Near Miss Leads to Sure Thing Business
John Wydner's fall from a tree stand could have been fatal, but that near miss made him determined to make a user-friendly harness for hunters.
A hunter uses one of the 2012 harness vests manufactured by Hunter Safety Systems. Its single front buckle design reduces weight and makes suiting up faster and quieter.
“If” is an important two-letter word in John Wydner’s vocabulary. If he hadn’t fallen from his tree stand after an early morning whitetail hunt… If he hadn’t caught his rifle on the tree stand climber and hung on until he could make a painful descent … If he hadn’t kept asking himself how to make hunting safer for himself and others…
Those are only the beginning queries that led to extraordinary business success for Hunter Safety Systems and Wydner’s satisfaction at knowing his combination hunting and harness vest has saved innumerable lives.
When Wydner survived a near-fatal fall almost 12 years ago, it set off relentless alarm bells in his head.
“I knew I just avoided a serious accident and would have been paralyzed or dead,” Wydner says. “Me and the good Lord talked a little bit, and I let him know I was thankful I survived that fall.”
Wydner and his brother, Jerry, who was hunting with him that day, weren’t wearing safety harnesses.
“It’s a hassle to put them on,” Wydner says. “With us helping each other, it took 15 minutes to get one guy in a harness. Obviously that’s a problem, especially if you’re trying to put it on in the morning in the dark.”
At the end of the hunting trip, Wydner already had a design in mind for a sleeveless vest with a built in harness—suitable for all temperatures and simple to slide on without untangling or snapping pieces together. Enlisting the sewing skills of his sister-in-law, Mary Alice, Wydner created a pattern and Mary Alice put in two weeks of arduous sewing on the camouflage/blaze orange reversible vest.
With the prototype in hand, Wydner began testing its strength, knowing it was made with sewing thread rather than a stronger fiber that a harness manufacturer would have used.
“I hooked it to the rafters in the garage and would hang,” he says. “I thought, it’s simple to put on, supports my weight, and does a good job. I told my wife I believed I could sell 100,000 if I had them. We have millions of bow hunters, and all of them need this for their own preservation.”
But he showed a manufacturer who rejected the plan as too labor intense.
“It really let the air out of my balloon when I heard how much it would cost to build it,” Wydner says. “I went home, rejected, but I still felt like I was being driven like never before to see something through.”
After serious revisions, he ended up with a hunter-friendly product that was affordable to build and patentable.
“What we did is unheard of,” Wydner says. “I was ignorant as far as how the market worked. I put together a portfolio about myself and the idea with pictures of the product. I sent it to all the major stores I could come up with.”
Wydner got a call back from a Cabela’s buyer, who purchased 500. Filling the order nearly wiped out Wydner’s savings.
“I just started building product,” Wydner says. “This was just a leap of faith. I was gambling everything for a brand new business.”
At the age of 52, Wydner unexpectedly had the opportunity for early retirement. He took it and committed his time to the new business.
Jim Turner, with Regions when Wydner set up his business, arranged a mortgage against Wydner’s house for operating capital. “When (Turner) went to Bank Independent, of course we went with him,” Wydner says. “Bank Independent looked over our company and saw that we were solvent, had a good business plan and had proven ourselves.
“Jim took us to the next level by giving us a line of credit. We would get right to the end of the line of credit and tapped it out a few times, then the checks would start rolling in. This is a seasonal business. In September, October, November and December, we get money, but we are building product all year to get to that point. Jim worked with us and understood. We’ll borrow an exceptional amount of money and be extremely deep in debt, and then in a month and a half, we’ll have it all paid off and be in the black again.”
Macke Mauldin, president of Bank Independent, says investing in Hunter Safety Systems was simply smart business.
“John’s company is unique. It has broad appeal, not just in north Alabama, but all over the world. They make the quality of life for a hunter better and safer.”
Puzzle Pieces in Place
“I was surprised how many orders we got the first year,” Wydner says. “When we went into business, we sold 1,800 units. The next year, it more than doubled, and the third year, it really took off. The doors just opened for me. I started with a high school education, and now I have a $10 million company.”
Essential to the success of the company, Wydner says, is his family and friends’ involvement—from his sister Judy’s keen mind to his brother Jerry’s business savvy to his sister Jill’s accounting skills to the marketing expertise of writer and fishing guide friend Jim Barta.
“It has been a tremendous ride,” says Wydner, of his Dadeville-based business. “We now have 16 full-time employees, two warehouses and do right at $10 million a year.”
“Lots of people come up with great ideas,” Mauldin says. “He has been able to make it work for himself, his family, his employees and the bank itself. It was not an easy thing for him to do, but he’s gotten to the level where he can enjoy it. And he is not sitting on his laurels. There’s a lot of innovation yet to be exposed. I’m excited for him.”
“God had to wake me up and come up with the idea,” Wydner said. “He took an accident where I nearly died and turned it around and made it into a business that has saved thousands of lives.”
Cara Clark is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Birmingham.