Shot Darts are a Kiwi manufacturer with more than fifty years exporting experience embedded in four generations of leadership under the McCormick family. Specialising in high-quality and precise dart-throwing products, Shot Darts skillfully manufactures darts suited for all skill-levels, techniques, and playstyles. In fact, the company’s unwavering commitment to providing the highest quality dart-related products has earned the business international success in the sports industry. Today, Shot Darts export primarily into the United States, United Kingdom, and throughout Europe, with Australia and New Zealand remaining healthy domestic markets. However, the business’s rise in the industry has been anything but linear. Fifty years is a long time for a business to operate amidst unpredictable and radical changes to international markets and consumer preferences. So, how is it that Shot Darts emerged as dart industry leaders in both manufacturing and exporting?
As part of ExportNZ’s 50th Anniversary, Shot Darts CEO Peter McCormick joined us at ExportNZ to discuss the entrepreneurial history and expansive future of Shot Darts in their industry. We also discuss the challenging events that defined Shot Darts and consider what helped them secure a successful market niche. Read how Shot Darts design their dart products based on the socio-economic factors of their consumers in each market.
We’d like to congratulate Shot Darts for their recent finalist nomination for the Excellence in Storytelling Award at the New Zealand International Business Awards. After hearing their captivating story, we can understand why!
The First Decades Under John McCormick – Shot Darts’ Exporter Story:
Founded as Puma Darts in 1970 by John McCormick (Peter’s father), the business humbly began with a dartboard making machine and a passion for dart-throwing. During this period, organised worker strikes at New Zealand’s ports prevented sports equipment from being imported along with various international goods. Amid the crisis, John and his father saw an opportunity to manufacture locally made dartboards for overseas brands as the only way these companies could sell products in New Zealand. Soon enough, Puma Darts were manufacturing brass darts and bristle dartboards in-house and with quality that would challenge global dart-making companies.
As early as 1972, Puma Darts began exporting dart equipment to Australia, with John flying directly to market and attend sports conventions. As John’s wife Pat recalls, “I don’t think John had any plan. He was out there, he was vivacious, and just went with it. And he had me behind him.” Peter explains that risk-taking was how it worked back then, it was about hustling and taking big risks when you couldn’t research a market like you can now. Trade shows were a big indication of interest and contributed to Puma Darts’ success in their early years. Distribution then began in Europe and the US from relationships John built with distributors after attending an ISPO trade show. Many of these distributors would remain loyal customers that Puma Darts would grow together with. Puma Darts would then spend the next decades producing darts 24/7 to account for their growing international popularity under brands such as Budweiser, Millers, and Playboy. Throughout this time, Peter fondly remembers growing up as the ‘factory lackey,’ helping John clean the factory and pack the darts for shipping. Family would remain a foundation of Puma Darts.
The year 1992 saw Puma Darts launch the world’s first bladed dartboard. John had been toying with the idea of producing a dartboard that solved the problem of “bounce outs” – when the dart hit the wires on conventional boards. He experimented with triangular wire divisions but had not found the perfect answer until local inventor Dudley Coppard visited the factory with a design of interlocking thin steel bands embedded in the dartboard bristles. Puma’s engineers went to work replacing traditional wire spiders with the new “knife wire” technology. The result of this was The Bandit, which remains a firm fixture in games rooms and tournament venues worldwide.
By 1996, Peter had returned to Puma Darts as the Operations Manager after living in London with his wife Bev. Peter’s return advanced the modernisation of the business at a time when the US was beginning to experience a soft-tip dart revolution in the late 90s. Peter remembers working until midnight every night to keep up with the growing demand while also touring to overseas distributors and trade shows with John. In Peter’s words, “We made millions of darts. At the time we were New Zealand’s biggest user of brass.”
Half a Century in the Making – Shot Darts as We Know it Today:
With John’s passing in 2003, Peter stepped up to the oche as the CEO of Puma Darts along with his sister Julie Carlson who became Director to support the export business.
Under Peter’s leadership, Puma Darts was rebranded as Shot Darts in 2009 with the strategic aim of constructing a recognizable, customer-led, brand instead of producing for other brands. This was also in response to the introduction of Chinese manufacturers flooding the custom dart branding market with large-scale and low-cost production. Considering these market changes, and to successfully build the Shot Darts brand, Peter made two major strategic decisions.
Firstly, Puma Darts had traditionally exported to as many international markets as possible to maximise sales growth and market outreach. Under Shot Darts, Peter chose to abandon this decentralised approach and instead pushed into Europe and the US where they held expert knowledge of their customers playstyles and suited grips.
With this insight, Peter made his second strategic decision to focus on quality rather than volume in order to produce superior and innovatively designed darts that are customer centric. For example, Peter explains that blue collar workers will have thick skin on their fingers, so Shot Darts needs to produce a dart with plenty of grip for them to shoot effectively. In contrast, office-based workers may have soft skin on their fingers and may need a dart with less grip and rounded edges. This attention to customer detail led to the adoption of Shot Darts’ unique and marketable selling point – “The New Zealand Way.” The New Zealand Way emphasises the importance of integrity, craftsmanship, and personal flair in each product as characteristics that reflect Kiwi culture. By talking to customers, sending them prototypes for feedback, and maintaining these values, Shot Darts have created purpose-made products that sell prolifically because their customer demographics love using them.
Peter says, “As Shot evolves, we get closer to what players want. They’re the people who challenge us to get better. We need that feedback to go to the next level. It’s never just been a business, but an obsession for finding out what our players (at every level) need, and how we can make the game incredible for them. As long as we focus on that, the rest will sort itself out.”
Today, Shot Darts has over 600 different dart models with two to three releases of 20-30 different dart ranges a year for customers to use. Their CNC workshop supports multiple dart types and manufactures six dart units at a time to ensure quality is maintained throughout production. In sales terms, Shot Darts typically sends out five international shipments a day with 90 percent of their business coming from the international market, particularly the US.
A Resurgence in Dart-Throwing – COVID-19’s Impact on Shot Darts:
Like for many New Zealand exporters, COVID-19 represented the largest and longest economic shock Shot Darts have experienced with the least predictable outcomes. With people across the globe moving into enforced lockdowns, home-based sports like dart-throwing made a massive comeback across multiple demographics. For dart players, being unable to go to local pubs to compete and socialize led to many bringing the game into their homes. Despite COVID-19 lockdowns ceasing across the world by the end of the pandemic, dart-throwing as a sport has maintained many of these new players and continues growing as a more social and local sport.
As a result of this growth in the sport, Shot Darts’ sales have doubled in the last 2-3 years. Peter explains that meeting this demand was particularly challenging in New Zealand where multiple lockdowns and COVID-19 rules significantly constrained their daily operations and outputs. However, working in COVID shift teams and establishing bubbles around the factory to limit interaction allowed Shot Darts to continue operating, albeit at a reduced level. In this way, Shot Darts were able to meet Government needs by protecting the welfare of their workers while meeting business needs.
The Future of Shot Darts:
During our interview, we asked Peter what the future looked like for Shot Darts over the next decade. Peter explains that “The US, European, and UK markets are still huge opportunities for growth with a lot of untapped potential. There are new hidden gem opportunities showing up all the time from client to client, and what makes exporting fun is the challenge of getting those opportunities across the line. I expect that growing our connections with distributors and taking advantage of the growing popularity of dart-throwing will provide plenty of opportunities for Shot Darts’ growth.”
When asked what makes Peter nervous about exporting these days, he says “There are a lot of challenges out there currently in the market, but also massive opportunities. Economies in Europe are still booming for darts and recreational activities post-COVID. However, finding qualified people to run machinery and sell our products is a limiting factor that makes me nervous. We know this is occurring globally with skill shortages so the difficulty is finding how we can leverage our business’s position to attract the right people.”
Final thoughts from Peter:
With Peter’s vast experience spanning over three decades in export and manufacturing industries, we here at ExportNZ thought it imperative to ask him to share some words of wisdom for current and future exporters. Below are some excellent excerpts from our interview that we found insightful and valuable.
What’s the biggest difference between selling in New Zealand and overseas?
“There’s always been an inherent challenge understanding each target markets needs and tailoring the business to adapt to each in a responsive but sustainable way. In these situations, you can deal with this in a very genuine Kiwi way. Approach prospective customers with a welcoming attitude, a big smile on your face, and a willingness to go talk with them person-to-person and get to know their company and market needs better. Sometimes you just need to work without technology, and the rest will follow.”
What’s the number one thing SME’s need to know about exporting and trade?
“Exporting is undoubtedly a challenge, but it’s immensely rewarding. No matter what, don’t forget who you are and where you come from. Bring that New Zealand passion and identity and get there and hustle. Kiwis often don’t understand just how big and potentially lucrative overseas markets are. However, don’t target the whole market all at once. Target states and/or regions as bite-sized pieces that will eventually culminate in a larger cohesive market strategy. There’s a massive opportunity for Kiwi business success.”
What’s one characteristic every exporter should possess?
“Persistence. I personally visited the CEO of a massive distributor in the US for twice a year over seven years before he ever made an order. Eventually, I managed to convince him to take a chance with Shot Darts’ product. Now, we run their whole dart distribution channels and are a massive account for his business. This would never have been possible if I didn’t build friendly and trustworthy relations through my persistence.”
What’s your approach to leadership? Can you share any tips for leaders in the industry and people coming through?
“In my working history, I’ve been through the old-style of leadership across multiple firms. I choose to embrace an open-door policy to encourage communication and ensure our staff are looked after to do their work. From a personal and professional standpoint, I am focused constantly on the wellbeing of employees and customers. I’m a firm believer that empowering employees with opportunities to grow and take ownership of their role is central to ensuring the business runs smoothly. Shot Darts is all about the people.”
Finally, we asked what mantra Peter would like future generations of Kiwi exporters to remember. In his words, “Get out there, do it, and enjoy what you do! There’s massive opportunity and don’t forget to have fun doing it.”
Special acknowledgement: James O’Riley (a bright young 2nd year Otago University student studying Management, History, Politics) interviewed exporters over the last few months. James has written some excellent pieces for us. This is the first in a series celebrating 50 years of ExportNZ.