Sport fishing and the advancement of education have been Len Borgstrom's lifelong passions.
His passion for sport fishing made him the CEO of Abu-Garcia, one of the world's largest and most trusted high-quality sport fishing equipment manufacturers. His passion for advancing education, in turn, made him a strong financial supporter of foreign student exchange programs at the College of William & Mary.
That Borgstrom has become a leading figure in the sport fishing equipment industry was almost preordained.
Johnny Morris and Len Borgstrom (Photo provided)
In 1921, his grandfather, Carl August Borgstrom, a watchmaker, bought part of a bankrupt manufacturing company that made pocket watches and taximeters in the little town of Svangasta, on the shores of the Morrum River, in Southern Sweden. Afterward, he designed the best taximeter in the world, but when World War II started, the market for it disappeared. Upon his death, his son, Gote, took over the leadership of the company. He needed to find a new product to manufacture.
His passion for fishing led the way. According to Len Borgstrom's memoirs, "ABU and Garcia: What Happened?" all fishing reels at that time came from the United States. But during World War II, no imports reached Sweden. Thus, Gote designed a Swedish casting reel. It was originally a quite simple design. However, his company, ABU, subsequently patented some of the world's highest quality and best-selling fishing tackles.
"The Morrum River is a famous salmon river and the salmon is a fish that can require a long time to land," Len wrote. "Often it makes long runs at high speed. On the regular casting reels of the day, there was no star drag or other brake system that could slow down the fish. One simply put one's thumb against the quickly rotating spool, in that way trying to keep contact with the fighting fish. ... Those were the days of blistered thumbs."
Gote patented a casting spool with a brake button that applied force to the actual spool itself.
"It saved a good many thumbs," Len said.
In the ensuing years, the patented ball-bearing brake system, which in combination with the centrifugal brake, made ABU the largest and most famous manufacturer of casting reels, and its "Ambassadeur" model, has become the world's best selling.
The Borgstroms' story is partly a tale of how father and son transformed a hobby to fish for salmon into a worldwide business. They did so by personally testing every product before releasing it into the market, providing initiatives to their employees to become sport fishermen, and adhering to a business ethic that made their customers lifelong friends.
During an interview with the Lake Placid News and the Virginia Gazette, Len Borgstrom put on the table a letter from Johnny Morris, founder and owner of Bass Pro Shops, one of he giants of the sporting goods business.
"Johnny was my customer while I was the CEO of Abu-Garcia, the fishing gear manufacturing company," Len said. "We become such good friends that 20 years after we had last done business together, he invited me for a week of fishing at the Ponoi River, Russia's most renowned salmon river, all expenses paid."
Len then showed the copy of a $100,000 check sent to him by Morris. As Morris' letter explained, it was to support the expansion of the foreign student exchange program at the College of William & Mary. Borgstrom, who serves as a member of the Reves Center for International Studies Advisory Council, started his one-man exchange program 17 years ago. It supports a student exchange program for a semester between the College of William & Mary and a Swedish institute of higher education.
"Now, we can do more," Len said. "And it is wonderful example of how business friendship can lead to true friendship for life."
Frank Shatz lives in Williamsburg, Va. and Lake Placid. His column was reprinted with permission from the Virginia Gazette.