- change ups
Tale of the tape: Howies earns accolades
Grand Rapids firm supplies products to NHL, AHL and college teams.
Most parents get tired of their children asking for money, but rarely does it spur a father to start a business.
When Howard Max Sieplinga — he goes by Max — was a high school hockey player, he would constantly say, “Dad, I need $5 for a roll of tape.”
The elder Sieplinga didn’t understand — he’d never played hockey — and would question his son, who was playing in tournaments across the Midwest and Canada.
Eventually, he caved. He went to a sporting goods store and purchased a box of hockey tape, put it in the basement, and told his son it should last through the season.
“Unless you play hockey, you have no idea how much hockey tape is used,” the younger Sieplinga said.
His father decided it was a problem that had room for a new solution, so as Sieplinga continued to play hockey as a senior at Grand Rapids Christian High School in 2002, his dad launched a basic e-commerce company selling hockey tape. The site didn’t do much in sales and wasn’t meant to be more than a side business.
“It was a dinky website,” Sieplinga said. “We sold three colors: black, white and clear. Each box was enough to get a hockey family through a season.”
Boxes sold for about $60 and contained 30 rolls of tape. Eventually, word began to spread from one hockey family to another.
As Sieplinga continued to play hockey at Calvin College — including a Division III national championship and National Player of the Year Award — he decided he’d continue building on his dad’s sideline project. After all, he reasoned, his hockey network was large and would only continue to grow as he kept playing.
“Instead of some (lowly) summer job or internship, I said, ‘I wanna dip into my network,’” Sieplinga said.
He graduated from Calvin in 2006 and decided to give the hockey tape business a go, ignoring conventional wisdom. He took over as president of Howie’s Hockey Tape (howieshockeytape.com).
Even in his first year of full-time business — including failed sales call after failed sales call — Sieplinga exceeded what he thought he could ever do.
“Oh man, it was cool,” he said. “It was a great one-person business. I was doing everything, from shipping and receiving to accounting. I was Howie of Howie’s Hockey Tape.”
Back then, he was working out of his dad’s old photo studio on Michigan Avenue NE. Many people will recognize the giant “community art” painted on the west-facing wall of the building.
In 2007, Sieplinga doubled sales and hired his first employee. Now, the company has grown to sell millions of dollars in hockey tape every year and has five full-time employees, two part-timers and several interns. It also has an office on 36th Street SE in Kentwood and one outside of Toronto.
The company ships tape to every state, including Hawaii, and services clients in Australia, China, South Africa, Scandinavia and Dubai.
The one-man Canadian office is a necessity, Sieplinga said.
“That’s hockey mecca,” he said, adding: “Canadians want to buy hockey stuff from a Canadian; calling to Michigan is kind of funky.”
The company’s success was due, in part, to being in the right place at the right time. Sieplinga was participating in a Sunday night hockey league at Griff’s IceHouse when a chance locker room encounter found him talking to Brad Thompson, equipment manager for the Grand Rapids Griffins.
Thompson bit on Sieplinga’s sales pitch, and Howie’s products have had a home in the Griffins’ Van Andel Arena locker room ever since.
The company’s first major client was the University of Minnesota hockey team. Sieplinga said he spent a lot of time on the phone with the coach and eventually was able to ship the team some tape and branded water bottles and T-shirts.
“I was incredibly persistent,” he said. “The players were fighting over all the stuff.”
The branding is key, Sieplinga said of the smiling — and toothless — face that adorns everything Howie’s ships. He related it to a phase he went through in his younger years when he was skate boarding. He and his friends had to have Mr. Zog’s Sex Wax, a surfboard wax used to reduce friction on rails and other surfaces used for sliding.
“It was the dumbest product,” he said. “But it was all about the branding.”
The Howie’s brand may hook the customers but it keeps them by providing some of the highest-quality tape available. And then there’s the superstition factor.
“Hockey is very superstitious. If a player uses something and likes it, they want to use it forever,” Sieplinga said. “It’s a total grassroots hockey movement with solid brand loyalty.”
Sieplinga said the company avoids making any hard goods such as sticks, helmets and pads. “Companies like CCM, Bauer, Easton, Reebok and Warrior have a hold on those things,” he said. “We just want to stick to very good hockey accessories. And now we’re looking at ways to diversify.”
In addition to tape, Howie’s sells topnotch water bottles, stick wax, skate laces, mouth guards and pucks, and will rebrand some of its products with a team logo.
Howie’s supplies seven National Hockey League locker rooms, nearly 75 percent of American Hockey League teams and half of NCAA Division I teams. An NHL team can spend more than $30,000 on hockey tape per season, according to Sieplinga.
There is one team that’s missing from Howie’s roster: the Detroit Red Wings. A long-time supplier relationship stands in his way, Sieplinga said, but he’s patient and hopes to someday take that supplier’s place. Until then, he relies on the players who take Howie’s stuff with them when they play at Joe Louis Arena.
“We’ve built so much trust with players, they don’t want to use anything else,” Sieplinga said. “It’s fun being the guy who makes a random product that everyone underestimates.”