NetBait: A conversation with Justin Sward
February 14, 2015
The genesis of NetBait stretches back into the mid-1970s. Its conception was graced with an air of frugality when Braxton McNaughton of Greenville, Alabama, thought that paying five cents for a plastic worm was too extravagant. So, he commenced making them in his family's kitchen. Ultimately, McNaughton's initial and thrifty investment of $20 gradually, prudently, and steadfastly created the much heralded Paca Craw in 2004, which to this day is NetBait's signature bait.
From the mid-1970s through the mid-1990s, McNaughton's original task of making one worm at a time in his family's kitchen for his own use developed into a thriving business called Mac's Baits, which manufactured soft-plastic baits for big-name companies. Then in 1998, Braxton McNaughton's son, Kent, created NetBait. The philosophy that motivated this new business revolved around the McNaughton's idea that black bass anglers deserved better baits than they were getting in the 1990s. Thus, by employing Braxton McNaughton's vast experiences and knowledge that he had acquired from manufacturing untold numbers of soft-plastic baits for other companies, they set out to create some state-of-the-art and high-quality baits for black bass anglers to wield, such as the Paca Craw and Paca Chunk.
In sum, the McNaughtons had two businesses: Mac's Baits, which focused on research and development and production, and NetBait, which focused on marketing and distribution of the baits.
On Jan. 1, 2014, Justin Sward of Birmingham, Alabama, purchased NetBait from Kent McNaughton. And during the afternoon of Jan. 7, Sward and I chatted on the telephone as he was driving to the Big Rock Sports East Dealer Show in Raleigh, North Carolina, which is a gigantic trade show, where hundreds of tackle manufacturers show their wares to thousands of retailers. The focus of our conversation was on Sward's first year as proprietor of NetBait. We also talked how and why he did it, as well as his experiences in the business and angling worlds.
Here is a condensed and edited version of our Jan. 7 conversation and subsequent conversations and e-mails:
Q. How old are you?
A. I am 34 years old.
Q. Where did you grow up?
A. I grew up in Vancleave, Mississippi, which is in south Mississippi.
Q. Did you go to college?
A. Yes, I was graduated with a Bachelors in Accountancy from the College of Business at Mississippi State University in 2003.
Q. What did you do after you graduated?
A. I worked as an accountant for Wolfe, McDuff & Oppie CPAs in Pascagoula, Mississippi, for five years. Then, when my wife, Brooke, was offered a job in Birmingham, Alabama, with the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs' MyHeatheVet program, we moved to Birmingham, which is where we live now. I worked for Source Pro, Inc. of Brandon, Mississippi, which is an OEM Manufacturer for sporting goods, from 2010 until I acquired NetBait.
Q. What motivated you to purchase NetBait?
A. When I worked for Source Pro, I crossed paths with the McNaughtons a number of times at their plant and office in Greenville, and I was enchanted by the atmosphere that surrounded and permeated this family business. It exhibited many of the classic features of the storied mom-and-pop businesses that have slowly gone by the wayside or have been consumed by the mad dog of modernity that permeates much of the corporate world. And when in 2013, I learned that Kent McNaughton was looking to sell NetBait, I began thinking about acquiring it and how to finance this endeavor. Throughout 2013, I met with Kent McNaughton numerous times, and some of those meetings ranged in length from two to five hours. As we talked, I tried to show him that I possessed the proper disposition, character, and wherewithal to keep this charming small business afloat and even help it grow. In due course, I was able to buy it.
Q. What has happened with Mac's Baits and Braxton McNaughton?
A. Mac's Baits is still a separate entity, and it manufactures all of our baits. Braxton McNaughton is the proprietor of that business. He helps to shape our ideas on what can be done in the molding and manufacturing process and how to set up the molds so that we get the most out of them. This allows us not to have much of a shipping backlog. In fact, we pride ourselves on our quick response to orders. We ship most orders the same week we receive them. Having 100 percent of our products manufactured in the United States provides us with the peace of mind in knowing we can quickly respond to our customers' requests.
Q. What do you do as the proprietor of NetBait?
A. Like most business owners, I currently have many of responsibilities that encompass many hours of the day and night. I am fortunate, however, that much of the work gets done on the manufacturing side, which is the function of Mac's Baits. NetBait is really just the brand, and I work on marketing and distributing the baits within this brand. Throughout 2014, I worked on creating a catalog and brochure, as well as producing a new and improved website. These projects took significantly longer than I expected. There were scores of days when I worked 16 hours or a tad more. I hope all of this hard work will start to payoff in 2015, and the work load will level off some. Nevertheless, I have a lot of things I want to get done, and the list keeps growing.
Q. Do you commute from Birmingham to Greenville daily?
A. No, I have a camper set up adjacent to the shop that I live in while I am here. All I use it for is a few hours of sleep each night and a shower. On a normal week, I get to the shop early on Monday mornings and try to get back to Birmingham to see my two-year-old daughter before she goes to bed on Thursday night. That is a normal week. Lately, there haven't been many normal weeks. I have only been at home one night in the last two weeks. I am a very lucky man to have such a beautiful, hardworking wife who works for the VA 40 hours a week and is an amazing mother to our daughter, as well as puts up with me and my work schedule.
Q. During the first year of your proprietorship, have you changed the marketing perspectives of NetBait?
A. We created a printed catalog, which we got in our hands on Jan. 2, and I will hand them out to all of the retailers that stop by our booth at the Big Rock Sports East Dealer Show in Raleigh, North Carolina, on Jan. 9, 10, and 11, as well as at other shows through 2015. And every year, we will create a new catalog.
I also worked with a marketing group in Birmingham called Reflex Blu Media to create a website. I also manage our Facebook page, but I rely on Reflex Blu Media for assembling content and ads for me.
For years, NetBait manufactured the bestselling jig trailer in the world. But 98 percent of the anglers who used our jig trailers did not know about our other baits. What anglers knew about us was accomplished by word of mouth, which is a great marketing tool, but in this case it was focused on only the Paca Craws and Paca Chunks. During Kent McNaughton's tenure at NetBait, he was unable to devote 100 percent of his time to the company, because he also worked full-time as an assistant principal at a local elementary school.
So, throughout 2014, I spent a lot of time trying to develop new ways to spread the word about all of the topnotch baits that we have for black bass anglers. We are making the transition from a wonderful mom-and-pop-style business to a small business model that is embellished with some of the 21st century's marketing accoutrements. Thus, as this second decade of the 21st century gradually unfolds, we hope we will be able to show every black bass angler in the United States and Canada the many assets of all the baits in our repertoire. What's more, we hope to create other baits that will rival the effectiveness and popularity of the Paca Craw and Paca Chunk.
Q. Did you fish a lot when you were growing up in Vancleave, Mississippi?
A. Yes, I did. I had an uncle, Alan Sward, who really made a point to take me fishing. He is the one that really got my addiction started. In fact, he started me in tournament fishing.
Q. How often did you fish before you became overwhelmed with your work at NetBait?
A. A lot more than now, that's for sure. I used to fish at least two tournaments a month.
Q. How would you access your talents as an angler?
A. Well, that's hard to do. I am not much of a self-promoter. Tournament fishing is a very humbling sport, but I have been fortunate enough to win a few tournaments. During the past few years, I have been fishing some FLW events as a co-angler, and I have done fairly well at it, making it to the Forest Wood Cup in 2011 and 2014, as well as being qualified for the 2015 event. Since 2005, I have fished 51 FLW tournaments, and I have placed in the top-10 22 times, and I won four FLW Bass Fishing League events, including the 2014 BFL All-American and one FLW EverStart tourney. I do think that the combination of my angling and business experiences will help us to grow the NetBait brand going forward.