Alan Hathaway and his wife Betsy had been playing pickleball for several years when Betsy purchased a WhipperSnapper paddle, which was made by a small company in Arizona. She learned that Ralph and Nancy Norrander, the couple making the paddles, were thinking of retiring and weren’t sure what they were going to do with the business.
An aerospace systems engineer nearing retirement, Alan was intrigued. The Shelburne resident had an already-scheduled business trip to Phoenix, so while he was there, he visited the Norranders.
“I spent the better part of the day with them,” Hathaway recalls. “They showed me how they made the paddles and we had lunch together. When I left, they said they were going to think about transitioning the business.”
In 2014, the Norranders sold their remaining inventory to Hathaway and forwarded their new orders to him. “I was shipping paddles within a week,” he said, “and then I started making my own. It took a while to get comfortable, but once I got started, things began to roll a little bit more.”
According to Hathaway, when the Norranders started their company in 2006, there were only six pickleball paddle makers in the country. Now there are 56, and a number of the larger sporting goods companies have started producing paddles as well.
“The game is growing astronomically,” he said, noting that the process for getting paddles approved by the sport’s governing body has gotten more complicated and more expensive.
Half of WhipperSnapper sales come from Hathaway’s website, but a large online retailer also carries his paddles, which have been sold to people from as far away as Singapore. Hathaway believes he is the only manufacturer in New England, and for that reason, locals are excited to use his product. He was recently approached by a Chinese company that wanted to manufacture his paddles, but he turned them down.
Although pickleball is sometimes associated with senior citizens, Hathaway said the sport, which combines elements of tennis, badminton, and ping pong, is popular with all ages.
“It’s easy to learn and they are teaching it to kids now,” he said. “The U.S. Open Pickleball Championships is only in its second year but there are 1,300 participants aged 12 to 90 from 27 different countries.”
Hathaway continues to make the paddles by himself at his Shelburne home, although he does send them to a local company for their paint job. He credits the company’s new enlarged logo with making his brand more recognizable.
Hathaway said WhipperSnapper paddles are the only ones made with Kevlar, which makes them a little more expensive than other brands. He is also one of the few paddle makers who includes custom grips at no extra cost.
“It’s more of an assembly process than manufacturing,” he said.
Hathaway still has his day job as a consulting engineer. Some days he makes paddles from 5 to 7am, has breakfast, goes to work, and comes home to make paddles from 7 to 9pm.
“I’m getting more efficient,” he said. “I’m able to make 20 or 30 at a time.” One downside to the growing business is that Hathaway doesn’t have as much time to play his sport. “My wife plays three or four times a week,” he said, “but I can only play once a week in the evening or on Saturday.”