Man crafts reputation as straight shooter

Sunday, September 29, 2002

LINN, Mo. -- The unmarked, white-block building off the main road in this hilly Osage County seat, population 1,354, is an unlikely location for Huebler Industries.

While it's a rather unique, aging structure -- a former dairy processing plant converted into a manufacturing operation -- it doesn't speak to the signature craftsmanship that takes place inside.

Paul Huebler, a white-bearded rural entrepreneur descended from German woodworkers, has made an international name for himself with his namesake pool cues and carrying cases.

In nearly 30 years of operation, Huebler Industries has built a reputation for standing behind what Huebler calls "the straightest handcrafted cues on the market," which sell for anywhere from $54 to thousands of dollars.

Huebler has been the national president of a major billiards trade organization, and pool players as far away as Germany, Japan, Russia and Australia have used cues produced in his understated wood shop.

"A lot of people going to Linn look for a big Huebler Industries sign, and they don't find it," said lifelong friend Fred Schmidt, owner of Schmidt Billiards and Game Rooms in Columbia. "He's given a lot of himself to the billiards industry. What's kept him going is that he's a commonsense straight shooter, and his commitment to quality control on his products is very good."

Now in his mid-70s, Huebler knew it would be hard to keep his business going without some young blood. He's selling the business to two 20-something Howard County machinists and their family, who are determined to become adept entrepreneurs and craftsmen in their own right.

Jeremy Bentley finds himself president of a company at age 25, and his brother Aaron a vice president at 22. While both are successful machinists, the opportunity to take over a unique business and learn from its originator was too tempting.

"It's a change of pace, and I like this type of work," Jeremy said. "When the opportunity came along to be a part of this business, we really knew it would be right for us."

Aaron, who originally worked for Huebler while studying at Linn State Technical College, feels fortunate to be realizing a dream at a young age.

"There are so many machinists I talk to that are 30 to 35 who tell me they wish could go out and start their own shop, but they just can't," he said. "The opportunity to come in now to do this just came at the right time in our lives."

Huebler calls the family's involvement in the business "good news."

"This is something that just had to happen to keep the business going," he said.

Many of the experiences in the first half of Huebler's life helped set the stage for a career in the pool cue business.

Huebler developed a knack for woodworking as a youngster in the tiny northern Osage County community of Chamois. His father and grandfather were cabinetmakers.

In the 1950s, Huebler operated his own eatery and pool hall in Chamois. There he met Harold Schmidt, an owner of the famous St. Louis-based pool-table maker A.E. Schmidt Co.

The two became friends, and Schmidt told Huebler he would like to put him on the road selling his pool equipment. A back injury forced Huebler to close his pool hall, and he went to work for Schmidt in 1958.

After building a loyal client base in Midwestern pool halls, Huebler surprised the Schmidts in 1965 when he told them he was going to be a Catholic missionary in the South Pacific island of Papua, New Guinea. While supervising natives for five years in a lumber mill, he learned about different types of exotic wood.

Huebler came back to the United States in 1970 and immediately began working for the Schmidts again. He returned to a changed industry, Harold Schmidt wrote in a brief biography of Huebler. "While he was away, the movie The Hustler had regenerated billiard play, and it seemed that every player had to have a two-piece cue exactly like the one Minnesota Fats used to lick Fast Eddy."

Building on his life experiences, Huebler left the Schmidts in 1973 to start Huebler Industries. The Schmidt family helped him secure a loan and was among his first customers.

"It was pretty difficult to get off the ground the first three years," Huebler said. "I think what kept us going is that the fact that anyone could make just good stuff, but we're striving for quality."

Huebler is passionate about straight sticks. The only pool table in his building sits in the production area. It's not used to play pool; Huebler rolls each stick on the table to judge its straightness, making sure all the points are precisely even before it goes out the door.

While straightness is important, Huebler also has developed an attention to detail beyond reproach. He designed and built many of the machines in his plant and uses the finest woods and materials he can. The sticks are made from a combination of Canadian maple and other types of imported woods. "If you understand wood, that's half the battle here," he said.

Huebler and his staff of five can inlay any cues with precious metals, gems or ivory -- even pieces of prehistoric mammoth tusk. The most expensive cue, inlayed with semiprecious stones, cost a client in Hawaii $18,000.

"I think a lot of people forget he developed a lot of the machinery he uses himself," Fred Schmidt said. "The joint, or the part that makes for a solid hit, in his cues are made real firm, and you don't get a lot of the vibration that you do with other cues."

Through his eventual rise in the industry, Huebler was elected in 1982 by his billiard peers as president of the Billiards Congress of America, a Colorado Springs, Colo.-based trade association. He served in the position until 1985.

The Bentley brothers know they have some tough shoes to fill. "He's a trooper for sure," Jeremy said of Huebler. "It's definitely a change of pace for us, but I know we're looking forward to listening and learning about everything he has to teach us."

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