Humans have developed a set of belief systems that attempt to explain and give meaning to the world around us. The most common attempts are of the religious, political and scientific kind. The fourth, and usually forgotten, belief system is found in the interface between humans and nature.
It is the meticulous, almost ritualistic, performance of the solitary outdoorsy activity they call fishing – the anthology of which is constantly written in the tales, codes and shared minds of fishermen, knee-deep and lungs filled with the Arcadian beauty of the moment.
The trademarks of a true angler are an utmost loyalty to functionality, the nostalgia of yesteryear’s catch and (alleged) hyperspecific knowledge of one’s local spots.
These features were not lacking in Lauri Rapala, who – aside from founding the namesake fishing equipment company, Rapala, in 1936 – was also a fisherman, forester, farmer, father of seven and war veteran.
Work hard and luck will follow
When not out in the fields or woods, Rapala would spend his time on the lakes and streams of Central Finland. “Lauri noticed that predatory fish would often go for the weaker fish that had a distinct wobble from the stronger specimen,” tells Lars Ollberg, COO of Rapala.
Lauri started the family business to manufacture lures and soon had created a boom in lure production in the area, sometimes referred to as the Silicon Valley of fishing.
While Rapala’s reputation spread out first through fishlore in the 1950s and later through an increasingly global distribution network, the final push to the top of the fishing product food chain came in the form of an unfortunate tragedy.
A reporter had visited Rapala in the early 1960s to do a story for Life Magazine, one of the most important publications of its time, but for different reasons had pushed back the publication date before finally settling on 17 August 1962.
Coincidentally, Marilyn Monroe died a few days before the publication, after giving an interview to Life, which appeared in the same issue as Rapala’s short story.
“The issue became Life’s most sold issue ever and gave Rapala unforeseen coverage, filling the order books for a very long time,” explains Ollberg.
Rapala’s global lure sales jumped to 225 000 by the end of 1963 and kept climbing to over two million in the following five years. The company was on its way to the top of the world.
Today, Rapala employs over 2 300 people and has factories in Finland, France, Estonia, Russia and Indonesia. The company sells close to 20 million lures annually, and its lures have been used in over 600 world-record catches.
“We’ve successfully managed to maintain the founding values of the company: functionality and quality,” says Ollberg.
“The production begins with sourcing quality raw material, balsa wood in most cases. Quality is ensured with over 20 checkpoints in the manufacturing process,” he elaborates.
“We have factory workers with over 40 years’ experience, who are able to execute our secret sauce each and every time. I believe it’s an important reason why our quality is top notch.”
Along with the seasoned employees comes a shared pride in the manufacturing process, to maintain the good name of the brand. Often fishermen themselves, the company’s employees are committed to maintaining the promise of Rapala. Each lure with a swimming lip also gets tested in a tank before packaging to make sure the wobble is perfect – a practice that continues from Lauri’s days.
“I believe there are two moments of truth in business: The first one is when you sell your product for the first time. It has to look good for the shopkeeper to buy it. The second moment of truth is if you can sell the product again, meaning that it needs to be of premium quality.”
Rapala has certainly stayed true to both of Ollberg’s moments not just in the lakes of Central Finland but also globally, in diverse waters with trophy fish that Lauri Rapala could have only dreamt of.
“We use our distribution network that includes our people, pro fishermen and fishing guides that we sponsor,” explains Teemu Mäkelä, VP of marketing at Rapala.
“It’s a constant and highly specific feedback loop that gets channelled to our product design team in Vääksy, Finland. There are certain very fine features that, although marginal globally, can carry significant market potential in more localised settings.”
The only fish in the pond
In an information society, companies are forced to adapt to changing and more diverse customer segments. The demands are more personalised nowadays, which puts pressure on companies to deliver modularity or specificity to their product lines. Rapala’s catalogue has grown into an all-around fishing tackle menu of lures, knives, hooks, tools and other accessories.
With the information-intensive changes, it has become harder to be too nostalgic about a catch, since smartphones take the hot air out of the wildest fishing tales. It’s also possible for fishermen to travel to the remotest places on Earth to learn about different fish and areas – democratising, to an extent, the hyperlocal knowledge that was fishing’s currency just a few decades ago. It seems as if the mythical image of fishing is changing.
What hasn’t changed, however, is the demand for function and quality. The two things Lauri Rapala was searching for in the Finnish Lakeland to support his family. The two things his company has cherished ever since.
“I was visiting our factories and meeting our employees a while back. After a discussion, we came to the conclusion that we must be doing something right,” says Ollberg.
“I said, ‘think about it, we manufacture these products in Finland mostly from Finnish raw materials and are able to sell them for a profit to the world’s largest retailers. We must be doing something right.’”
“And we’ve been doing it for 50 years.”