COLUMBIA — Make your way to the sporting goods section of your local Walmart Supercenter and be on the lookout for the brightly colored beacon of aluminum bats. It’s there that you’ll find them in their unassuming red packaging: Stee-Rike 3 premium training balls.
The Wiffle-like practice balls have been on the shelves of one of the nation’s largest retailers for nearly 25 years. And they’re made right here in South Carolina.
The shop on Main Street in Columbia churns out more of the plastic spheres each year, increasing production by a third over the past decade, and distributes them to roughly 4,000 Walmart stores across the U.S.
"One struggle we have is to make enough right now," Stee-Rike 3 owner David Jones said.
Jones said his 11-person staff produces 10,000 to 12,000 balls daily. That's between 3.7 million and 4.2 million for the year.
Stee-Rike 3 got its start from a science project by one of Jones' sons. Jason Jones created a backyard pitching machine that could be powered by a leaf blower when he got tired of throwing practice balls to his brother Brantley Jones. Quickly, the balls they made for the machines became more popular than the machines themselves and became the full-time venture.
The company also makes plastic practice softballs and golf balls, but baseballs are the biggest seller by far.
Production of Stee-Rike 3 balls requires 20,000 pounds of plastic daily, 90 percent of which is recycled packaging that the company gets from vehicle manufacturers in the state, like Volvo and BMW.
The company has gone from one molding machine, which presses the plastic into shape, to four injection molding machines. And two years ago, Jones replaced the machines again with ones capable of higher production.
"It's a pretty high tech process even though it's just a ball," Jones said.
Robots are used to move the plastic pieces around the shop to speed the process and automate more. The molded plastic comes out in two halves and an operator puts them together into spheres and seals them.
"Online really changed things a lot," Jones said.
The company does sell some of its product on Amazon, Jones said, but not nearly as many as it does with Walmart.
Jones, 72, works seven days a week running most of the operations and plans to continue for as long as he can. One of his two sons, Brantley Jones, has continued some involvement with the company, Jones said. He expects his sons would be willing to take over the business if necessary, though both men have pursued other careers.
Succession is an issue for many small, family-owned businesses and one that is often an overlooked issue by small business owners, said Michele Abraham, director of South Carolina's Small Business Development Centers.
"By the time they get to us, it's usually really late in the game," she said.
In 2015, 21.9 percent of businesses that closed cited retirement as the reason, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau data. That's up from 12.6 percent in 2007.
"Compared to 2007, which had the Great Recession begin in its December month, closing because of low sales and credit are down and retiring is up. This is not surprising with a strong economy and aging population in recent years," Brian Headd, an economist for the U.S. Small Business Administration, wrote in a 2018 report.
In the past several years, Abraham also has seen a big uptick in the number of people who come to the centers for help buying or selling a business. With only about half of small businesses surviving past the five-year mark, Abraham said more new entrepreneurs may see purchasing an established business as a way to increase their chance of success.