Arctco, Inc. History
Thief River Falls, Minnesota 56701
Telephone: (218) 681-8558
Fax: (218) 681-3162
Sales: $367.1 million (1995)
Stock Exchanges: NASDAQ
SICs: 3799 Transportation Equipment, Not Elsewhere Classified; 2339 Women's/Misses' Outerwear, Not Elsewhere Classified; 2329 Men's/Boys' Clothing, Not Elsewhere Classified
One of the pioneers in its industry, Arctco, Inc. designs, manufactures, and sells Arctic Cat snowmobiles, Tigershark personal watercraft, and Bearcat all-terrain vehicles, as well as related parts, accessories, and garments. Based in Thief River Falls, Minnesota, Arctco was formed in 1983 to continue the legacy of snowmobile manufacture established by Arctic Enterprises, Inc., which went bankrupt in 1981. By the mid-1990s, Arctco had firmly established itself as a leading producer of snowmobiles and personal watercraft, having successfully resurrected the reputation and business of the defunct Arctic Enterprises. In early 1996, Arctco entered the market for all-terrain vehicles, a new area of business for a company enjoying strong growth in its traditional markets.
When Edgar Hetteen saw his first snowmobile, his reaction was immediate, leaving no question about his feelings. "I wouldn't have anything to do with the thing at first," he later recalled, "I told my brother-in-law, David [Johnson], he had wasted our time and money building it and I wanted no more of it." For someone who would spend nearly every waking hour for the next ten years trying to arouse widespread enthusiasm in snowmobiles, Hetteen's words marked a decidedly chilly beginning to what would become a life-long love affair. Hetteen, who would go on to found the predecessor company to Arctco and, by doing so, position himself among the handful of pioneers in the U.S. snowmobile industry, was more concerned at the time about his farming equipment fabrication company than the curious sled that greeted him upon his arrival in Roseau, Minnesota. The year was 1955 and Hetteen had just returned from a sales trip, his latest effort at turning his company, Hetteen Hoist and Derrick, into a flourishing concern. It was proving to be a difficult task. Far removed from more populated, lucrative markets, Hetteen Hoist and Derrick was struggling in its eighth year of business, scoring only a modicum of success as a custom fabricator of specialized farm implements and tools. Hetteen's latest business trip had achieved lackluster results, and he was initially unimpressed with Johnson's snowmobile. Before long, however, one of the world's preeminent snowmobile manufacturers was established, spawning the creation of Arctic Cat snowmobiles and a new form of winter recreation for millions of people.
Johnson's initial design had been built at the request of a local resident, Pete Peterson, who asked the manufacturer to fabricate a "gas-powered sled." The proceeds from the sale of Peterson's snowmobile enabled Hetteen Hoist and Derrick to make payroll, tempering Hetteen's view considerably, and shortly thereafter another Roseau local placed an order for a gas-powered sled, as demand for the novel snow machines began to build. By the end of the winter of 1955-1956, Hetteen's company had constructed five snowmobiles; the following winter 75 machines were built, and during the winter of 1957-1958, more than 300 snowmobiles were produced by Hetteen and his workers. In the space of a few short years, the primary business of Hetteen's company had switched from fabricating farm equipment to building and testing machines designed for snow travel. Hetteen, by this point, was hooked.
For years, Hetteen had endeavored to sell the straw cutters, post setters, and other equipment his company made to markets outside Roseau, but had found little success. With snowmobiles, he sensed the opportunity to achieve the success that had eluded him with agricultural machinery. Early on he realized that in order to make his new product a success in distant markets it would have to be marketed as a recreational device, but during the late 1950s public interest in snowmobiles was essentially nonexistent, a hurdle Hetteen would overcome by launching an ambitious public relations campaign. In March 1960, Hetteen and three of his cohorts took their snowmobiles to Alaska and completed a 1,100-mile trek from Bethel to Fairbanks in 18 days, drawing the attention of newspaper reporters, magazine writers, and ham radio operators.
Hetteen returned to Roseau pleased by his success in piquing public interest in snowmobiles, but his arrival home did not meet with applause or congratulatory pats on the back. Hetteen Hoist and Derrick had since been renamed Polaris Industries, Inc. and capitalized by local investors, who were somewhat miffed that Hetteen had abandoned his duties at Polaris and gone to Alaska. As this dispute over the future course of the company was being played out, Hetteen was approached by a group of investors from Thief River Falls, Minnesota. Led by L. B. Hartz, a successful food broker and supermarket owner, the group offered to financially back Hetteen if he moved his company to Thief River Falls; Hetteen declined, and in May 1960, two months after completing his successful trek in Alaska, Hetteen sold his controlling interest in Polaris and returned to Alaska, where he hoped to start a new career as a bush pilot and frontiersman.
Hetteen's second visit to Alaska was not as successful as his first. After several months of working at isolated airstrips as a pilot and mechanic, Hetteen decided to accept Hartz's offer and renew his interest in designing, building, and testing snowmobiles. By the time Hetteen arrived in Thief River Falls at Christmas 1960, financial arrangements had already been made to provide him with a co-signed note for $10,000, which he used to rent an unused, 30-foot-by-70-foot grocery warehouse and to start his new business, Polar Manufacturing Company.
1962: Arctic Cat Is Born
Polar Manufacturing opened its doors on January 2, 1961 and initially manufactured electric steam cleaners and a device to kill insects called "Bug-O-Vac" in order to raise enough money to begin snowmobile production in earnest. The first snowmobile, the "New Polar 500," was completed by the end of the year and marketed as a utility model for use by forestry companies, power and light companies, telephone companies, and oil exploration companies. Although Hetteen had wanted to develop snowmobiles as a recreational product nearly from the outset of his involvement with the machines, he knew he needed to develop a need for snowmobiles before he could begin to develop a desire for them, but he would not have to wait long. In 1962, after its inaugural year of business, Polar Manufacturing was renamed Arctic Enterprises, Inc. and introduced the red-colored "Arctic Cat 100," the first front-engined sport sled in the United States, which Hetteen referred to as the "Tin Lizzie." Concurrent with the introduction of the Arctic Cat 100, a distribution network was established to carry the machine to distant markets, as Hetteen had always hoped. Although the New Polar 500 had been the first model produced, the Arctic Cat 100 represented the beginning of an era for both Arctic Enterprises and snowmobile enthusiasts across the country, ushering in a new winter sport and launching the Arctic Cat tradition.
Distributor relationships were forged throughout a wide territory ranging from New York to Idaho, as the fledgling company sought to secure a foothold in distant markets. There were 19 distributors signed up for the 1963-1964 winter season and 13 Arctic Cat models, up from the six offered the previous year. During the first half of the decade, the company's sales climbed encouragingly, propelled by the increasing number of models produced each year and supported by a steadily growing distribution network, but annual profits were not demonstrating the same vibrancy. This inability to post consistent profit growth--the company lost $20,000 in 1964 on $750,000 in sales--was part of the reason Hetteen decided to step down from his leadership position in 1965 and hand the reins of command to Lowell Swenson. Hetteen, literally, had spent nearly all his time for the previous decade trying to make a successful snowmobile manufacturing company, and now as his company was on the brink of success he decided that a new leader was required to push Arctic Enterprises over the edge. Hetteen receded from the bustling activity pervading Arctic Enterprises, but he did not disappear altogether. Years later, Hetteen would return, but during the interim, Arctic Enterprises would grow into the flourishing concern he had long sought.
When Swenson became president of Arctic Enterprises in 1966 he made one goal of the company's future clear: "We [will] concentrate on one machine," he vowed, "and make it a damn good one." True to his word, Swenson spearheaded the effort toward designing a snowmobile that would carry the company into the future, putting to an end the era of the red Arctic Cats after the 1965-1966 winter season to make room for the black-colored "Panther." Debuting in 1966, the Panther possessed technological breakthroughs that would carry the company into the 1970s and drive its sales and, most important, its profits upward for the remainder of the 1960s.
In 1968, Arctic Enterprises generated $7.5 million in sales, three times the amount collected the year before, and posted $379,000 in net income or eight times the figure recorded in 1967, ending the nagging worries about profitability. In 1969, annual sales continued their exponential march upward, reaching $21.7 million, while net income eclipsed the $1 million plateau, climbing to $1.2 million. Business was booming, with the company holding a firm grip on nearly 12 percent of the U.S. market for snowmobiles, a percentage that perhaps could have been higher, but the two shifts working the production lines at the Thief River Falls facilities were not enough to satisfy the mounting demand for Panther snowmobiles. As the company prepared for the 1970s, it exited the 1960s with a full head of steam and high expectations for future growth. Production facilities were greatly expanded in anticipation of rising demand and a line of snowmobile clothing was introduced to give the company a more diversified footing in the rapidly expanding snowmobile industry.
The 1970s began as expected, with the company's annual sales soaring 113 percent to reach $46.5 million, its market share rising to 13 percent, and its net income jumping to $2.9 million. Prosperous times gave Arctic Enterprises the ability to diversify further, providing the financial means to acquire boat manufacturer Silverline, Inc. of Moorhead, Minnesota, the company's first major cross-seasonal acquisition, and to introduce mini-bikes on the market, both of which became part of the company's operations in 1970. The following year, Arctic Enterprises moved farther afield, acquiring lawn and garden manufacturer General Leisure, then, in 1973, introduced a line of French-made bicycles, but by this point the luster gleaming from Arctic Enterprises' operations had dulled considerably. The years of robust growth were over as quickly as they started.
The line of bicycles proved to be unsuccessful and General Leisure proved to be a costly mistake, leading to its divestiture in 1973, but these ancillary businesses were the least of Arctic Enterprises' problems. The demand for snowmobiles tapered off during the early years of the 1970s, beginning their downward climb in 1971 and causing Arctic Enterprises' most disastrous year in 1974. If it was any consolation for the employees and management in Thief River Falls, who in the space of a few months had watched their prolific rise screech to a halt, Arctic Enterprises was not alone in its downward free fall. Across the country, snowmobile manufacturers were reeling from the debilitative affects of depressed demand, with many going out of business. In 1970, when the snowmobile industry was thriving, there were more than 100 brands of snowmobiles on the market; by 1976, when the worst of the harsh economic times were over, the number of brands on the market had plunged precipitously to a mere 13.
As debilitative as waning snowmobile demand had been to Arctic Enterprises' business, however, conditions in the industry after the shake-out was completed placed the Thief River Falls concern in what could be regarded as a stronger position. Much of the competition in the United States had been weeded out, and Arctic Enterprises continued to reign as the largest producer of snowmobiles in the country. Recovery was quick in the late 1970s, sufficient enough to enable the company to finance the acquisition of its second boat manufacturer in 1977, when Arctic Enterprises purchased the Lund Boat Company and gained control of its manufacturing facilities in Minnesota, Wisconsin, and in Manitoba, Canada. Sales by the end of the year flirted with $100 million, reaching $99 million, while the company's market share had been bolstered by the departure of many of its competitors, rising to a whopping 25 percent. The following year, in 1979, sales soared 61 percent to $175 million, by which point the number of snowmobile manufacturers in the country had been whittled down to six. Once again business was booming, and the company was exiting the 1970s much as it had ended the 1960s, with its business interests moving forward on all fronts.
1980s: Reincarnation of Arctic Cat
To the chagrin of the workers and management at Thief River Falls, history continued to repeat itself in the decade ahead, as the early 1980s paralleled the early 1970s and rampant growth quickly disappeared. This time, however, the effects were much more devastating. Sales in 1980 climbed to $185 million, despite a decline in snowmobile sales throughout the country, but by far the most telling and most depressing financial figure for the year was the company's profit total. Arctic Enterprises lost $11.5 million during the year, a staggering blow that was followed by another $10 million loss the following year. As production totals in 1981 fell to their lowest levels since 1969, the bankers who had granted the company loans over the years became disgruntled and alarmed. Worried that the company would not be able to make good on its financial promises, the bankers called for the payment of $48.5 million in loans on February 6, 1981. Eleven days later, Arctic Enterprises filed for protection under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Act. In a year that otherwise would have been celebrated as the company's 20th anniversary year, Arctic Enterprises was financially ruined.
The news could not have been worse, but even as steps were being taken to liquidate the snowmobile operations and the rest of the company was being sold piecemeal, there were some encouraging reports that at least seemed to underscore the strength of the Arctic Cat name in snowmobile circles across the country. Even though the company's production facilities had been shuttered, the demand for Arctic Enterprises' snowmobiles had increased. Remarkably, sales were up high enough for the company to capture 38 percent of the U.S. market one year after production had stopped, provided ample evidence that loyalty to and confidence in Arctic Enterprises' products remained high.
Dead but not forgotten, Arctic Enterprises was etched in the memories of its loyal customers, some of whom vowed never to ride a snowmobile again. The memory of the company was also etched in the hearts of its former employees, the pangs of which led a small group of former managers to attend the auction of Arctic Enterprises' various properties. Included in this group was Edgar Hetteen, who returned to witness the dismemberment of the company he had left nearly 20 years earlier; by the end of the day the group had acquired enough of Arctic Enterprises' properties to establish a new snowmobile manufacturing company, which was incorporated as Arctco, Inc. in 1983. As company advertisements would soon announce, the Cat was back, and for the legions of faithful customers the return of the popular Arctic Cat snowmobiles was welcome news.
After acquiring the production rights and the exclusive use of the Arctic Cat brand name, Arctco made preparations to get its product to market, beginning production of its snowmobiles in August 1983. The less than 3,000 snowmobiles made for the 1984 model year sold out quickly, enabling the company to generate $7.3 million in sales and post $600,000 in profit. All of Arctic Cat's trademarks, equipment, and manufacturing properties were subsequently acquired in 1986 and 1987, restoring much of the luster formerly radiated by Arctic Enterprises. Sales and profits rose energetically throughout the remainder of the decade, reaching an encouraging $138.8 million and $12.5 million, respectively, by the end of 1990, the year Arctco became a publicly-traded company.
During the first half of the 1990s, Arctco continued to enjoy impressive success, making its entry into the personal watercraft market and recording 21.5 percent annual growth in sales and 21.7 percent annual growth in net income. By 1994, when the company generated $268.1 million in sales, Arctco had surpassed the revenue volume recorded by Arctic Enterprises before its death knell had reverberated throughout Thief River Falls in 1981. As the company planned for the late 1990s and the new century ahead prospects for future growth were encouraging, bolstering confidence that the coming years would bring continued success to the thriving company. During the mid-1990s the North American snowmobile industry was expanding at a 20 percent annual clip, while the market for personal watercraft, the company's other primary business area, was recording annual gains in excess of 30 percent. Further opportunities for financial growth were opened to the company when it made its first foray into the market for all-terrain vehicles, a $1.2 billion industry during the mid-1990s that was recording nearly 20 percent annual growth. In January 1996, Arctco's first four-wheel-drive recreational and utility vehicle, the Bearcat 454, rolled off the company's production line, giving the company a diversified, cross-seasonal product line to drive its growth in the years ahead.
Principal Subsidiaries: Arctco FSC, Inc. (U.S. Virgin Islands).
- "Arctco, Inc. Announces Plans for New Service Parts Distribution Center," PR Newswire, May 7, 1996, p. 5.
- Autry, Ret, "Arctco," Fortune, November 19, 1990, p. 174.
- Davis, Ricardo A., "Minnesota's Arctco Leaps into All-Terrain Vehicle Market," Knight-Ridder/Tribune Business News, April 9, 1996, p. 40.
- "New Powder or Ice Ahead," Business Week, February 17, 1992, p. 123.
- Ramstad, C. J., Legend: Arctic Cat's First Quarter Century, Deephaven, Minn.: PPM Books, 1987, 189 p.
Source: International Directory of Company Histories, Vol. 16. St. James Press, 1997.