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Sun Mountain Sports' pair of gigantic warehouses off Expressway are a constant hub of activity.

But that's what happens when you're the country's top maker of golf bags.

In mid-February, as courses and retailers started gearing up for the coming season, it's busier than rush hour traffic in the middle of Los Angeles, says operations manager Bill Dahlgren.

As the golf season slips into full swing, five assembly lines pump out 1,200 of the company's signature bags a day; up to five semi-trucks full of gear leave the docks. Towers of the company's signature "Speed Carts" grow higher in one 40,000-square-foot section at the compound.

The recession hasn't been kind to the golf industry as a whole. The BBC recently reported that industrywide equipment sales - as compiled by independent research firm Golf Datatech - declined by about 18 percent since 2007.

But sales at Sun Mountain have held steady through the tough times.

While golf bag sales were down almost 2 percent as a whole, Sun Mountain's bag sales increased by almost 1 percent in 2010. The company's golf bags accounted for 16.5 percent of the golf bag share sales in the country, tops in the country according to Golf Datatech's market share report.

 

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Market shares have been up at Sun Mountain the past three years, company spokesman Steve Snyders said.

This season is no different. Although golf pros in Missoula continue to fight cold temperatures and gray skies, around the country golf season is under way and inventory is flying out of the warehouse.

"Right now, the shops are opening up and they want things on the floor," Dahlgren said.

The company, which employs 140 people and turns out a line of gear that includes bags, carts, outerwear and accessories, moved its manufacturing operations to the warehouse on Expressway 11 years ago. In 2008, it needed even more room and expanded to a lot across the street. The newest warehouse holds thousands of boxes of carts, but sales, marketing and other operations are still run out of the company's original offices on North First Street.

Sun Mountain opened in Missoula in 1984. Founder Rick Reimers is a former golf pro who got his start in California but now lives in Missoula. Missoula, he found, had a willing, dedicated work force that made a good product better.

Reimers keeps a low profile these days, Dahlgren said, but is often still the mastermind behind prototypes coming out of Sun Mountain's design department.

Reimers' original bag designs were the first to use lightweight nylon. Next, he pioneered golf bags with leg stands. Both design features helped set industry standards and are now the norm across the board, Snyders said.

Sun Mountain added its outerwear line in 1990 and created a new line of golf products with the introduction of the first easily foldable push cart, called the Speed Cart, in 1999.

The cart changed the way people carry golf bags by allowing players to push instead of pull or carry their bags, Snyders said.

"The push cart term didn't even exist until Sun Mountain came out with the Speed Cart," he said.

Resembling a baby stroller, the fold-up contraption with three or four wheels is lightweight, about 18 pounds, and compatible with many golf bags. The newest version, the SVI, will be available in May.

As the innovative designs for the Sun Mountain Speed Carts and bags evolve, the company has had to defend its trademarks and patents against "some very large sporting companies," Dahlgren said.

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Bags make up the largest percentage of Sun Mountain sales. Fabric for the bags is sewn off site, but Missoula employees assemble, customize, inspect and ready the bags for shipment. The outerwear is customized in other sections throughout the warehouse.

Customization of bags and outerwear has been key to expansion. Sun Mountain custom embroiders 30 percent of its bag orders and 50 percent of its outerwear with computerized machines monitored by staff.

A focus on customization has "certainly increased sales. If I can get the best golf equipment with what I want on it, it's a good thing," Dahlgren said.

Logos for Aflac, Buick, Twisted Tea and even the Richmond Spiders, the team that beat the Montana Grizzlies for the FCS football championship in 2008, hang on Sun Mountain's warehouse walls.

About.com readers named Sun Mountain the "Best Golf Bag Brand" in 2011. The SLX golf stand bag has been named to "Golf Digest" magazine's Hot List for the past three years.

While Sun Mountain has a worldwide reputation, the company is well-known and used widely in the Missoula golf community. The merchandise is sold in more than a dozen outlets around Missoula.

"Their speed cart is one of our best sellers. Larchmont is a walker-friendly course and that bag is really popular," said Bill Galiher, head pro and general manager of Larchmont Golf Course

The Ranch Club does a "ton" of Sun Mountain orders and stocks a variety of Sun Mountain merchandise, golf director Nick McKethen said.

McKethen worked at Pebble Beach before moving to The Ranch Club and said the brand is as respected there as it is in its hometown of Missoula.

Dahlgren declined to reveal the company's total sales figures for 2010. Sun Mountain is a privately held company that does not release revenue figures, but Dahlgren did say the combined salaries of the Sun Mountain employees' reaches "into the millions."

Superior products and innovations have helped Sun Mountain weather the economic storm. It may cost a bit more to push, carry or pull a Sun Mountain product, but golfers will get the "best in the world," Dahlgren said.

 

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