DECATUR, Ala. — The building is nondescript, with a lone oak struggling against the asphalt of the parking lot. The area is nondescript. Similar buildings exist nearby. They would be called wallflowers at the sock hop, or homely. Nothing fancy or spectacular. Less than 10 blocks away is the original part of this town, founded in 1810, and the Old State Bank shot up in the Civil War. Bullets still are in the walls.
This is what John Woller Sr. and his sons, John Jr. and Ron, want. Nothing fancy. Nothing that would require a lot of money or upkeep. Just walls, doors that lock, some office and storage-work space, and a functioning bathroom. Of course, a coffee pot, too.
“Excuse the mess,” John Jr. says, pointing to a couple of unmatched chairs in an empty room. A bucket on the floor is for the drips from a leaky roof. At the time of my visit, the Wollers hadn’t worried so much about the roof as they had getting Viking Solutions on terra firma with all four tires digging in to move the company forward.
If this sounds like a start-up you’d be accurate in that assumption. This visit was in late 2014 when the Wollers were driving the Viking Solutions bus onto the outdoors industry freeway. But they are not strangers to that race. For more than 30 years, after Big John Woller started Summit Stands in his home garage, they navigated the waters with that company. Summit became an industry leader for hunting stands. Then they sold Summit to a conglomerate and worked for it for several years before business decisions were made and they departed.
In a way they were back at square one, although this time with the benefit of years of experience and a real working space instead of their home garage.
The Early Days
Big John worked as a mechanical engineer for Intergraph in Huntsville, Ala., when he founded Summit Specialties in his garage in the 1980s. He and his sons were hunters, and he wanted a climbing tree stand that was safer than what was available at the time. He had founded Summit before leaving Intergraph, giving him “something to come home to, so to speak.”
They got some of the stands of the ‘80s to try. They made their own. They created others, mostly John Sr.’s ideas, and his sons served as test pilots in the back yard.
“Remember the fiberglass stand?” he says, grinning broadly and describing a stand made of hand-laid fiberglass and fiberglass tubing. “That one was like a fishing rod, a little spongy.”
“We climbed trees in stands that we probably shouldn’t have been in,” John Jr. said, shaking his head. “Some worked, some didn’t. There were a lot of them that went to the ‘don’t use again’ pile until he got things right.”
The stands were a success and Summit took off. They did it all: trade shows, hunting trips, the television thing with pro-staffers, patents and legal battles, the ups and downs. They made friends and, probably in honesty, a few enemies. Such is the life in the outdoors industry. The roses smell great and look pretty, but a few thorns stick you now and then.
They don’t take for granted those early experiences, though.
“I hunted deer on the ground for years and all I saw was (tail) flags,” John Sr. said. “I decided I had to get up in a tree. Baker had come out with his stand, and I also was into tournaments learning to shoot a recurve bow. I thought, based on his, that I could make one that was better.”
John Sr. was determined and drove his sons pretty hard. They pushed and scratched and clawed, not only in the industry to gain a foothold with Summit in its early days, but behind the scenes.
Ever heard or read about successful chefs in the kitchen with their staffs? Yeah, that. They fight, throw pots, scream, goad, push, prod and ultimately praise when the food comes out to rave reviews. It was similar then, and still is with Viking Solutions.
“The play we got off each other is we could say something was good or sucked or is stupid and keep pushing until we find something we like,” John Jr. said. “That’s how the Viper came about. We were getting the $#!* kicked out of us by the Ol’ Man cable stand. I told Ron we needed one and he pooh-poohed it. I kept on about engineers couldn’t do this and that, Ron got his back up and got challenged, and in a few days we had the Viper. It literally saved Summit.”
Ron nods in agreement.
“I’m sure there are other people who can do this, too, but I think we’re a little unique in that we can have a screaming argument about something and five minutes later we’re working together,” he said. “Water runs off our backs like ducks.”
Starting Over Again
There is no water dripping through the roof into the bucket by our mismatched chairs. This is not some kind of outdoors company Taj Majal. That’s by choice, of course, and economy. Every startup starts up small and grungy.
“We had a roof, walls, floor and some cubicles,” Ron said. “And a big space for storage and to make stuff.”
The cool stuff is in the back. It’s Ron’s workspace. He has some cool equipment that bends and crunches and cuts metal. Heavy, durable steel tubing becomes, with the help of hydraulic presses and the cool benders and cutters, products like the Rack-Jack and Rack Jack Magnum or the L-E-Vator. They make noise. Metal goes in, things come out. It’s fun to watch.
“I used to have to sketch out things with a pencil and pad, then get with the engineers to see about things, then maybe send off something to be mocked up,” he said. “Now, by the time I did all that, I could have a prototype. I’m just leapfrogging some steps.”
John Sr. started out with a T-square — “some people don’t even know what that is today” — a pencil and a slide rule. “I didn’t even have a calculator. I had a drawing board in my bedroom and we needed three views of everything. It’s definitely more efficient today.”
He also doesn’t send his sons up trees in fiberglass or other stands anymore.
What They’re Making
When they created Viking Solutions the three went back to the drawing board, literally and figuratively. They weren’t going to make stands or safety harnesses. That was done. But they had other ideas.
“Honestly, it was kind of like back in the ‘80s when we asked each other what hunters need, or what they want, to be successful or make things a little easier,” John Jr. said. “Some hunters tough it out and don’t want a lot, which is fine. Others enjoy things that can help make their hunts or experience at home or camp easier. That’s what we were thinking about.
“In this business you see things and hear about things when you’re at shows, hunting camps, talking with guys at lunch or whatever. Everyone does. Some things you know probably wouldn’t work, and some you think, ‘Hmm, that’s interesting.’ But like with anything, sometimes what’s in your head doesn’t easily, or ever, get turned into a workable product.”
They thought about what hunters wanted or needed, and their own “Wish I had one of these” and the “What if we …” conversations at camps over the years. Those turned into cool products like the Rack Jack and Rack Jack Magnum, the Buck Up, Tilt-n-Go carrier, the L-E-Vator, the Deer Splitter, Kwik-Hoist and others. For shooters they offer a gong target system, which is pretty doggone cool.
Viking Solutions has been a success. They’ve gone from a garage to being well-known in the industry. They’ve hugged and shrugged, yelled and stomped, and like others ended up with products they’re proud of. While some would have shrugged and said, “What now?” a couple of years ago after leaving the conglomerate, they looked for a place to get dirty, built hunting gear and get back at it.
“It’s kind of nice in a way to just be here ourselves,” John Jr. said. “Although it’s a little different not picking up the phone at a big company to ask someone else to make all those travel plans for you. I do kind of miss having that.”
Visit ShopDeerHunting.com to find several Viking products that will help you at home and during deer season.