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Flashback: R&D and ESOP Revolutionize Fish Biz

The Humminbird took Techsonic sales to $25 million in 1985, then, over the following 18 months, revved up revenues 150 percent.

The Humminbird took Techsonic sales to $25 million in 1985, then, over the following 18 months, revved up revenues 150 percent.

In August of 1986, our first year of publication, Business Alabama writer Michael Florence reported on the lightning-strike success at Eufaula-based Techsonic Inc.

Founded as Fulton Electronics in 1971, the company was one of a slew of manufacturers making electronic fish finders for bass fishermen. Trouble was, they were all cranking out the same old clunky rigs — depth sounders, based on World War II sonar, that scratched out graph lines on a roll of paper.

“For several years, we just stumbled and bumbled, but our customer service saved us,” said Jim Balkcom, who became president of the company in 1978. For all that worker dedication, it was all the 22 employees could do to keep their heads above water.

It didn’t help that the little company was publicly held, with shareholders waiting like anxious anglers to strip out any spare earnings each quarter.

The turnaround came with a leveraged buyout by Balkcom and other managers, who turned the company into an employee stock ownership company.

“The only way we were going to survive against the competition — most of which was Japanese — was to take a Japanese approach,” said Balkcom. “First, we needed to make the employees owners.”

Plowing short-term earnings back into R&D, the company developed the Humminbird LCR, a fish finder that revolutionized the depth sounder market with a number of technological innovations — not least, the liquid crystal display, which was a quantum bass leap like rotary dial to iPhone.

Launched at the Atlanta Fish and Tackle Show in July 1984, Humminbird hit big, taking Techsonic employment to 325 workers and grabbing a leading 40 percent market share.

The latest models of the Humminbird and other products are still made in Eufaula, but Techsonic was bought in 2004 by outdoor sports giant Johnson Outdoors Marine Electronics Inc.

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