Fashion fish

Hortonville-based Fishouflage makes a splash in the outdoor market

Posted on Mar 1, 2017 :: Small Business Spotlight
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Posted by , Insight on Business Staff Writer

Paul Bernegger grew up learning a product was all about the brand.

He had a strong influence, after all. His grandfather, Fritz, founded the New London-based Hillshire Farms, and Paul worked there for years as a part of company’s executive team.

He also grew up with a strong connection to the outdoors, enjoying both fishing along the Wolf River and hunting.

So when Bernegger was looking for a new venture, the combination of brand importance and a love of the outdoors naturally led to a discussion about camouflage.

But there was a problem.

“The hunting industry was so saturated with different patterns and companies and knockoffs — everybody was trying to develop a better mousetrap,” Bernegger says.

He soon discovered there really wasn’t anything in the fishing industry that connected anglers the way that camouflage connected hunters, he says.

“The hour that I came up with Fishouflage, I probably bought 40 dot-coms — fishouflage.com, bassouflage.com, basscamo.com. That was the start of it right there,” Bernegger says. “It was cool enough to us that we needed to run with this.”

Fishouflage was born, led by Paul and his father, Gary. Since 2009, the company has found its niche in a specialized market, selling “casual camo” apparel directly to fishing enthusiasts and licensing its patterns on other products.

The company’s 2016 revenues approached the $1 million mark, and it’s seen an average 20 percent growth rate during the last three years, says Mark Kaiser, executive vice president, who joined the company from the hunting apparel industry.

But perhaps the best part is that fishing enthusiasts now have their own kind of camo, made just for them. Not that it will hide them from the fish, of course.

“It’s all about fashion,” Kaiser says. “It’s all about giving something to the fishermen. Camouflage is the color of the outdoorsman.”

It’s also about quality, and the apparel is designed with fit in mind, allowing anglers the range of movement they need. Fishouflage items are particularly popular throughout Texas and the Carolinas, the Midwest into the Northeast and throughout Canada.

Fishouflage targeted the Canadian market first, both because of the popularity of fishing and because it gave the company “a more controlled environment where they’re buying thousands of units and not millions of units, and we could test the processes,” Kaiser says.

Fishouflage products are sold at Tractor Supply Co. stores throughout Canada, the nine Cabela’s Canada stores, and at most lodge and resort souvenir shops.

“I guess I’m a believer in ‘test, verify, implement,’” Kaiser says. “We decided to use this Canadian market, and it’s been very successful.”

The company has about 100 apparel and gift products featuring eight patterns with new ones on the way, including walleye and bass.

“The whole idea of having all these different species is really what makes Fishouflage so exciting for the fishing community,” Kaiser says. “I’ve always correlated it to having a football t-shirt or having a Green Bay Packers T-shirt.”

Fishouflage also is continuing to expand its licensing. Fishouflage patterns have appeared on items such as tackle bags, mailboxes, bowling balls (which are made with hydrographics) and even crematory urns. Fishouflage also licenses its pattern to Beaver Dam tip-ups, which were ready for a new look.

“We ended up discontinuing our other camo patterns — this is the only camo pattern we have for the season going on right now,” says Matt Bichanich, vice president of sales for Hard and Soft Fishing, the parent company of Beaver Dam.

The Fishouflage pattern has been popular, comprising about 10 percent of Beaver Dam tip-up sales, Bichanich says.

One challenge for Fishouflage, though, has been in getting the sophisticated patterns to print or display uniformly across many types of products, Kaiser says.

“With fish, there’s so much color — all the underwater plants, there’s much color, and if you can’t achieve that detail, they don’t look right,” he says.

Fishouflage works with a contractor to produce the final, intricate patterns through hundreds of hours of development. It takes a minimum of 24 months to bring a new pattern to consumers.

Fishouflage plans to continue expanding the apparel brand and at the same time growing the licensing side, Bernegger says.

“There’s going to be an enormous opportunity, especially with the new patterns — just the upgrade and the visual quality of the new patterns that we’re launching now in 2017,” he says. “The next gen is going to be very helpful in licensing.”

Fishouflage does make one saltwater fish pattern — redfish — popular along southern coastal markets.

Soon, the company will add a Green Bay partner to help tap into the corporate wear market and offer truck and boat graphics and window tints.

The company also is entering the European market with a carp pattern. Mirror carp, which don’t generate much excitement in the United States, are popular among riverbank fishermen in Europe.

“We’re getting calls from countries I need to look up on Google,” Kaiser says. “They’re asking for patterns in Australia where we don’t even have a pattern for any of their fish. It’s because it goes beyond that. It’s just fun.”