Three Effingham County men have secured a $150,000 loan and $2 million in insurance as they try to turn a good idea — a hunter’s tree stand that circles a tree — into a successful business.
Minis Hillis came up with the idea for the stand that allows hunters to watch for prey from every direction and enlisted the help of his neighbor and avid hunter Dennis Kessler and a second friend, Kevin Diaz.
The three men set up a limited liability company — 360 Treestands — and went after a patent.
Hillis got a structural engineer to help him build a cardboard mockup of the tree stand, which is shaped like an octagon. Mike Moulton, an engineer in the aerospace industry, fine-tuned the design and built the prototype.
It took two years to perfect the design so it’s easy to transport and install and can safely hold up to four people and 1,000 pounds of weight. It weighs 220 pounds and comes on wheels so one person can pull it into the woods. Two people can install it in about 20 minutes — 10 minutes if they’re used to doing it.
The tree stands start at $1,000. Add useful accessories, and the cost can quickly add up to $1,700.
Chad Scott, who installed a 360-degree tree stand on his property in Bulloch County, said it’s a bargain when safety is considered.
He said some hunters will spend $60,000 on a pickup but will buy a $100 tree stand that could kill them.
The 360-degree tree stands are being marketed to private landowners with big tracts of land as well as people who operate hunting clubs and won’t be deterred by the cost.
“It’s the last tree stand you’ll ever buy,” Hillis said. He estimates the tree stands will last 10 to 15 years before they might need a new layer of powder coat.
When people see the tree stand at hunting shows, he said, the reaction often is “awesome” or "wow.”
Dr. David Palmer, an orthopedic surgeon, recently had one of the stands installed on 500 acres he owns in the Hiltonia area of Screven County.
“It’s a very safe deer stand and is very well constructed and has the advantage of hunting with more than one person,” he said.
Marketing is the new company’s next big hurdle, said business consultant Becky Brownlee of the University of Georgia Small Business Development Center at Georgia Southern University.
Brownlee said the trio had already done a lot of things right when she began helping them about a year ago. Perseverance, she said, may be their strongest asset.
"Part of the problem with small business owners is they have a great idea and jump in head first,” she said. “I know for a fact there were times they wanted to throw in the towel."
John Louck, executive director of the Treestand Manufacturer’s Association, said he doesn’t think the men have to worry about competition because the process is so difficult that no one else would want to do it.
Louck, who has been in the industry for 27 years, said the 360-degree tree stand is a great idea.
He said it’s a hybrid between a tree stand and a shooting house and has big potential.
Hillis, Kessler and Diaz have kept their day jobs as they get the new business off the ground. Hillis works for the motor carrier division of the State Patrol. Kessler works in the aerospace industry in Savannah, and Diaz is a field agent for U.S. Customs.
At first, they thought they would make the tree stands themselves. But the Effingham County Industrial Development Authority’s Erin Rahn Phillips introduced them to Keith Lancaster, a metal fabricator in Guyton who builds the stands in his shop there.
The three men, two of whom are military veterans, decided early on they wanted the tree stands to be made in the United States, with American steel, even if it costs them some profit.
Securing a manufacturer, bank loan and insurance has been difficult — and costly.
Hillis said they have to sell three stands a month just to pay for the insurance and service the bank loan.
Eventually, they would like to sell stands to big outlets, and Hillis said a buyer for outdoor retailer Cabela’s loves the product.
The men said they hope Cabela’s will sell the tree stands in its catalog and online to gauge the is a market. Once they figured out where people want the product, those stores would be stocked with 50 tree stands each.
That would require $10 million of insurance, which Hillis said would cost $75,000 a year.
Even though they haven't done much marketing, they've already sold about 30 of the tree stands and have exchanged them for advertising on TV hunting shows around the country.
Next up on the marketing side: Country music artist Riggin Reins is shooting a music video that will have a 360-degree tree stand in it. Some of the people in the video will be wearing 360 Treestand caps and shirts.
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