Sales of many items starting to recover for Champaign firm hurt by recession

Sales of many items starting to recover for Champaign firm hurt by recession

CHAMPAIGN — The recession proved to be a big hurdle for Litania Sports Group.

The Champaign-based company, which sells Gill track and field equipment as well as Porter Athletic and PowerMax products, took a big hit when construction of school sports facilities dwindled.

The recession especially affected Porter Athletic, which markets big-ticket items tied to construction, such as basketball backstops, football goalposts and gymnasium divider curtains.

Porter's custom-engineered gymnasium equipment division sells almost everything for a high school or college fieldhouse except for the lighting and ventilation, company CEO David Hodge said.

Hodge said he believe sales will return to their pre-recession levels at the end of the next fiscal year — Sept. 30, 2013 — or the following year.

But coping with the drop-off wasn't easy.

When demand fell, Litania "learned to make money at a lower level," Hodge said.

During the recession, the company had to "reinvent" itself yearly and weathered a couple rounds of layoffs.

But Litania has started adding back staff. Today it has about 150 employees — with 75 percent of them in the factory and 25 percent in sales and administration, said Hodge, the company's sole owner.

"We've seen quite a rebound this year," Hodge said of sales, adding that several of Gill's six divisions have reported double-digit percentage gains.

PowerMax, for example, has seen a 30 percent jump in sales, he said. That division produces training equipment that helps athletes get faster and stronger.

Sales of Porter basketball equipment are up 25 percent, and Porter volleyball equipment sales are up 12 percent, he added.

Gill and Porter came under common ownership in 2006, and two years later, plans were announced to bring the companies together under one roof in Champaign.

Initially, the sales staff tried to market all brands. Basketball equipment experts, for instance, tried to sell track and field equipment as well. But Hodge said that approach didn't work.

"We were becoming generalists," Hodge said. "We became specialists once again."

Today there are separate divisions for Gill Athletics track and field equipment, Porter Athletic custom-engineered gymnasium equipment, Porter basketball equipment, Porter volleyball equipment, Porter soccer equipment and PowerMax training equipment.

The company not only has filled its 205,000-square-foot facility at 601 E. Mercury Drive, but it's making use of 20,000 square feet elsewhere in the Apollo industrial subdivision for its soft goods.

About 75 percent of Litania's products are made in Champaign, Hodge said.

The other 25 percent are made outside the U.S., primarily in China, Taiwan and India.

That 75-25 ratio has remained pretty much the same the last 20 years, Hodge said.

In some cases, products once made abroad have returned to the United States. A recent example is Porter's portable basketball backstops.

Litania concluded it could make them more profitably in the U.S. One of the reasons: The cost of shipping containers has almost doubled the past couple years due to high demand for containers, Hodge said.

Ten to 15 percent of the Litania's overall sales come from outside the U.S., he added.

For now, Hodge said, Litania is in a "slow-growth mode." Even if the company doesn't have an immediate job opening, it's always interested in hearing from people with welding and fabrication experience, he said.

Hodge said Porter Custom is among three major suppliers to the school gymnasium market, the others being Draper Inc. and Performance Sports Systems.

In recent years, two other players in the market have either stopped selling products or been absorbed by others, he said.

Litania is Latin for "list of prayers," Hodge said.

Hodge said prayer is part of his life, and he believes that's why both Gill and Porter survived what once were severe financial problems.

"Without God's intervention at Gill and now at Porter, there are no companies," Hodge states in a message on the company's website.

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