Billabong and Quiksilver; Two Peas in a Pod

Billabong’s announcement last week that it was, among other things, conducting a strategic review of SurfStitch and Swell caused me to focus on the similarities of its situation to Quiksilver’s. It also made me realize that most of what has been discussed publically by both companies is what I’ll call mechanical issues. I want to remind you what those are and then move on to the way more important and difficult to manage strategic issue they both face but, understandably, don’t spend a lot of time talking about in public. 

We all know that both Billabong and Quiksilver got into trouble due to some acquisitions they paid too much for, their aggressive forays into retail and their tendency to allow units to operate independently, resulting in an unsustainable cost structure.
I think those things would have come back and bit them in the butt even if the economy hadn’t cratered, but the teeth marks wouldn’t have required as many stitches. With their balance sheets out of whack, both had to sell assets, raise expensive capital, change management, cut costs, push for revenue in ways they would (I hope) have preferred not to, rationalize their sourcing and reduce SKUs, consolidate and coordinate design and marketing, and revise and upgrade their information systems.
Now, I call those things mechanical. That’s not to suggest they were easy to do, or that exactly what to do was always obvious. But nobody doubted they had to happen (and outside stakeholders didn’t give them a choice anyway). That gives you the refreshing liberty to say, “Let’s get at it!” and start without too much analysis. There was, to use one of my favorite phrases, some low hanging fruit.
The process isn’t complete (it’s never really complete- it’s a long term way of thinking), but it’s well underway. Both companies will see significant improvement in their bottom lines as a result.
So let’s move on to the hard part. What brands should sell what product to which consumer? I’m sure I could figure out a more erudite way to say that, but why bother. They had to start to address the mechanical stuff before they could really focus on market segmentation (there- that’s a more erudite term) because some of it represented survival issues. It’s hard to care which way you’re rowing when there’s a big hole in the bottom of the boat.
Part of the process of keeping the boat floating through the restructuring was to press for sales in places and in ways they didn’t want to do. I assume it helped in the short run- perhaps not so much in the long run. Both companies have some recovering to do from distribution decisions they made while managing those short term survival issues.
In the long term, the ONLY THING THAT MATTERS competitively is their ability to figure out the market segmentation thing. The mechanical stuff is necessary but not sufficient. The what product to sell to which customer issue is existential. If they don’t do that well, they’ve got no business or at best a dramatically different business. “Dramatically different” is code for a brand that doesn’t do this well and finds itself milking its market credibility with cheaper product in broader distribution until there’s nothing left.
Both companies want to grow the top as well as the bottom line. (What?! Public companies focused on top line growth?!  Shocked! I’m shocked!) If they could, at least for a while, just worry about improving the bottom line (and the balance sheet) their jobs would be a whole lot easier. The mechanical issues, as I so blithely call them, are simpler to manage. And as I’ve written, market segmentation takes care of itself initially though distribution management which builds brand strength for future growth.
But you can’t do that for too long. You risk finding yourself stuck in a niche you can’t get out of. For some brands, that wouldn’t necessarily be a bad result. It’s difficult for Quik and Billabong because that market niche might tend to be a predominantly older customer group that has been loyal to the brand for a long time but will inevitably buy less.
Their challenge over the longer term is to continue to appeal to their traditional customer groups (if only for the cash flow) while also reaching the younger demographic they have to evolve towards. Not easy.
So that’s why I perked right up way back when Launa Inman became Billabong’s CEO and, in her initial presentation of her strategy, talked about the need to figure out what the brands stood for and how the customers and potential customers perceived them. Billabong proceeded to spend a lot of money on that issue. We never heard the results, but why would we? You can tell all your competitors that you’re cutting costs, improving systems, reducing SKUs and consolidating certain function. They’re doing it themselves and are probably wondering why you didn’t get on with it sooner. But I can’t think of any good reason (outside of a brain tumor or psychotic episode) why’d you’d share findings about what customers think of your brands, why they buy them, and how you’re planning to position those brands.
Part of that evaluation will determine product direction. It’s fair to say that when you’re trying to keep a company alive, you aren’t likely to take a lot of product risk if only because you can’t afford things that don’t work. But armed with their evaluations of who’s buying what product and why, I would expect to see both companies be more aggressive with product development and introductions. The consolidation of those functions from regional to worldwide should make that easier by making it more cost effective. It’s time to take some risks.         
Most of us think it’s important that Billabong and Quik do well because they are positioned to represent the surf industry in the broader market. It seems to be an industry article of faith, practically a mantra, but it has the ring of truth to it.
I’m not sure any more what “the surf industry” means. Don’t feel bad surf people. I feel the same way about other segments of action sports and, by the way, am not quite sure what exactly the action sports market is either.
But recognize that neither Billabong nor Quik is a pure surf company in the way they were years ago.   The “core” surf market is way too small to support much growth for either company. Anyway, that seahorse left the barn years ago when they both acquired non surf brands that represent significant percentages of total revenue.
I will always look at the numbers (I can’t help myself). But the numbers, by the time we see them, only tell you what has already happened. As I try and figure out how Quik and Billabong are going to do, I’ll be looking for clues to their product and market segmentations decisions, because at the end of the day, that’s mostly what’s going to matter. And not, you might consider, just for Quiksilver and Billabong.