CLARE COUNTY (WJRT) -
(07/09/14) - It's the wood baseball bat of choice for hundreds of professional baseball players around the world.
"It's awesome. It started out as father and son thing, and it's just grown into a large company," said Derek Bonds, of Area 51 Bats
Area 51 bats came to life after Bonds and his dad grew tired of watching their travel team shatter bat after bat.
"We were driving home from one of the tournaments, and we were like, 'We could do this, we could make them better.' We started turning them. This was all wood science here. We had no idea what we were doing, but kids started liking our bats and they wouldn't break," Bonds said.
As for the alien inspired name and logo, "I think I was watching History Channel late at night and they had a special on Area 51, it was like UFO hunters or something like that, something fun," Bonds said.
That hobby began at home in the garage in 1999, before recently moving into a 4,000 square foot facility in Clare.
"Anywhere between 75-100 bats a day, that's cranking it out, annually about 10,000. Yeah, that's a lot of dust."
The Mt. Pleasant high school graduate took a grass roots approach to marketing his product. Bonds simply let his teammates see them in action while playing pro ball in Australia. Next thing he knew, guys were calling on his services from all over the globe.
"Australia, New Zealand, Germany, Switzerland, China, Korea, the Italian league is phenomenal, and the Mexican league, I supply a lot of the Mexican league," he said.
Bonds keeps in mind that he isn't selling to millionaires. Each bat costs Area 51 around $30 to make. They're priced between $65 to $95, much lower than the bigger name brands like Louisville and Marucci.
"They sell bats for $120, which, that's ridiculous, that's way too much money for an everyday ballplayer to go out, or for a mom to spend on her son. So you can get an equally comparable product, mine's better looking, for $40 cheaper," he said.
Those price points have helped Area 51 bounce back from some tough times. Bonds admits that at one point, he bit off more than he could chew and was forced to shut down production for a while, but since relaunching last year, business has been booming.
"This year, we should probably pull a quarter mill, which I think the last year we maybe hit 70. That's a huge growth rate for any small company. And like you said, it's all out of a small facility by one guy," he said.
Right now, Area 51 makes its bats out of wood from upstate New York and Pennsylvania , but that could change as the company continues in its plans to grow - an expansion that would bring as many as 50 jobs to Mid-Michigan.
"What I'm hoping to do is start sourcing these logs locally and actually start a wood processing facility somewhere in Mid-Michigan. It's the perfect gateway, obviously Clare is the gateway to the north, but to me it's the gateway to the maple trees," he said.
If Bonds has his way, someday Area 51 bats will find their way on to a Major League Baseball field, making his Made in Michigan dreams come true.