Riding Waves of Success
Bart’s Water Sports Celebrates Nearly 50 Years in Kosciusko
Not unlike many successful, long-running businesses, Bart’s Water Sports began when its founder recognized an opportunity to fill a unique niche, locally and regionally.
In 1972 Bart Culver, a lifelong water sports fan, Indiana University grad and member of the North Webster Ski Bees ski club, began a small retail shop that would eventually grow into a far-reaching mail-order and online water sports equipment and apparel business.
“Bart grew up around the lakes and was active in all the water sports – if he wasn’t working he was around water,” says Bart’s Manager Mike Wilson.
Culver studied biology and education at Indiana University, and after an unsatisfying stint as a student teacher, he decided to pursue a career path quite different from teaching.
“He started selling water skiing equipment to people as a very small business for people who were having trouble finding such equipment elsewhere,” Wilson says. “When he went to different ski club competitions he would run into people who would tell him they couldn’t find certain things. He had the idea of being the one who could provide it for all these people he would talk to.”
Bart’s Water Sports began solely as a retail business, but it didn’t take Culver long to realize he could establish a much wider customer base through adding a mail-order component to his business concept.
“A lot of the people at the different competitions he’d go to, who needed products, were from Ohio or Michigan, and (Culver) started a mailing list and put out some black-and-white flyers early on,” says Wilson, a former schoolteacher who started working at Bart’s during summers from the late 1970s until 1988 when he joined the company on a full-time basis.
In 1975, the small Bart’s staff published its first water sports product catalog and began filling orders for customers locally, regionally and even on a national scale.
Bart’s has been headquartered at three different locations in North Webster since its inception, and Culver began the business by converting a small house into a retail shop and showroom. Since 1995, the company has been located on East 800 North, and the staff currently welcomes customers for tours of its warehouse facility.
If it’s related to water sports, you can probably find it at Bart’s. The company stocks surf boards, skis, kayaks, snorkel gear, towable tubes, boat accessories, life jackets and more – as well as a wide range of men’s, women’s and kids’ apparel.
“We don’t sell boats and never have, and we don’t sell PWC’s (personal watercraft) or anything like that,” Wilson says. “Other than that, anything you need to participate in water sports, we’ll probably have it. Anything you can do behind or around your boat for fun or relaxation – we try to offer those kinds of products.”
Wilson says the staff consists of seven full-time employees, and company leaders typically bring on between 12 and 22 seasonal staffers.
“Our seasonal help fits into three categories,” Wilson says. “There’s our retail showroom, which is busy in the summer, and warehouse work. There’s also customer service, which years ago was just answering the telephone, but now that most orders are online it’s a matter of answering emails and live chatting.”
Wilson says the Bart’s staff works constantly to process orders from all over the U.S. and the world.
“We don’t do as many big international orders as we used to because our manufacturers and vendors have better coverage around the world than they used to,” Wilson says. “More companies have distributors in different companies, with the way the world has gone as far as online business.”
Bart’s inventory has evolved through the years to account for trends in water sports, and the advent of new water activities.
“When we first started, if people did something behind the boat it was water skiing,” he says. “Through the years wakeboarding has become popular, and tubing has changed a lot with different shapes and sizes. Tubing is easy for people to learn and do now. More recently wakesurfing has also gotten popular. So we’ve gotten more and more categories of products to sell.”
Despite its growth and increased market reach through the decades, Wilson says Bart’s remains as focused on customer service as when Culver and his small staff were operating out of a converted house in the ‘70s.
“We’re really still a small company,” he says. “We try to evolve and try to keep up and watch the competition. There are a lot of big online businesses that we have to keep our eye on, and our philosophy is that competition makes you stronger and better because you have no choice but to compete. We embrace that and have tried to get better wherever we could.”
Wilson adds that the Bart’s staff regularly looks for ways to give back to the North Webster community, through outlets like volunteer opportunities and local food pantry donations.
“North Webster is a town of about 1,000 people, so it’s not like we have a huge labor pool to pull from,” says Wilson, who grew up in Central Indiana and attended Manchester University before eventually moving to North Webster in the late 1980s when he joined Bart’s as a full-time employee. “This past spring, we hired a college grad who had worked here in the summer, but other than that our newest employee has been here 20 years. So we haven’t had much turnover through the years. We joke that because everybody’s got so much experience and things run so efficiently, the place can kind of run itself.”
Bart’s Water Sports headquarters is located at 7581 East 800 North in North Webster. For more information, call 574-834-7666 and visit bartswatersports.com to sign up for an email list and for product info, a frequently-asked-questions page and more.