Stonington - A free-standing basketball hoop at the 6,000-square-foot warehouse space of Anthem Sports in Pawcatuck seems lost among hundreds of boxes holding everything from baseball bats to soccer balls and volleyball nets to track-and-field equipment.
The hoop once allowed employees to blow off steam during breaks. But with orders mounting and the warehouse filling up with inventory, times have changed at the growing sports-equipment distributor.
"It doesn't get much use any more," acknowledges Mark Ferrara of Stonington, company founder and president.
Ferrara learned the sports-equipment business in the marketing department of Jaypro, the Waterford manufacturer of everything from football goal posts to baseball foul poles. Ferrara's father, Bob, co-founded Jaypro and still takes an active ownership role in the company.
But a decade ago Ferrara saw an opportunity to form a different type of company, focusing on providing to coaches, athletic directors and youth leagues a wide variety of sporting equipment from a range of manufacturers.
Ferrara started the business essentially as a catalog company with one other employee, office manager Kim Lisee-Pike. Anthem's close to 3,000 sporting goods offerings today still have a prominent presence in print, though the Internet is making a big impact as well.
"Everybody thinks catalog marketing is going away," Ferrara says. "But in my opinion it's not going away any time soon."
BSM Sports, one of the few national companies that has a catalog with an impressive range of sports equipment, nevertheless doesn't sell Jaypro products because it is a competitor on the manufacturing side. Other manufacturers likewise downplay products that they don't produce themselves.
Ferrara's idea was to offer many major brands - including a healthy dose of Jaypro products - in a wide variety of sports to provide athletic officials one-stop shopping for all the equipment they might need. This would also allow schools and youth sports programs to get volume discounts on bigger orders.
Manufacturers would benefit, he says, because Anthem could buy in bulk and store items in the company's warehouse.
"Rawlings doesn't want to sell 10 dozen balls - they want to sell 1,000 dozen balls," he says.
Anthem stores in its warehouse only some of the smaller, more popular items in its catalog. Larger, specialized products are shipped directly from the manufacturer, saving on trucking costs.
"We ship same day, if we can," Ferrara says. "Service is how we separate ourselves from the competition."
The strategy seems to have worked. Although Ferrara doesn't give out sales numbers, he says business is up 40 percent so far this year. The company also has added two new employees in 2012, bringing its total up to nine.
"We're growing at a pretty rapid pace," he says.
More hires are likely on the way in the warehouse and customer service, Ferrara says, as the company - whose sales in Connecticut, Rhode Island and Massachusetts represents only about 15 percent to 20 percent of its business - goes increasingly national. Two of Anthem's biggest states for sales are California and Texas, he adds.
Ferrara, who says he believes strongly in profit-sharing, just handed out a six-month bonus to all his employees based on the company's performance so far this year. Another performance bonus will be given out if year-end goals are reached.
"It gets everyone pulling in the same direction," he says.
Ferrara expects to double the company's sales and size within the next two years and hopes to automate the warehouse to add efficiencies in the future.
"We have plenty of room to grow," he says.
Ferrara, whose business is across the street from the Davis-Standard manufacturing plant, leases out half of Anthem's 12,000-square-foot warehouse to Comina Inc., a furniture and home goods store chain. He also owns a building across the way on Extrusion Drive leased by Jenesis Surgical LLC.
Anthem started out focusing on such major team sports as softball, baseball, basketball, soccer and volleyball and has most recently branched out into conditioning products such as medicine balls and speed hurdles as well as track-and-field equipment, including the discus and shot put.
"Athletes today train so much differently than they did ... years ago," Ferrara says. "You really have to keep up with it."
Ferrara helps athletes and coaches keep up with new advances in equipment and training through five 300-word blogs written specifically for Anthem and updated weekly by an outside company. The blogs, which help drive traffic to Anthem's website and increase its Internet visibility to search engines, focus on different segments of Anthem's market, including athletic directors and coaches, training methods, parents of athletes and fundraising.
One sports area Anthem doesn't get into is uniforms, since it requires more of a hands-on, customized approach than the company's lean operation allows.
"We're really an equipment company," Ferrara says.
Anthem hopes in the near future to start producing in-house videos offering 45-second clips comparing various products that can be accessed on its website.
Ferrara says he doesn't see big-box stores as competitors, and many Internet companies focus on only one type of sport, so they don't offer athletic officials the convenience of Anthem's one-stop shopping.
His biggest competitors, Ferrara says, are independent sporting goods companies, but they often don't have the warehouse space of Anthem and therefore cannot deliver products as quickly. They also rarely offer catalogues, and websites were basically an afterthought, he says.
Ferrara has concentrated on making Internet shopping as user-friendly as possible. Instead of throwing up a huge number of product choices on Anthem's website, Ferrara says he chooses only the best products with the most extensive warrantees.
"We have a lot of word-of-mouth, repeat customers," he says.
Customer service is key in an industry that has been relatively flat over the past few years, as school systems struggle with financial constraints by cutting sports programs. Ferrara says booster clubs have picked up some of the slack in school sports funding, but he figures most of Anthem's growth has been at the expense of other companies.
"We're just doing a better job at what we do," he says.