changed locations in the Hillsboro area several times since it was founded in 1989. It dealt with the growing pains of being acquired by a larger sporting goods company in 2000 and then faced having to move forward without its founder after Ray DeMarini died in 2002. More recently, the company's leaders had to take a step back and wholly restructure their manufacturing processes to keep up with demand.
Despite those challenges, the company that brought home runs within reach for the average slow-pitch softball player when it introduced the world's first two-walled bat, has continued to hold its own against its bigger competitors. While multi-walled bats are now the standard, DeMarini has maintained its edge by focusing on developing innovative proprietary materials and offering cutting-edge custom graphics. It's also remained steadily committed to a culture that hinges on the motto that Ray DeMarini set in place in the company's earliest days: Insane dedication to performance.
The softball giant
Ray DeMarini was 40 years old and working in data processing at Freightliner when he started playing on a slow-pitch softball team in the Portland area. Just five-feet-and-five-inches tall with a muscular build, he and the game seemed made for each other, and DeMarini soon became obsessed with the sport.
Passionate and driven with an outgoing personality, it wasn't long before DeMarini and his softball skills caught the eye of a local promoter hired by ESPN to make an instructional video. Being featured in the video gave DeMarini a chance to travel and meet top-level softball players who were using some of the best bats available at the time.
"He figured that smaller players deserved the same type of high-quality equipment," Jerry Garnett, DeMarini's slow-pitch division senior manager and a former top-level slow-pitch player, told the Business Tribune.
With his goal in mind, DeMarini set out to design — and build — a better bat for the masses.
He convinced Matt Eggiman, an engineer at Freightliner, to join him in the venture. The two set up shop in a dirt-floor barn on farmland owned by Eggiman's parents in Helvetia, near Hillsboro. Because the partners were working with a limited budget as they pushed the envelope with their innovative design ideas, they also had to build unique manufacturing equipment — an approach that continues to this day at the company.
In 1993, operating under the name DeMarini Sports, the company unveiled its proprietary two-walled bat. The bat has been touted as a game-changer, and quickly gained popularity.
"For older players, that bat was the fountain of youth," Garnett said. "It gave them an extra 20 to 30 feet (on a hit)."
It also caught the attention of larger bat manufacturers, which set about copying the design. DeMarini soon found itself mired in legal battles in an attempt to hold that infringement at bay.
Despite competitors' attempts to imitate DeMarini's designs, the company continued to produce ground-breaking — and record-breaking — new bats. In the mid-1990s, for example, the company's "Ultimate Distance" bat became the stuff of baseball legends, eventually banned by officials even as players hoarded it.
The company's success attracted offers from Nike and other big-time companies that wanted to move DeMarini's manufacturing operations not just out of the Hillsboro area, but out of the country. Ray DeMarini and his team, however, were committed to keeping their bats manufactured in the Hillsboro area.
Then, in 2000, Wilson came calling. The sporting goods giant offered resources and support that would allow DeMarini to expand its in-house research and development efforts. It also contained existing baseball and fast-pitch softball divisions that promised new markets for DeMarini's products.
More importantly, the larger company was willing to let the smaller company continue to largely chart is its own course, maintain its own unique culture, and keep manufacturing in the Hillsboro area. Even now, while the company sources some materials and services, such as some decal printing, from foreign markets, the majority of the components it uses are sourced domestically or made in-house. In that same vein, its products are assembled entirely in its Hillsboro facility, a fact noted on each bat that rolls off the line.
Even with the ability to remain local, DeMarini still experienced some "growing pains" associated with its acquisition, according to Nathan Baldwin, Demarini's plant manager. But once those issues were hashed out, the arrangement with Wilson settled into a solid working relationship. The two companies now complement each other well, Baldwin said.
"We're more edgy and youthful, and Wilson is more conservative, so it's a good balance," he said.
Although DeMarini has been at its current Hillsboro location on Northeast Croeni Avenue since 1999, by 2016, the company had outgrown the 40,000-square-foot building it called home. Faced with increasing costs to rent storage spaces around the area, the DeMarini team decided to expand its building to consolidate its operations and inventory.
From researching and developing new materials and designing graphics to creating end caps and assembling each bat the company sells, DeMarini is now self-contained, handling all of those aspects out of a 70,000-square-foot building. The building also includes a sizeable gymnasium-type space boasting a batting cage outfitted with electronic equipment able to measure the speed and distance of a ball off a bat. The company regularly brings in ballplayers, including those at the college level, to help test and evaluate new bat prototypes.
Continually innovating the company's product line is a crucial element for DeMarini's success, but there's more involved in maintaining a solid bottom line. By 2010, the company was profitable, but struggling, Baldwin said. Orders were coming in faster than employees could turn them out. The production area was a jumble of boxes stacked everywhere. Business as usual wasn't working anymore.
"We couldn't keep up with orders," Baldwin said. "We knew we had to shift some things."
The solution to the production problem was found in a concept called lean manufacturing, an approach that focuses on minimizing waste while boosting productivity.
The company's revamped assembly line, for example, now is laid out in a u-shape. Workers at every machine can see each other, which allows them to notice when a part of the process has backed up or slowed down.
A limited number of gray trays on wheels with in-process bats are moved from station to station. Once those trays are filled, workers move into a holding pattern, waiting until an empty tray shows up to resume their part of the assembly process. The downtime is more than balanced out by the fact that the company can avoid losing money by turning out more inventory than needed.
Rather than waiting to find defects once bats are finished, quality assurance checks are done in real-time throughout the assembly process. Workers at each station check the work done at the previous station, identifying any problems so they can be fixed immediately. All workers have the authority to stop the line at any time to pull in a manager to help solve a particularly sticky problem.
Implementing the system took some time, Baldwin said. He and his team had to reshape how employees in the assembly department approached their jobs. The result, however, has been happier employers who now feel they play a vital role in the company's success and have a better understanding of how the company's profitability is tied to inventory and production.
Adopting a lean process also has helped the company combat the problem of their bats being sold in quantity by second-party vendors on the gray market through sites such as Amazon and eBay. Each bat contains a permanent hologram serial number beneath the graphics. The number allows each bat to be tracked from the time it leaves the factory so that each seller and buyer can be identified.
The tracking system, which DeMarini created in-house, has been so successful that Wilson is now using it to develop similar systems for its other sporting goods divisions, Baldwin said.
In 2001, one year after Wilson acquired DeMarini, cancer claimed Ray DeMarini's life. His presence, however, still lives on throughout the company he built.
The number "28," DeMarini's uniform number, can be found throughout the Hillsboro facility, along with photos of the company founder.
Tucked away on the second floor behind a door with a "Do not disturb" sign hanging from the knob, his office sits precisely as he left it. A shirt is draped over the back of a chair in front of a desk piled high with mail and paperwork. Stacks of bats and piles of softballs lie along two walls. Framed newspaper and magazine stories about Ray DeMarini's accomplishments in sports and business lean against a third wall.
Baldwin and Garnett both admit they sometimes visit the room when they're looking for inspiration or are faced with making a tough decision related to the company.
"We'll come in here and say, 'Talk to us, Ray,' and he does," Garnett said.
The biggest tribute to Ray DeMarini's legacy and his continued presence, however, can be found in the company's culture, a dedication to innovation and quality that Garnett and Baldwin have played key roles in keeping alive and consistent since their mentor's passing.
Garnett has been with DeMarini for 30 years, Baldwin almost as long. At some point, they'll step away from the company, but they're confident that the culture that started with Ray DeMarini will continue. They're both grooming the next generation of company leadership while also looking for new hires that "get it." Garnett, for example, has carefully built a sales team of people in their 20s and 30s. He often steps back and listens as they talk about the company to clients. About 90% of the stories they tell are spot on. When they get a point or two wrong, Garnett gently offers a better way to present the information.
"The next time I listen to them talk with someone, they nail it," he said. "The energy comes through."
Editor's note: In one reference, an earlier version of this story misstated the year of DeMarini's founding. It was 1989. The story has been corrected.
You count on us to stay informed and we depend on you to fund our efforts. Quality local journalism takes time and money. Please support us to protect the future of community journalism.