Almost everybody dreams of transforming a hobby into a business. But few succeed on the scale of Dan Janes, an inveterate artisan and self-described “pretty good pool player.” His Towson, Md., company, Joss Cues Ltd., is widely recognized as one of the best makers of cue sticks in the world.
Joss cues are tooled from an array of exotic woods, and–depending on the customer–precious inlays such as gold and diamonds. They command prices that begin at a few hundred dollars per cue and quickly climb into the thousands. Customers include collectors, world-class billiards players, and movie star Tom Cruise, who used Joss cues in his role as an expert pool player in the 1986 film “The Color of Money.”
“They’re one of the elite cues in the industry,” says Harold Simonsen, publisher of Pool & Billiard Magazine.
Pool is growing in popularity. The Billiard Congress of America says more than 37 million Americans played the game in 1992, up from 21.5 million in 1984. But there weren’t a lot of world-class cue makers around in 1968, when Janes, bored as a salesman and itinerant pool player, decided to put his artistic and mechanical skills to work to create the perfect cue stick.
“It’s a dying business model, but these guys do it the best,” says Greg White, whose company, Launchscore.com, offers small business advice and market research tools to small entrepreneurs. “This kind of craftsmanship only exists in extreme niches, and pool cues definitely fit that category.
With $1,500 borrowed from a finance company and with his pool-playing friend Bill Stroud as a partner, Janes purchased an ancient manual lathe, a butcher’s band saw, a drill press,and a workbench, set up shop in a rented two-car garage in inner-city Baltimore, and “proceeded to destroy half the rain forest,” as he recalls, jokingly referring to the amount of wood the pair wasted in their early efforts. But the venture righted itself quickly, turning a profit in its first full year of operation and every year since.
Bolstering the fledgling firm’s business was Janes and Stroud’s friendship with some of the game’s best players, including Ed Kelly, a world champion with whom Janes traveled the country as a free-lance player years earlier. Kelly became Joss Cues’ first customer, and he followed by other elite players. Stroud left the company in the early 1970s.
Joss Cues’ growth was hampered for years by its inability to keep pace with demand. Both Janes and his son Steve, the company’s vice president, were reluctant to rely too heavily on technology or manpower to fuel growth, fearing quality might be sacrificed. Even today, with 11 full-time employees on board, the two insist on inspecting every cue stick before it leaves the shop.
Finally, though, the Janeses are making strides in boosting production while maintaining quality. They have designed much of the computer-controlled equipment now used in their 10,000-square-foot shop to meet their exacting standards, and they have pioneered the use of new techniques and materials.
Manufacturing tolerances are five-thousandths of an inch. (By comparison, a skilled cabinet maker is more likely to work to tolerances no tighter than one-sixty-fourth of an inch.
To protect the expensive woods used in making the cue sticks, the Janeses keep their shop’s humidity at 45 percent. Too little humidity, and wood can “dry crack.” Too much, and applying finish becomes difficult. Fluctuations in humidity can also lead to warping. Among the woods used are ebony, 200-year-old boxwood, pink ivory, padauk, tulipwood, and zebrawood. Many of the woods are imported from Africa.
Just as important as its quality standards are the company’s production gains. When “The Color of Money” was filmed, Joss Cues was working with an 18-month lead time between order and delivery, prompting the director Martin Scorsese to order duplicate sticks as backups. Now, delivery time has been pared to less than six months.
Thanks to improved technology, a bigger work force, and a production process that allows certain basic components to be made ahead of time for use as needed, the company that produced perhaps 100 cues in 1969 will make as many as 2,000 in 1994. That’s still not a lot. Some manufacturers in Taiwan produce as many as 50,000 inexpensive cue sticks a month.) And Joss Cues will generate at least 50 percent more revenue this year than it did last year, when the figure stood at just under 1 million.
Joss cues are shipped to customers around the world. Cared for properly, the cues will last a lifetime or longer. When the sticks need a new tip, shaft, or finish, Joss will do the repairs.
“We provide complete service,” Steve Janes says. “I really don’t like anybody else fooling around with our cues.”