Bells Celebrate Football - and a New Partnership in Miss.

An Unlikely Friendship Changes the Course of Two Businesses
An Unlikely Friendship Changes the Course of Two Businesses

On any given Saturday in the fall, "State" fever hits West Point, Mississippi. U.S. Route 45 runs through the town -- lined with cars festooned with maroon and white, the colors of the Mississippi State Bulldogs. But what's most noticeable is the clank-clank-clank of cowbells.

Legend has it that the bell became a sign of support for the Bulldogs when a cow wandered across the field during a game between State and Ole Miss (the University of Mississippi) -- who have one of the most bitter rivalries in college football. Nobody quite remembers what year that game was played or even who won, but the cowbell is now a must-have for most fans at every State game.

For John Howell and Stephen Caples, Mississippi natives and State graduates, the bells have become far more than just a game day trinket. The two friends met during college and became close while playing in a band together. They would pore over business ideas at night during meals after their gigs.

"I don't know how many ideas we went through," Caples says of those brainstorms. But one night, they realized their business idea was hiding in plain sight. "So we're sitting at Ruby Tuesday in Starkville, and I said why don't we start with cowbells," Caples remembers. It was a simple idea, and for the two State grads, it seemed obvious.

The idea was to craft BattleBells that would last longer than a few games. They started by importing cowbells before finding a manufacturing partner just down the road from West Point that would change everything.

This built america mississippi bells
Credit: Stephen Stinson

Chapter One: The Young Guns

The business plan was simple enough to start. They pooled their own money to start the business, buying cowbells wholesale from a supplier in China, and putting the BattleBells name on them. But something wasn't quite right with that first generation of bells. The quality wasn't what they wanted (low-grade metal, rubber handles) and the sound of the bells wasn't nearly what they hoped it to be.

They took their plan to the Mississippi State's Entrepreneurship Center Advisory Board, which provides guidance to local startups. The board gave them $2,000 to help with the business. After their presentation to the board, Joe Jordan pulled them aside. He was a board member at the entrepreneurship center and an innovation manager with Innovate Mississippi, a nonprofit that pairs local businesses to promote economic development.

Jordan had previously met with Long Branch, a steel fabrication business that had been producing boiler component parts for 35 years. The owners wanted -- actually needed -- to expand beyond their traditional business and move into consumer products if they were going to keep growing.

BattleBells needed a U.S. manufacturer, and Long Branch needed new products. Jordan had found a perfect match.

Quality from Inside the State

"So we set up a presentation to Long Branch, and came with the whole idea of 'made in Mississippi,' rugged, steel, industrial, and wanted to brand it around that," Caples says. "They thought that was a great idea. They gave us a shot, they gave two kids a shot to really make this work."

Long Branch makes the Rolex of cowbells for BattleBells. They are made from thick stainless steel and feature mahogany or oak handles. They come with a lifetime warranty. But most important: they come with a steel clapper that rings so loud each BattleBell order comes with its own set of earplugs.

For a product so deeply rooted in Mississippi and tied to the frenzy of college football, success seemed attainable for BattleBells. But even for grads and fans Caples and Howell, the growth in the past two years has been astounding.

The football team, now one of the top-ranked teams in the nation, is in the midst of its best season in school history. The demand for Mississippi State-branded merchandise has skyrocketed and that's flowed over to BattleBells. They've gone from selling three bells a week in fall 2013 to selling more than 50 a week this football season. They are now on backorder online but are available at a number of local retailers and campus bookstores.

Despite the growth, the two college friends still run the business by themselves, even though Howell is now living in Georgia running a mattress store, and Caples is a web developer at Mississippi State. Once a week, Caples backs his sports car up to the Long Branch doors and loads all the bells set for shipment. Then he bags, tags, and sends them out.

Chapter Two: The Veterans

Ed Todd, 75, has been making boiler components his whole adult life. He was raised in West Point, and started Long Branch in 1979.

At 67, his partner Linda Pilley has spent the majority of her professional life in manufacturing and management. For them, partnering with BattleBells has brought new life to a business looking for something new.

This built america mississippi bells
Credit: Stephen Stinson

When Long Branch first met with Howell and Caples, now both 27, Pilley says she was impressed with their proposal and understanding of the market. "Initially, there was that learning curve, but the energy of what they brought to the table, their presentation was nice," she says. "They really knew how to pull all of that together, and had all the visuals to go with it. They knew what they were talking about, so that was of high interest to us."

She also saw that it would help her diversify the business -- but Todd was apprehensive. Boiler parts were what he knew. "Bells? What are you talking about, get outta here," he says chuckling, recalling the initial idea. "But I've sure had to eat crow, it's been a total shock, what has happened."

New Excitement for an Old Company

While the boiler business is still thriving, the arrival of BattleBells as increased Long Branch's sales by 4 percent in the first 14 months the company has made the bells.

But the real value may lie in what BattleBells has done for the psyche of this decades-old manufacturer. The young company has opened new potential for Long Branch, with a new brand and exciting possibilities.

Steel is being cut, welders are welding, and the fabricators on the floor of Long Branch are excited. Todd isn't afraid to admit he may have underestimated how much BattleBells could do for Long Branch.

"This is still cutting, and bending, and welding, which is just what boiler parts are," he says with a grin. "The apprehension was we're gonna spend too much time messing with this if it turns out to be nothing, and we gotta concentrate on what we need to be doing. Well, wrong, wrong, wrong."

When Pilley walks across the manufacturing floor, it's hard to ignore the motherly tone she has with the welders, steel cutters, and machine operators. It's not by design, but because of the love she has for the young guys in her shop. She feels the same way about Howell and Caples, who she affectionately calls her "BattleBells boys." Pilley's desk is the first stop inside the Long Branch offices, and it's usually the first-and the last-place Howell and Caples stop when they check in.

Chapter Three: Energy Meets Experience

While BattleBells and Long Branch have forged a serendipitous partnership, their need for each other is evident. Caples and Howell are young, energetic, and move fast with their ideas and design. But they don't know how to manufacture steel. Todd and Pilley, who bring over 70 years of business experience to the partnership, operate in a deliberate and calculated manner but they admit they don't have marketing experience. For BattleBells to succeed, these unlikely partners need each other.

This built america mississippi bells
Credit: Stephen Stinson

"People our age just expect things to happen, we don't realize it takes steps to get from point A to point D," Howell says. "And being able to look back at what they do, and apply that to what we do, and vice versa, and being able to speed up their processes, it just kind of multiplies each other."

While the partnership is only in its second year, Pilley says that the four have already established one of the business world's most vital attributes -- trust.

Growth Through Trust

"There are really a lot of young entrepreneurs that have the desire, but don't have the restraint or the discipline," she says. "I think the relationship has grown in trust. What has come about in season two is the trust and integrity of we can say what we want, and put the cards on the table, and all come to a conclusive decision."

And for Todd, a veteran manufacturer who hasn't had much experience with younger, more progressive business partners, the partnership has gone beyond anything he initially imagined.

"It's been great, again, to my surprise," he says. "They go to Linda, and Linda says this is how it's gonna be. It's unlimited what we can do, it's a matter of concept, will it sell, and yes, it's been a joy really. A pleasant surprise."

Experience and Exuberance

As the two styles have merged -- experience and exuberance -- they have both learned some great lessons and become a vital piece in each other's process. Along the way, Pilley has taken them in almost as excited, energetic grandsons. "Social media, Internet, they talked a language, I don't have a clue what any of this means," she says.

What she does know is that BattleBells has helped a decades-old business feel young again

"It's almost humbling," Caples says. "I can't believe a brainchild that came out of us has been able to do this to these guys. These guys are making a living off an idea we created." And for Howell, seeing the bells roll off the manufacturing line drives him to keep the brand growing.

"It inspires me to keep going at a pace that won't let you quit, it only makes you go faster and further than you thought the day before," Howell says. "Seeing people around here, them having their own pride, putting their work and their ideas into it, and it inspires them, it's a great feeling."

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