Arrow in the Air Hits Bulls-Eye

Imagine looking at a wheel with the full-blown intention of reinventing it. To say that intent requires an unimaginably brazen faith in one’s creativity would be a definitive understatement. It would also be an accurate portrait of Matt McPherson, the brains behind Mathews Archery.

Matt has accomplished the relative equivalent of reinventing the wheel – and much more. In a mere eight years he has taken his small, upstart bow company and positioned it right smack at the top, winning every Men’s Pro event in every professional circuit. Last year alone, pro shooters using Mathews gear claimed 15 of the 21 Men’s Pro titles. For the first time ever an archery company made the Inc. magazine list of the 500 fastest growing privately owned companies in America – not once, but two years in a row. And Mathews currently stands as Inc.’s highest-rated outdoor company ever.

Mathews needs to introduce new models each year just to stay a step ahead. There are probably no more than 24 bow companies in existence, most of them small, yet this is a highly competitive business. What competitors are doing this year, Mathews was doing a year or two ago, and in some cases even earlier. Matt continues to be the creative driving force – in essence, being the hunter, not the hunted. A self-taught engineer and a seat-of-the-pants kind of guy, his unassuming explanation is, “I’ve always felt compelled to make things.” He tests the prototypes and gives the final go-ahead on all projects. He is an entrepreneur in the purest sense, and that’s just the way everyone likes it.

From the time Matt was a young boy his insatiable curiosity had him taking things apart, but, unlike most of us, he could generally reassemble them. In the words of Mike Ziebell, Mathews Marketing Director, “He just always has that touch.” According to Mike, Matt still has quite a few secrets up his sleeve to keep the company at the forefront with something new each year. Matt believes if you introduce things a step at a time, people are going to appreciate that they work, and therefore be more likely to make a purchase.

Okay, maybe Matt didn’t actually sit down with the intention of reinventing the bow; perhaps it was more of an accidental evolution of sorts, but the creative seeds for such an undertaking were planted long ago. Matt and his brothers were introduced to the sport at a very early age by their father. They’d tag along with him when he bowhunted, carrying their fiberglass recurve bows. The story told is that their dad wanted to go deer hunting, but Mom didn’t want the brothers to go with guns because of the chance of getting hurt, so Dad agreed to go with a bow. Things followed an apparently predestined course from there on.

Matt’s parents’ contribution to the whole of his accomplishments goes far beyond merely inspiring the use of bows, though. There also is a clear and traceable hereditary influence from both sides. His father was very creative, and over the years designed a number of products, especially musical instruments. He holds a variety of patents himself, the McPherson three-hole guitar being one of them. And an uncle on his mother’s side was also a successful inventor, possessing numerous patents. Matt’s parents were thereby hereditarily supportive of his creative efforts.

In the 1960s, Matt was making bows out of whatever wood was accessible. Years later, when his brother Randy bought a compound bow, it immediately piqued Matt’s imagination. He was motivated to make his own experimental compound bow. To accomplish that, he sawed the limbs off an old fiberglass bow, devised wheels and cables and created his first compound bow. Followed by yet another, and another.

Wooden bows evolved into fiberglass recurves and then into two-cam compound bows. Most people would, and did, leave it at that – but not Matt. It was actually a mistake he made nearly a decade earlier during his experimentation phase that led to the development of Matt’s first high let-off InnerCam and his first archery company, McPherson Archery, which he started in 1985. The InnerCam was pretty radical for the time, but it put Matt on the archery map and opened wide the doors of artistry and innovation. The InnerCam was one of the very first eccentric systems with a protective draw stop. Today, of course, all this seems perfectly normal and desirable, but back then it was a somewhat radical, and evidently scary, idea.

To start his first bow company, Matt had taken on two investors. Their money funded the company, but their conservative views on marketing and promotions also nearly extinguished it. Without the capital to properly fund his ideas, the business went almost nowhere. Three years later, frustrated, he sold his shares in McPherson Archery.

That introductory experience only served to make Matt more determined. Being a man of faith, and believing that all things happen for a purpose, he took comfort in the belief that his first archery company was a learning experience – and if nothing else, a lesson in marketing. The degree of success he’d experienced with the InnerCam inspired him to develop the next step in cam evolution. Two-cam bows, including Matt’s own design, had long shared a common problem: accurate synchronization of the rollover of the two cams. As occasionally happens, the solution came to Matt during the solitude of driving. His initial thought at that instant was, “Can this really be that simple?” His conception involved a simple solution to the common problem. He envisioned a system in which cam synchronization was eliminated.

Matt drove straight home and created a prototype – and the inspirational vision he’d experienced in his car worked. That was in 1991, and the SoloCam breakthrough earned Mathews the single-cam patent and was the beginning of Mathews Archery. “I knew, deep down, that the SoloCam had the potential to change archery,” is the way he puts it.

That again is a prime example of understatement; today, most manufacturers offer single-cam models. Estimates project single-cam sales to be nearly two-thirds of the entire compound bow market. Of all the hunting, fishing, camping and outdoor products on the market, Field & Stream has awarded “Best-of-Best” distinction to only 15 products, and the Mathews MQ-32 bow (an evolution of the original SoloCam bow idea) is one.

In January of 1998, Mathews purchased its first two Haas VF-4s. Prior to that, most of the company’s machining was outsourced. A friend of Matt’s used Haas machines and had enthusiastically endorsed them. Scott Jenkins, the machine shop foreman, and Matt were both thoroughly pleased with the immediate performance of their Haas machines, encouraging them to make more machine acquisitions. “They’re affordable,” says Scott, “and they’ve kept coming down in price ever since we’ve been buying them. Usually things go in the other direction – they go up.” Since that initial purchase a scant two years ago, Mathews has installed an additional eight Haas vertical machining centers. In the works at the company’s Sparta, Wisconsin, facility is another 20,000-square-foot building devoted primarily to the machine shop. The number of Haas machines employed could very well jump to 25 within the next couple of years.

In the making of a Mathews bow, essentially the riser (the main handle), the limb cups (which secure the limbs in position), the cam (on the bottom) and the idler wheel (on the top) – everything, in fact, except the fiberglass limbs and the wooden grips – are all machined on Haas equipment. When asked if there’s a concerted effort to bring as much as possible in-house, Scott’s answer is, “Yeah, it always helps. But I don’t know if we’d ever want to be totally self-sufficient. It’s always nice to have someone to fall back on. Say we had a power outage or something, and blew out a bunch of machines. It would be three days or more before we got back running. How would we ever pick back up, especially with the tight schedule we keep?”

At Mathews, machining operations exclusively involve aluminum. Most bows are made of 6061, except the Safari model, which is 7075. A typical riser starts as a 2″ x 4″ x 27″ piece of aluminum. The first operation drills and taps a couple of holes, which are then used to mount the pieces for the next operation. Then they mill one half at a time, typically running three- or four-up, depending on which model and how many will fit on the machine. When asked why they don’t simply batch each operation, Scott replies “It’s nice that every time the door opens, you’ve got a finished part. It also keeps a more even flow than batching parts.”

For Scott, getting the model from the computer-aided manufacturing design to the machine is pretty much a no-brainer. “I’ve done it enough times where I can usually nail it pretty much on the first one or two pieces,” he remarks. He adds, “I actually had a guy in the other day, he was out here for a couple of days, a few hours back and forth, and by Friday he was doing parts on the machine. You just kind of pick it up – like anything, the farther you go down the road and the more you use it, the more familiar you get with it.” At this point only the editing is done at the machine. “Haas has probably got one of the most user-friendly controls I’ve ever seen. It’s easier to edit programs there than to do it on the computer,” comments Scott. He goes on to explain that the control is so easy to learn that all the operators rotate daily in order to get familiar with each machine and each operation. That way anyone can fill in for another operator.

By all accounts, productivity has risen with each new Haas machine, and Haas machines have helped Mathews stay that necessary step ahead. It all goes back to prototyping and keeping most functions in-house. If something doesn’t work, they know about it the same day and change it.

Matt McPherson doesn’t plan to slow his highly creative life down anytime soon. His priorities have long been in order: God, his family, himself and his work. With faith and family as his foundation, he’s securely grounded, providing him with the clarity to keep several irons in the proverbial fire. “But without my incredible staff of employees,” Matt emphasizes, “none of this would be possible.”

Along with Mathews Archery and its separate Zebra Bowstring division, Matt is revitalizing McPherson Guitars with the introduction of an iconoclastic new acoustic guitar. Plus there’s Justin Charles, his company named after his middle son that specializes in high-tech sleeping bags and fly rods. And, just to balance these out, there’s Autumn Records, Matt’s own gospel recording label, for which he and his wife Sherry record gospel CDs – which returns him full circle to his number one priority.

Considering that Matt continually travels at the speed of creativity, don’t be surprised if he does indeed uncover a more effective way of rolling the wheel.