Small-town `Zorro' earns international fencing reputation

Latest ventures include medieval products, castles at 60-acre farm

January 27, 2003|By Stella M. Hopkins | Stella M. Hopkins,KNIGHT RIDDER/TRIBUNE

ELKIN, N.C. -- Walter Triplette is an entrepreneur whose hobbies and business are inseparable.

For 25 years, his Triplette Competition Arms has been churning out weapons, masks and other fencing equipment used by competitors and casual fencers around the world. Triplette, 51, started the business while coaching fencing at Duke University after competing on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill's varsity team. He still teaches the ancient sport and fences for fun.

In the past decade, his company added a line of medieval products that calls to mind a time when fairy-tale knights fought dragons and rescued maidens. In a mundane brick building a block from a textile mill, he stocks an intriguing clutter of shining armor, glittering mesh jackets and sophisticated score-keeping machines.

Next spring on a 60-acre farm in Yadkin County, he will open his latest project -- two castles, a medieval street and an archery field. He hopes to lure the thousands nationwide who devote time and money to imitating life -- and warfare -- of the Crusades, Middle Ages and Renaissance.

Learning by doing

"It's more fun to learn about history by doing it," said Triplette, who dons 30 pounds of armor for the fierce mock battles.

A native of this small Piedmont town, Triplette has traveled the world, hunting suppliers, materials and methods of making his unusual products. He doesn't want to give away those secrets, so he won't talk about the coolest stuff, like what it takes to build a suit of custom armor. But his $1 million inventory includes enough armor parts that he can ship a suit for all but the very large or very small within 24 hours.

Like most private companies, Triplette also won't reveal his sales or earnings, although he says he's been consistently profitable.

He employs 12 people who fill orders and fit customers -- including busloads of Ivy League fencers -- in a room adorned with a black velvet Elvis painting. Jose Ortega, one of his employees, is a third-generation Venezuelan fencing champion. He unites blades with handles, guards and the wiring that enables electronic score keeping.

Triplette contracts with 12 seamstresses, who sew fencing jackets and other specialized clothing at home. He holds several patents, including one for a mesh fabric with a chemical treatment that electronically registers hits in competitions.

The fencing market is small, but fencers tend to be well-educated and well-heeled. The U.S. Fencing Association says membership has grown 10 percent per year for five years. Of 16,500 members, more than two-thirds are college graduates. More than a third have household incomes of over $100,000.

The association also counts about 450 U.S. fencing clubs, 300 college teams and 500 groups offering classes. But there's no way to tally the full fencing population, which includes students who spend hours every week lunging and jabbing under Triplette's direction.

Getting equipped to fence costs about $400.

Ron Miller -- the highly regarded UNC Chapel Hill fencing coach -- said Triplette supplies about 90 percent of his teams' fencing needs.

Miller says Triplette takes chances, carrying products most companies don't. "He's known for giving superior value and quality."

Seeing an opportunity

Triplette dressed up as Zorro when he was a child, and fenced a little in high school. When a broken ankle ended his soccer ambitions, the philosophy major went out for Miller's fencing team at Chapel Hill. He worked his way through college as a bicycle mechanic, and by his senior year, owned two bike stores. In fencing, he saw another business opportunity.

After graduating in 1974, he sold his AMC Gremlin for $2,400. He used the money to buy French fencing equipment, and resold it from his dining room in Durham. He quickly saw more profit potential in making what he sold.

Triplette moved west in 1980 after selling the bike stores. TCA has several times outgrown its space, moving this year to the 32,000-square-foot building Triplette plans to remodel as a castle, complete with turrets.

As he built his two businesses, Triplette took up auto racing.

"I initially started racing because it horrified me," said the owner of five Formula cars. "I wanted to see if I could do it."

Racing reflects his lusty embrace of life: "If you're going to do it right, you have to do it, and do it hard."

This philosophy has been hard on his body. He fences left-handed because he wore out his right arm. He's had knee and back operations and broken several bones. Seven years ago he sacrificed one thrill for another, giving up racing when wife Laura gave birth to Abigail.

"It's time to be a daddy."

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