I'm glad to have the opportunity to ask Jim Kirk, owner of Ump-Attire.com, a few questions. I think you'll enjoy some of his insight as a supplier.
Warren: How did you originally get into the business of being a supplier of officials' products?
Jim: I wish I had some grand story, but it is one of those one-thing-leads-to-another stories.
I was working on an MBA and feeling entrepreneurial when I decided to get into doing E-Commerce development for small businesses. I read a story in 2001 about a company called Ump-Attire, basically down the road from me that I had never heard of, who was manufacturing some products for umpires and had stated in the article they wanted to get more involved in Internet sales.
Are you kidding? I mean could this have been more up my alley or what, especially with my background in baseball and as a former umpire? Well after a few phone conversations and meetings, we started working together. I saw a lot of potential with the company, and especially in this niche officials supplier market.
The company started to grow as did my involvement to the point that the owner, Beulah Hester, had a vision to sell the retail portion of the business to me while she would focus on her strength as a designer and manufacturer of products.
So, I bought Ump-Attire.com in March of 2006, moved it to Louisville and soon began focusing on it full-time. We continue to have a close relationship with Ms. Hester where she not only provides us with our specialty items such as our Ultimate Ball Bags and Ultimate Shirts, she has been a great adviser and friend as well.
Warren: I read somewhere that baseball umpires are the most difficult of officials to supply. Do you think this holds true?
Jim: No, I don't agree with that. Most of our umpire customers are very easy to deal with. The only truth to that could be based on the fact that umpires have so many more items they need versus what is needed for let's say basketball officials. I will add that I am impressed with the level of knowledge umpires have when it comes to gear and apparel. I believe sites like yours at Umpire-Empire have been a big part of that. And the more educated our customers are and the more they know what they want, the easier it makes life for us.
Warren: What are some of the biggest changes you have seen in terms of umpire equipment over the years?
Jim: Well, over the last 10 years, there is the borrowing from football their shoulder pads in the development of hard shell chest protectors and the borrowing from hockey their goalie helmets for umpire helmets.
Then, more recently, there has been the move to lighter weight frames for masks. The titanium ups the bar here because if you have one of these you realize how much better visibility you get through its thinner bars and less contrast lighter color in its raw form.
Plus, there are now more household brands making umpire shoes than ever before when you have New Balance and Reebok.
The largest change, though, in my opinion, is the move toward performance synthetics. But it's not just under apparel or compression wear anymore, it's also shirts - an area where we have provided some leadership, pants, socks or even mask padding that have made life more comfortable and functional for umpires.
Depending on these synthetics and how they are treated, you can obtain benefits such as moisture management, quick drying, wrinkle resistance, odor blocking anti-microbial agents, no picking or pilling and more.
Warren: What changes do you see coming in the future?
Jim: I think in the near future, you'll mostly see the industry improving on recent changes.
For instance, companies will tweak their shoes. Reebok is already planning on toning down the white logo on theirs and there seems to be a small trend in incorporating a patent look on shoes without making it a completely harder-to-maintain patent.
There will also be more hard shell chest protector options in the future once the Joe West patent expires in a few years where it vaguely appears now that virtually everything hard shell is a potential infringement. More options will provide some lower cost alternatives, especially for beginning umpires and perhaps some improvements.
Performance fabrics will move beyond just ones that wick moisture. We've already raised the bar here with our new Ultimate Umpire Shirts that have additional features and have some other products in the works that will do so as well.
Warren: You spent some time as an umpire, tell us about your umpiring experience.
Jim: I got married right out of college, and I was looking for a way to earn extra income in addition to my full-time job. Having played baseball in college, umpiring high school baseball seemed like a logical choice. For a reference point, this would have been 1993-94 and that would have put me at 23-24 years of age. I umpired in the southeastern part of Kentucky.
By year two, I felt I was a decent umpire as far as my demeanor with coaches, strike zone and calls on the bases - I really worked on playing that close play over in my mind before making a call.
But, I honestly struggled with gaining a sense of satisfaction in being an umpire. I remember being given an important district rivalry game near the end of the year with the top two teams and teams with very good, but vocal coaches. I knew I was taking the plate and spent some time preparing myself mentally for the game. I remember having as many butterflies before the game then as I had before any game as a player.
The game was very tight and came down to a close play at home. As far as I was concerned, I called a very solid game and managed the game and coaches in a highly professional manner. I would say it was my best game! But the fans were all over me for most of the game on both sides and the losing coach let me have it over the final call. I just remember thinking, "I just called my best game, and still no one is satisfied with me".
So although I was doing well, umpiring just didn't fit my personality, which was to make everyone happy. I'd probably do better now that I'm older and wiser.
So I quit to focus on a graduate degree. But I can tell you, I never yelled at a referee or umpire again after that experience.
Warren: If it's umpiring or any other aspect of life, you need to have a passion for what you're doing. You've obviously found your passion with Ump-Attire.com.
Warren: When you umpired what equipment did you use?
Jim: Well, I know I skimped when I umpired. I did and bought things I wouldn't advise a beginning umpire to do now that I know what I'm doing. I didn't wear plate shoes, but fortunately was never hit on the foot. I had one of those ball bags where the brush goes on the outside and an Elbeco shirt I bought from Honigs. I hated that shirt. It was always coming untucked. Boy, could I have used a flex or ultimate belt.
I also had a "The Ump" thin soft foam chest protector with no hard plastic inserts or anything hard. I really liked it a lot until I took a very hard shot once that shook me up, left me with a long-lasting bruise and with a realization I should have gotten something more involved.
Warren: What equipment would you use today?
Jim: I would definitely be upgrading my chest protector that's for sure. Depending on the game or weather, I'd go with either the Wilson Platinum or Diamond iX3. The platinum fits me better around the neck than the Gold, and I think the iX3 would be sufficient protection or me at the high school level or lower.
For head protection, I'd err on the side of safety with a Shock FX Umpire Helmet. Great vision, not-too-heavy.
Shin guards - Wilson Charcoal - I think they provide the best combination of comfort and protection without being too bulky.
Shoes - New Balance for both plate and base- the new MF995 lows on the bases.
On shirts, the Majestic polo blue with black collar. I love the look at that shirt. But I'd have to say our new Ultimate Umpire Shirts in navy and powder blue for now and other colors when they become available later. Was that enough of a plug?
Pants - Smitty. The ones from this year are a big improvement.
Ball bag - I think you know that answer there.
Warren: Does your experience as an umpire come into play as you decide what to carry?
Jim: Well, I'm glad I have that background, but I would say not so much except for knowing what it's like to be a starting umpire with limited funds and that I won't be carrying the Elbeco shirts anytime soon. I'm much more influenced by listening to umpires who have much more experience than I have than anything else.
Warren: As new products and new equipment companies enter and leave the market how do you decide which line of products for Ump-Attire.com to carry and how hard is it deciding?
Jim: That's a tough question to answer because we don't have any set formula. Early on, it was much easier to decide because we had a lot of gaps in our selection. For instance, when we started we basically had no shoes. How could we be a serious contender in this market without shoes? That was a no-brainer, and now we have a pretty strong selection of something like 18 options in all sports.
When things aren't so obvious, there are really a lot of things you could start carrying from your suppliers, other suppliers or that you could do yourself. So you have to weigh all those, listen to your customers and just determine what combination of new things just feels right without going completely overboard.
It's a little easier to decide on new products already carried by one of our suppliers. Is it a quality item? Would we use it if we were umpiring at the level it's intended for? Is the price to us reasonable? Can we sell at a price where customers would find it as a good value? Does it fit well into our product selection where it's not too similar to something else?
When you have an opportunity to buy products from new suppliers or some already out there, you ask some of the same questions. But it's important to get a good sense that a supplier is going to be easy to work with. If your early interaction with a sales rep or the company in getting more information or in getting set up isn't going well, and that happens more than you'd think, then it's highly likely it's not going to be worth the headache.
Warren: We've all seen things like the radar gun type indicator, the belt hook to carry your mask on, and other such items. What are some of the more "interesting" things which have been brought to your attention or someone has tried to get you include in your product line?
Jim: It seems like a year ago, we were being approached by some company or person every other month with something.
One interesting item someone approached me with two years ago was a retractable umpire brush. Well, the umpire brush itself wasn't retractable, but it had a retractable extension that would allow one to brush off the plate without bending over. Just picture an umbrella but instead of the top of an umbrella it was an umpire brush at the end of a metal rod. That product was actually not made yet. It was sent to me as a drawing. The person who had the idea got the idea because his father was an umpire who had trouble bending over due to a medical condition. Obviously, we passed on the idea.
Sometimes the best things are the simplest things.
Warren: What do you think sets Ump-Attire apart from the other suppliers of officials needs?
Jim: With out a doubt, openness. Whether it's sharing product information, good or bad, on the website or directly with customers, we try to be very open and honest. Just read any of our umpire gear buying guides or my Officially-Unofficial blog. You'll notice things we might say about products or about us that others might not readily want to share about their products or themselves.
Most umpires are really down-to-earth. I believe they'd rather buy from a company they feel they know a little bit and trust will be even-handed with them rather than one who just slaps a bunch of products and prices on a website somewhere. Anyone can do that.
Warren: How much in advance do you know about new products coming down the pipeline?
Jim: With outside suppliers, such as Wilson, Diamond and Reebok, it's typically about 4-6 months. This time frame is usually when we book or place our orders in advance to have available at the beginning of the next season.
We might hear a rumor here or there earlier on some things such as we did with the Reebok plate shoes. Or we might suggest something that might not be available until a year or so later. This was the case on the Diamond silver frame mask.
Warren: Is there any product you are surprised hasn't/didn't do better in the market?
Jim: Hmmm. Not really. Most products sell as expected or, when they don't, they'll sell better than expected. The only item that really surprised me on the better-than-expected end of the spectrum was the Diamond Ultimate Umpire Equipment Bag. I didn't think we'd sell many at $140 each, and at the time the most expensive bag we previously had was in the $40-45 range. And I was off, pretty far off actually, as the item has done really well. It truly showed me that umpires are willing to spend money on things that are of high quality and/or address a need.
Warren: What is the biggest hurdle you have had to overcome in the officials supplier market?
Jim: The market itself is pretty much uncomplicated. The customers are a target group that you can easily find and get feedback and ideas from. There is a narrow range of products to select from. And you can always easily find what your competitors are up to.
Our biggest hurdle honestly has been managing our growth. I hope none of our competitors are reading this, but we've averaged in the ball park of doubling each of the last 3 years. So making sure we have the right amount of people, inventory, systems and training to keep up with this growth has been quite the challenge. A good problem to have as they say, but a challenge we're continually overcoming.
Our ability in keeping it together is all a testament to the great crew we have here.
Jim: Thanks for noticing. I am a big believer that businesses should give back.
UMPS CARE, our largest charity, is a no-brainer for us. The MLB umpires and Samuel Dearth, the director, do all the work. We just lend our monetary support to them and do our part in promoting their events with our customers. All of this work is eventually for the benefit of children in hospitals or who are awaiting adoption.
In May, I will participate in a hospital event in Cincinnati with umpires Ted Barrett, Greg Gibson and Andy Fletcher where we'll visit children and do Build-A-Bear workshops with them. I'm really looking forward to that.
We've also been a sponsor for Wrestle for Autism and an educational partner for NASO, both the last 2 years. We even sponsor a local little league team in the Louisville area.
Having said all of that, we can still do better and have some plans in the works for additional community involvement.
But you know being a good community citizen is also good for business. Staff know we are a part of something bigger and not just a company who sells stuff - so that's good for morale. And I think our customers see it, too, and prefer to buy from us knowing we are giving something back. It's just a win-win all the way around.
Warren: Jim, thank you for your time and also thanks for being actively involved with the umpiring community not only here but a number of other places as well.