Century Martial Arts fights through pandemic

Michael Dillard Jr. leads Brent Kisling, executive director of the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, on a tour of Century Martial Arts in Midwest City. The company is using a grant to buy equipment and hire employees for a growing line of punching bags and custom products. (Photo by Jeff Harrison)

Midwest City company uses Department of Commerce grant to expand line of punching bags and custom products

By Jeff Harrison
Managing Editor

The coronavirus pandemic has challenged even the most flexible of businesses.

Century Marital Arts can attest to that.

As the virus spread in the U.S. and demand for martial arts gear slowed, the Midwest City company adapted rapidly. They shifted production to making face masks for the medical community and their increasingly popular home workout equipment.

Michael Dillard Jr., vice president of special projects, said their sales were down more than 80% in April and May before improving slightly in June.

Century Martial Arts in Midwest City received a grant from the State Department of Commerce to expand its line of customized products and punching bags. (Photo by Jeff Harrison)

“What we used to do on a day-to-day basis and our livelihood as a martial arts distribution company took a huge hit, that meant a lot of our manufacturing,” Dillard said. “But on the other side it became prevalent that a line of our business in sporting goods, specifically punching bag manufacturing, came alive and became huge area of growth.”

Century Martial Arts is one of the few manufacturers of punching bags in the country and was well positioned to absorb the growing demand. Dillard said many competitors rely on production overseas, which became bogged down due to the virus.

“We had been doing this forever, and it was like it was meant to be and stars aligned,” he said.

The company is also strengthening its position as the industry leader with help from a grant program offered through the Oklahoma Department of Commerce. Century Marital Arts received $80,000 from the state agency’s Bounce Back Assistance Program.

The grant program helps continue to stimulate economic growth and combat the negative effects the COVID-19 pandemic has had on the state’s economy. That includes capital investment across a broader range of industries, that will diversify the state’s economy, lead to new product development, or increase capacity at Oklahoma’s existing companies. In addition to encouraging new capital investment, these small but impactful awards will support existing jobs and the creation of new jobs.

Brent Kisling, executive director of commerce at the Oklahoma Department of Commerce, toured the company last week to see how the grant has helped.

“It was a challenging time for karate programs so for them to be able to invest the money and switch over to making masks was a huge benefit,” Kisling said. “And now we’re seeing them meet the increasing demand for punching bags.”

The Department of Commerce awarded nearly 100 grants worth up to $150,000 through the Bounce Back Assistance Program. It was one of three grant programs the agency administered to help businesses impacted by COVID-19.

An employee at Century Martial Arts in Midwest City stuffs a punching bag. (Photo by Jeff Harrison)

Dillard said they are matching the grant money to increase their ability to customize large products such as punching bags and reduce dependence on other companies for some production.

The company bought a large format digital printer, which Dillard said will improve their ability to sell custom equipment such as punching bags and

Michael Dillard Jr. shows State Sen. Brenda Stanley and Rep. Kelly Albright face masks produced at Century Martial Arts in Midwest City. (Staff photo by Jeff Harrison)

eventually open other opportunities for custom mats and other equipment.

“The size and dynamic of graphics has always been a huge limitation for us and this allows us to compete in those areas,” he said. “Those are things we’d have to go overseas for before. We’d have to have them print the bag and then send it back here for us to fill.”

The remainder of the grant funds will help Century Martial Arts add equipment for “foam to stem gluing” operation. Dillard said the equipment is used to attach foam bags to a base.

“It looks small but it’s the most cost intensive part of the production,” he said. “It requires people to bend the foam and wrap it around the base and hold it in place until the glue sets. And it requires proper ventilation.”

Dillard expects to have the glue facility in place within six months. The company plans to hire additional employees for production, graphic design, and sales to support the new projects.

Century Martial Arts eased its production of hospital grade face masks this spring as demand decreased. People started buying washable cloth masks and face coverings. Dillard said they adjusted their production to include a variety of masks with many custom options.

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