Coming home

Toledo couple launches Battle Paddles USA headquarters in Marshalltown

NEWS CHRONICLE PHOTO BY ROBERT MAHARRY — Doby and Lane Williams are the founders, owners and operators of Battle Paddles USA, which is headquartered at 405 S. Center St. in Marshalltown with a focus on pickleball paddles, apparel and accessories.

MARSHALLTOWN — Doby and Lane Williams can remember the days before pickleball became a national phenomenon and one of the fastest growing activities in the country. Back then, it was just a dedicated group of players meeting up at the East Marshall High School gym in Le Grand and putting their skills to the test.

Not long before the COVID-19 pandemic changed everything, they accepted an invitation to join their friends and learn the ins and outs of the game.

“It looked interesting, looked fun, and I think we showed up again, borrowed paddles from those guys and just started playing,” Lane said. “The guys in Le Grand that play are multi-time state champions. There’s a couple of them over there that have, I bet they’ve won 10, 20 state championships. They’re really good guys, really good players… That was kind of the Mecca of good players (who) played in Le Grand.”

The Toledo couple, both of whom grew up in the area and graduated from the old LDF High School — Lane in 1979, Doby in 1980 — reunited later in life and married almost 11 years ago after Lane returned to Iowa from Kansas. And like millions of other Americans, they eventually caught the pickleball bug, so much so that they recently officially opened the world headquarters of Battle Paddles USA, their paddle and pickleball apparel company, at 405 S. Center St. in Marshalltown just south of the Old Timer Tavern.

Doby is a retired geologist who worked for the state of Iowa, and the couple ran an ice business together in Ames for several years before finally deciding that it was taking up too much of their time — especially considering the distance between home and work.

“We decided to work smarter, not harder. The ice business was hard. We were living off of about four to five hours of sleep every night, and it robbed us of our summers,” Doby said. “We have eight kids combined and eight grandkids, and so our summers were pretty rough as far as getting together with family.”

Nonetheless, they weren’t looking to simply settle down and ride off into the sunset — they were already on the hunt for another entrepreneurial endeavor.

“At the same time we were selling the ice business, we’d already been playing pickleball, and I think it just flowed from one to the next,” Lane said.

It all started with a paddle named “The Berkey,” an homage to legendary Le Grand player and friend Mike Berkey, about four years ago, and they’re now on their fifth and sixth generation of paddles with several fine tunes and tweaks along the way.

“Materials changed. We had a sticker on the front top. It was heavier, and then it switched to going and having them printed and cut out. It’s just evolved,” Lane said. “(Now), they’re better than they were, but not to say the paddles we made were bad. But they’ve just evolved and just gotten so much better today.”

Berkey, one of the aforementioned state champions Lane referenced, is something of a godfather of the area pickleball scene, and he’s been gratified both by the pickleball craze and the fact that the Williamses named their first paddle after him.

“That was funny,” he said. “We got a couple of them. They’ve kind of discontinued them (since), but they’re nice paddles.”

Doby joked that one of the reasons they got into making their own is because her husband, an aggressive player, would often hit his paddle against his leg after missing a shot. It wouldn’t break it, but it would weaken it to the point that it would eventually cause it to crack and fall apart somewhere down the line.

“He wasn’t the only one breaking them, so then we realized, you know, let’s start Frankensteining these a little bit and figuring out how to support (them),” Doby said. “So we worked on a lot of grips to try to get it to where we want it, and I think, you know, we’re satisfied with these in the sense that they don’t break anymore.”

Today, they have three tiers available: the Ricochet starting at $119, the Drago at $149 and the “El Toro” at $199, with different color options available — currently, they’re all 25 percent off the listed price. The paddles are made with high grade carbon fiber, thermoformed and foam injected.

“It’s carbon. It’s just as good as any paddle out there,” Berkey said. “I used Engage paddles (before) because they made them down at The Villages in Florida. Well, now these people are just crazy multimillionaires. We talked to the lady that was the owner, me and Lane did, not too long ago, and I can’t believe how many they’re selling a day. But they’re all higher priced than (Doby and Lane’s) paddles, and theirs are just as good.”

Gary Edwards, a fellow pickleball enthusiast from Marshalltown, said he started off buying a fiberglass Wilson paddle from Walmart before upgrading to a Selkirk. He later met Lane Williams at the Y, and when he heard about Battle Paddles, he bought a few to support his friend.

“So I bought them, and it’s like ‘Wow, these things are every bit as good as what I’ve been using for a lot less money, and so I got them and since then, I’ve upgraded to their next feature,” Edwards said. “I don’t think I’ll ever use a different paddle. A lot of the guys I know that are a lot better players than I am have gone to them and very much enjoy them. A little bit of it might be out of support, but the better players want that edge.”

In addition, Edwards feels that the customer service and genuine care the couple provides sets them apart from the rest.

After sensing the demand about a year and a half ago, the couple moved beyond prototypes and into mass production, but sourcing the technology to create them at an industry level quickly became another hurdle to overcome.

“It gets to a point that you’re kind of deep into it, and we’re going to Michigan to get 4–8 sheets of carbon fiber material or taking it to Des Moines and having it cut out just like those there you saw,” Lane said. “And you’re getting kind of deep financially. At some point, you say ‘OK, we’re done, we’re not gonna do this anymore,’ or you just take the next step and go big. And we just took that step (and) bought a building.”

The deciding factor was the industry in Iowa “not being able to keep up” with the standard of quality they desired, so they opted to have them produced overseas on a larger scale beginning about six months ago. The apparel progressed naturally as they built up the Battle Paddles brand, and it now includes everything from t-shirts to bags and covers to coffee mugs with humorous slogans like “I might look like I’m listening to you, but in my head I’m playing pickleball.”

“We didn’t want to be just a paddle company… If somebody wants to buy a paddle, we want them to buy something more. We want them to wear one of our t-shirts. We want them to carry a bag that has our name on it. We want them to have t-shirts and things that show who we are,” Lane said.

The building with the Battle Paddles logo adorning its front is not necessarily a store — Doby and Lane consider it a warehouse/distribution center — but if someone happens to walk in while they’re present, they will be happy to sell them whichever products pique their interest. The best way to buy is through their website at https://battlepaddlesusa.com/.

And while they could have kept the property they already owned in Ames and housed the business there, both Doby and Lane felt that relocating to Marshalltown in an old auto garage, which has been converted into their new warehouse over just a few months, was something of a homecoming as it’s closer to their current home in Toledo and the area where they were both born and raised — Doby’s mother, Doris Ruopp, was even a writer and editor at the T-R from 1966 to 1988.

“We consider ourselves Marshalltown kids — always were and always have been, and it’s just kind of coming home,” Lane said.

It also makes it easier to connect with the friends who turned them on to the game and get their feedback and input on the products they’re selling.

“It was important to maintain this cultural connection with who we were being supported by. It’s the support that we get locally from our friends that play in addition to, again, even some of the expertise that we have is pretty (amazing),” Doby said.

And, as Lane notes, the proof is in the pudding: two of the high level Le Grand players he previously referred to have switched away from national brands and started using the El Toro.

“They’re not using that paddle because they’re trying to do us a favor and lose matches and then know they’re using an inferior paddle. That’s not the case. They’ll tell you that we use that paddle because it’s the best paddle we’ve ever had in our hands, so we love the Battle Paddles,” he said. “They’ve got nothing invested.”

As the popularity of pickleball continues to surge with everyone from average Joes to professional athletes and celebrities and places to play sprouting up all over the area — including several inside Marshalltown proper — the sky’s the limit for Battle Paddles, and Doby and Lane, a pair of self-described workaholics, plan to do everything they can to take it to the highest level possible.

“We’re passionate about the game. We’re passionate about the product, and we think that the culture itself surrounding it is key to something that we want to be a part of,” Doby said. “And we know, again, how many millions of people play pickleball. We feel that the struggles that we went through as trying to find the right paddle, and price wise, we’d like to be able to give that to our people that play pickleball with a product that we can stand behind.”

While they don’t anticipate hiring more than a few possible employees to help with storage and distribution in the future, the couple does envision adding their own outdoor court on the west end of the facility so that anyone interested in buying a paddle can test it out before they take it home.