Roberts Lures makes global splash

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Peter Johnson holds up a picture of a 71 lb. leer fish, which was caught in Port Saint Louis in du Rhone France using one of his lures, pictured at the bottom right. - Stacey Rapolo

Peter Johnson of West Tisbury, owner and CEO of Roberts Lures, was the subject of a Times profile, bit.ly/peterjohnson, in October 2013. A lifetime New England fisherman, Mr. Johnson bought the small business in 1997 and has overseen its growth over the past 20 years.

During that period he has expanded through the purchase of two smaller, similar lure companies, and has established a game plan for success that Bill Belichick would envy. The results speak for themselves: Since 2013, when he shipped 30,000 lures to buyers in 15 countries around the world, his sales and global reach have grown steadily every year.

We met with Mr. Johnson recently in his compact, efficiently organized workspace (the “Shop”) and got an immediate glimpse into his global world. As we chatted, looking out at the woods and wildlife surrounding the building, he was alerted via cell phone that a DHL driver was about to arrive.

“We recently received an order from a tackle shop in France,” Mr. Johnson explained. “We filled the order and are sending it off today. France is a hot country for us right now.” The moderate size of the order meant it could be filled from the inventory stored on the second floor of the Shop. A quick tour revealed racks of neatly arranged plastic containers holding clear plastic bags of lures, approximately 15 varieties in all, and their components. “We have several warehouse facilities in southern New England that we use for bulk storage,” Peter said. “We hire Islanders on a cottage-industry basis to handle finish work on some of our lures.”

Mr. Johnson has led an interesting and stimulating life. He earned a physics degree at Dartmouth College, where he also mastered Russian, then received an officer’s commission in the Navy in the late 1950s, serving for five years as a carrier-attack pilot. His next stop was Washington, D.C., where he worked for over 40 years for the defense industry in electronic warfare, researching and designing defensive mechanisms for both submarines and aircraft.

In his next incarnation, overseeing the design and manufacturing of Roberts Lures products, Mr. Johnson would apply lessons and principles learned from all of his previous life experiences. In discussing his business, he identified three broad categories.

One area is what Mr. Johnson calls his “bag of tricks,” his technological knowledge of design and manufacturing. As illustration, Mr. Johnson handed me a two-tone, brightly colored Roberts Ranger lure, sleek and substantial in my hand.

“Our lures,” he said, “are constructed with ABS plastic, which I became familiar with in my defense industry work. ABS is one grade below bullet-proof. Look around the beaches, and you see lures that have deteriorated, or simply broken. That never, ever happens to a Roberts lure.”

Mr. Johnson also refers to his business strategy, the do’s and don’ts of creating and maintaining a successful operation. The two lists — do’s and don’ts — have needed some adjustments over the years. “We’ve made some mistakes, and we’ve learned from them.”

High on the Do list is to provide a product with a “fair price on the peg.” That’s sales-speak for high quality combined with a reasonable price. Mr. Johnson employs several measures to make his products affordable. For one thing, Roberts Lures are made here in New England. “We have the smartest craftsmen in the country right here,” he said. “Not only do they do excellent work, it’s a cost saver for us.”

In addition, Mr. Johnson does his own delivery and pickup of critical components. “Every manufacturer we use is within 90 minutes of Woods Hole,” he pointed out. “I take the materials to them myself and also collect the finished product. One of our best investments is my steamship parking sticker in Woods Hole.”

Finally, there’s the Theme, otherwise referred to by Mr. Johnson as “my insidious key to success.” Keep it personal. Already an adroit person with a quick wit, he has learned that direct contact, whenever possible, is crucial to maintaining a successful business. “We provide a service,” he emphasized. “Our vendors should know who we are, and that we all work as a team.”

Some specifics: All calls to the Shop are answered in person or with a human message … there are no lengthy machine menus; Mr. Johnson routinely patrols Vineyard shorelines in his beach buggy, meeting fishermen, offering advice, replacing or giving away lures as he goes. All retailers are instructed to provide two free replacements to any customer expressing dissatisfaction with a Roberts lure. (No complaint has ever been reported.)

These principles have been fine-tuned for almost two decades, sometimes by trial and error. At one point, Mr. Johnson decided to outsource the Roberts Lures online store. It was a mistake. “Orders got messed up,” recalls Mr. Johnson. “There was no direct communication between us and the customer. We stopped it.” Broad marketing attempts were also scrapped; high cost, low return. Then there was the T-shirt idea. Another mistake.

“You need to know your product niche and stick to it. We are a company that manufactures specialized fishing lures for a certain type of fisherman. Don’t get distracted. So, another lesson is: Unnecessary Change = Red Ink!”

Growth and strong sales have led to a diversification of the Roberts Lures customer base. “We have built a worldwide clientele and product distribution. This means not only strong sales but also protection against unexpected regional business slumps. Plus, it keeps the copycats at bay. Through social media, our customers spread the word about cheap knockoffs.”

Diversification also means Mr. Johnson can devote more time to designing new lures, as he did with “the Whistler,” highlighted in the in 2013 profile. “It’s done very well,” he said. He is, after all, a scientist at heart.

As 2017 begins, the outlook for Roberts Lures is a bright one. To accentuate the point, Mr. Johnson showed us an order from the West African country of Mauritania that recently arrived. “We can add another country to the list,” he said. We asked what the chances were that this would lead to more sales in the area. “One hundred and ten percent,” Mr. Johnson answered.

As our conversation wound down, Mr. Johnson handed me a letter that included an attached photograph.”It’s from the south of France,” he said. “A man named Cyril Gressot sent it to me.”

In his letter, M. Gressot expresses his heartfelt gratitude to Mr. Johnson for providing the 2¼ -ounce chrome-plated Ranger lure that he used to land this record-breaking 71-pound leerfish near Marseille. “That photograph is an emotional one for me,” Mr. Johnson said. We could see why.