Lure entrepreneur grows business to meet growing international demand
Photo by Barry Stringfellow
If you see a slightly built man with a shock of red hair, surfcasting into gale force winds this winter, don't take pity on him — he's not a fisherman driven around the bend by cabin fever, or a clueless novice. He's Peter Johnson, owner and CEO of Roberts Lures, and he's out doing some R & D for his rapidly growing business.
A physicist by trade, with a marrow-deep love for fishing, Mr. Johnson is constantly tweaking and innovating.
"I'm just curious about things. It's not just taking orders and hauling money to the bank. I like getting involved with technical things," he said sitting in the Chappy ferry line, in his well-travelled SUV with New Hampshire "Wasque" plates and a rainbow of Over Sand permits on the bumper.
Mr. Johnson was headed for East Beach, where he would test a new prototype, and where he hoped the bonito and albies would be waiting.
This year Vineyard Haven-based Roberts Lures will ship more than 30,000 lures to locations across North America, Mexico, Central America, Sweden, the Netherlands, Spain, Cyprus, Israel, Peru, Chile, South Africa, the Azores, and Christmas Island, a spec in the middle of the Indian Ocean.
"Never underestimate the power of the Internet," he said. "We're getting a lot of new business from Mexico. Roosterfish are the new big thing. They're on the bucket list for a lot of surf fishermen, and they seem to like my lures," he said, with a satisfied smile.
Demand for Roberts lures is also growing north of the border. The Roberts Ranger just won the grand prize in a year-long northern pike tournament, essentially the equivalent of our Derby, in the Northwest territories in Canada.
"The Roberts Ranger got the grand prize because it casts well into the wind, it fishes well in habitat [weeds], and it holds up to the sharp teeth of the northern pike," he said. "There's a belt of northern pike [habitat] that circles the globe in the northern hemisphere. It's a whole new market I hadn't thought of."
The original Roberts Ranger is the iconic red and white plug that's in the tackle box of every remotely knowledgeable surf fisherman in New England. Nantucket summer resident Bob Simons invented the original Roberts Ranger in 1970, when he reportedly got the idea for its wind-penetrating shape from the pontoons of a sea plane flying overhead.
Mr. Johnson bought the company from Mr. Simons 16 years ago, thinking it would be a good project as he segued out of the defense business.
"I was not the highest bidder," he said. "They were convinced I'd keep it going. I spoke from the heart. I didn't take on any debt. I bought it with cash."
Mr. Johnson invested heavily in retooling and expanded his product line by acquiring Hammer lures 12 years ago and Yankee lures five years ago in similar cash deals. He employs contract manufacturers around New England to produce the various parts.
"We have an advantage in New England, we have great tool makers," he said. "We can make lures three times faster, which cuts labor costs by one third." He also employs four expert fly-tyers for the bucktails on his Hammer lures, which are plated with the same compound used on submarine periscopes.
On the Island, Mr. Johnson hires eight subcontractors to assemble and package the lures and ship them to the far corners of the earth, and to all corners of the Island. As the demand for Roberts lures grows worldwide, Mr. Johnson hopes to expand the company's presence on the Island. He's scouting for clean manufacturing and storage space, with humidity control for those soupy summer spells that can weld the packaging to the product.
A seasoned entrepreneur who's cycled through boom and bust, Mr. Johnson takes the long view.
"My profit could be bigger, but I'm comfortable with my margins," he said. "I try to keep my lures reasonable. Fishing shouldn't cost a lot of money. You see these $30 lures in tackle shops? That's ridiculous. A lower price also helps keep competition down."
Mr. Johnson noted that his biggest competition is the Chinese knock-off of his own product, called the "Sea Ranger," which even copies the color scheme and font of the Roberts lures packaging.
"I started fishing when I was a kid. My chum and I used string and a safety pin and a maple sapling for a rod," Mr. Johnson recalled about his childhood in the Walpole/Norwood area. "Then another friend got some real hooks and real line and we started making our lures out of balsa wood that we had left over from model airplanes, and we painted them up all fancy."
Under the guidance of his father, Mr. Johnson graduated to flounder fishing with a hand line on the Cape Cod Canal, where his family would camp for their summer vacations. "I got hooked, literally. First time I tried it, I put a hook into the bottom of my foot. But I loved it. Fishing became my number one, number two, and number three favorite hobby."
As fisherman's luck would have it, Mr. Johnson met the oldest son of Stan Gibbs, the legendary Cape lure maker whose creations now command a hefty sum on eBay.
"I started doing menial chores for Stan, putting hooks on lures, whatever needed doing," said Mr. Johnson. "I learned so much from Stan. He taught me everything about fishing, soup to nuts. His family was like my second family. I worked summers there and stayed with them while I was in high school."
Mr. Johnson was offered scholarships to MIT, Harvard, and Dartmouth. "I went to Dartmouth because they offered me the most money," he said. He earned a degree in physics, earning extra money along the way by translating Russian scientific journals into English.
From 1960 to 1965, he flew for the Navy, logging more than 3,000 hours and more than 200 aircraft carrier landings in the Sky Raider fighter/bomber — sometimes getting shot at in locations he still can't disclose.
"The greatest thrill of my life was my first carrier landing. The Sky Raider only has one seat, so your first flight is your solo," he said with a glint in his blue-green eyes.
Mr. Johnson worked in the defense electronics industry for more than 40 years, as a scientist and entrepreneur, often working on projects that required top secret clearance. He specialized in electronic aircraft countermeasures, such as signal jamming and electronic decoys.
"I got credit for the work of a lot of smart people, but we saved a lot of guys' lives," he said.
During his tenure in the defense business, Mr. Johnson made frequent trips from New Hampshire to Washington, D.C. He credits the experience with teaching him the value of service that he applies to Roberts Lures today.
"You sell yourself first, the company second, the product third. If you sell yourself, you've won half the battle," he said. "You have to provide good service, you so often don't get it anymore."
As his SUV bobs, boat-like, over on East Beach, Mr. Johnson scans the water for signs of fish, which are scant. He stops to talk to fishermen who know him by name. He gives away samples of his wares and fixes older Roberts lures with the well-ordered portable workshop in the back.
"As long as they're coherent, I give them a lure," he said, driving away. "If they offer to pay I tell them to put some money in the donation box at Mytoi or give to the Salvation Army at Christmas."
At the final stop of the day, Mr. Johnson shows off his newest lure, "The Whistler," a Roberts Ranger, the design tweaked by his extensive knowledge of aerodynamics, so the plug actually gains loft in flight — an idea as ingenious as it is simple.
"I just enjoy being out there. I don't worry about fish," he said. Perhaps not the greatest endorsement from the CEO of a lure company, but he clearly means it.
Almost a year ago, Mr. Johnson was lying in a hospital bed at Dartmouth-Hitchcock Medical Center, after major surgery to remove part of his jaw, due to an ameloblastoma, a rare, highly destructive, rapidly growing tumor of the jaw. His jaw was reconstructed with bone, artery, and soft tissue taken from his his lower leg, and a titanium strip replaced the harvested piece of tibula. It was only the second time the surgery had been performed at Dartmouth Hitchcock Medical Center. The doctors determined the genesis of the problem dated back to his 1964, when Mr. Johnson made a crash landing and his harness failed, sending his face and neck smashing into the console. After surgery to remove a thyroid, Mr. Johnson was flying two months later. But 48 years later, the incident required drastic surgery.
Today, Mr. Johnson's speech carries a Novocain lilt, his jaw is slightly askew, but he says the experience changed his life for the better.
"You don't get smarter, but you can get wiser. I spent 12 days in the hospital and I had plenty of time to think," he said. "I realized I had to take more time for Peter. So I'm out here fishing every day, and I just don't let things bother me anymore. I just shrug. I'm still looking down at the grass, not up at the roots, so I'm doing just fine."
Mr. Johnson said that people on both sides of his family lived more than 100 years.
"I want to break the record," he said. "I want to make it to 105."