Robert E. Griffin, former CEO and chairman of Escalade, Inc., passed away in St. George, UT, surrounded by his family, on March 22, at age 89.

Griffin was said to be instrumental in transforming Escalade into a “highly regarded sporting goods and recreation products company,” a banner that the company retains today. 

Leading Escalade for 53 years in various roles and later as an unpaid advisor to those seeking his counsel, Griffin recognized the importance of diversifying the company and product offerings from an established archery-equipment business to a multi-category industry leader.

“During Bob’s steady and visionary leadership, the company grew its sporting goods business from sales of $800,000 in 1962 to sales of $155,000,000 in 2015,” the company noted in a press release announcing his passing.

“We learned early on that the demand for sporting goods is very seasonal, and the popularity of certain items runs in cycles,” Griffin once commented on Escalade’s success. “There are ups and downs you can’t control, so we began broadening our product base to make sure that all of our eggs were not in one basket.”

Escalade’s reputation for “quality products, leading brands, dedicated employees, and sound business practices” reportedly stems from Griffin’s vision, ethics,and leadership.

Griffin was a “humble, generous and faithful friend who maintained close relationships. He was a life-long learner who balanced his daily rituals with calculated risk-taking and certitude.” One of his mottos was, “Don’t let anyone tell you that you can’t do something.” His successes outweighed his failures.

“Without Bob Griffin, none of us would be here today,” added Escalade Sports CEO and President Walt Glazer. “I cannot begin to recount the many contributions Bob made to our company, to our industry and to our communities. He was a modern-day renaissance man: visionary, businessman, teacher, philanthropist, athlete.”

Griffin, born and raised in East St. Louis, IL, trained in the Naval Reserve Officers Training Corps at the University of Notre Dame, where he earned a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering in 1957. After serving as an officer in the Navy’s Civil Engineer Corps, he earned an MBA from The Kellogg School of Management at Northwestern University in 1960.

Following graduation, Griffin aspired to work for a company in which he could develop an ownership stake. He placed a small ad in the Wall Street Journal seeking an opportunity and stating, “Equity ownership is more important than salary.” His advertisement piqued the interest of Robert Orr, future Indiana Governor, an early venture capitalist and investor in Evansville. The two hit it off right away. 

In 1962, Griffin had the opportunity to “live what he talked about” when he and a group of investors, including Orr, purchased Indian Archery and Toy Company.

In 1973, Escalade, Inc. was formed with The Williams Manufacturing Company merger, and Griffin rolled his ownership stake into the new company, which began trading on the NASDAQ that year. 

He was appointed as CEO of Escalade in 1976 and continued in that role until 1999. He retired as chairman of the Board of Directors in 2015. After retiring, Griffin maintained his office overlooking Maxwell Avenue and continued to greet everyone by name.

Griffin valued education, believing it improved the quality of life and helped people make better decisions. He became a major benefactor to the University of Southern Indiana. In 2014, his leadership gift funded the construction of the USI Griffin Center. 

Griffin continued to engage with his undergraduate alma mater and regularly attended Notre Dame football games. He supported the Center for Citizenship and Constitutional Government and the de Nicola Center for Ethics and Culture. He was instrumental in launching and supporting Notre Dame’s Galvin Science and Engineering Scholars program.

Griffin remained physically active throughout his life and developed a keen interest in health care. His lifelong interest in skiing began in Aspen, CO, in the 1960s, and he later shifted to Utah. He worked out regularly at the YMCA and enjoyed cycling. He could be seen tooling around town on his vintage black Indian Scout bike. Among his proudest achievements was introducing the first health risk-based insurance incentive program in the U.S. at Escalade.

Griffin was an accomplished investor and remained actively interested in the markets. He learned about stocks in high school and gained early boardroom experience when he engineered the sale of Obear-Nester Glass Company in 1967. His friend and Evansville restauranteur, Andy Guagenti, identified Wendy’s as a significant new franchise opportunity. Griffin and Guagenti set up a meeting with Wendy’s founder, Dave Thomas, who secured the Utah territory and formed a rewarding partnership in 1975 that built, owned and operated more than two dozen Wendy’s restaurants throughout the state. 

In 1991, Griffin also led Escalade’s investment in the Swedish table tennis company Stiga Sports and developed a long-standing relationship with the Bandstigen family, partners in the business. Most recently, he was an investor in Regency Properties and served on its Board of Managers. Regency develops commercial real estate in county seats in the United States. Griffin thought of his philanthropy not as a donation but an investment to leverage to provide a compelling return to the community.

Griffin was highly active in the Evansville community and received many awards for his service. In 2003, USI recognized his leadership and service with an Honorary Doctorate degree conferral. He was elected to Evansville’s Business Hall of Fame in 2008. In 2023, he and his wife, Judith, of 59 years, were recognized with the Dr. William Wooten Champions of Youth First Award.

Griffin is survived by his wife Judith; daughters Robin, Molly, and Amanda; son Patrick; brother Richard; eleven grandchildren; and many extended family members.

Visitation at Ziemer Funeral Home East Chapel in Evansville, IN, will be held on April 19. A mass of Christian Burial will take plan on April 20 at St. John the Baptist Catholic Church in Newburgh, IN.

Images courtesy Escalade