Winter Resorts and Snowboarding; Why Does It Seem Like an Arranged Marriage?

The Medici family of Italy rose to commercial prominence during the renaissance at least partly because of their ability to make or receive payments in widely dispersed geographic locations. Lacking a wire transfer system, they arranged marriages between family members and other prominent merchants in commercial centers that gave them the ability to move money or goods through somebody they could trust. There was no love lost, but the commercial opportunities were too good to pass up.

 Sound a little like winter resorts and snowboarding?   The antagonism of past years has largely evaporated. We don’t have complete enthusiasm, but it seems like we’ve at least worked our way past grudging acceptance. We’re certainly a long way from understanding. If we weren’t, we wouldn’t have had Animal foisted on us as a mascot.
 
At the National Ski Areas Association (NSAA) last May, the moderator asked the panel of four CEOs of major resorts, “What about snowboarding?” There was a pause before Adam Aron, CEO of Vail and, interestingly enough, a newcomer to the winter sports business said something like, “It’s here, it’s not going away, that’s it.”   There was another pause before the conversations moved on, with what I thought was palpable relief, to another subject. 
 
Is this any way to treat the sport that represents 17% of lift tickets, is growing rapidly, and, frankly, has saved your posterior quarter while skiing has stagnated?
 
Maybe. There’s a couple of things that may explain this can’t live with us, can’t live without us attitude and behavior.
 
Legitimate Lifestyle Differences
 
The NSAA meeting was my first exposure to a ski industry gathering. Those of you in snowboarding who have never been to one should try it. It really brings home the differences between the two sports. It was more subdued than a snowboard gathering, dress was more conservative (tuckers in button down shirts) and the average age, higher. The number of relationships that went back thirty plus years seemed astounding. The meeting was about business and, for better or worse, the passion and concern for the sport that has been so common in snowboarding was less obvious. A number of ski industry veterans commented on that fact with concern.
 
I had a good time and don’t make the above comments as a criticism, but as a statement of obvious differences. Skiing use to be a lifestyle but now it’s a sport. Snowboarding is still closely associated with participant lifestyle choices in music, clothing, culture, and other sports.  Skiing and snowboarding are of different generations, with different participant concerns and focuses at their different stages of life. It’s not good or bad. It just is.
 
These generational differences go a long way towards explaining why the resorts want the snowboarders’ money, but would just as soon we all took up skiing. We share sliding down a hill, and not much else. Really catering to snowboarding requires that the skiing establishment develop a commitment to lifestyle activities they aren’t attracted to and don’t understand.
 
Remember, this isn’t about finger pointing or right/wrong. We’ve just got groups of people with different life experiences who are at different stages of their life.
 
Financial Realities
 
If you take the time to read through the stock offering prospectuses of Vail Resorts and Intrawest Corporation from earlier this year, you’ll quickly realize that there’s a lot more to their business visions than selling lift tickets. It’s not enough, and it’s not accurate, to say simply that they are in the skiing business, or even the resort management business. It’s closer to the mark to say they are in the business of maximizing asset utilization, but I think a better way to put it is that they are in the theme park business.
 
Yup- just like Disneyland.
 
Walt Disney and successors have spent and are spending hundreds of millions of dollars on castles, monorails, fancy roller coasters, hotels and retail space. Their ongoing maintenance and operating expenses are big numbers. Even if they shut the parks down, interest expense and depreciation by itself would be a huge financial burden.
 
Disney’s revenue in the year ended September 30, 1996 was 18.7 billion dollars. Depreciation expense by itself was 3.94 billion. They had long term debt of over $12 billion on which they have to pay interest. Not all of that is associated with the theme parks, but you get the picture.
 
So how are they going to cover all those expenses and make a buck? By keeping those assets busy. They don’t want you to come for a day and go on a few rides. They want you to come for a least a week, stay in their hotels, eat their food, shop in their stores, play a round on their golf course and ride all the park attractions. And it would be nice if you got there via an airline they have a deal with. Keep those assets busy and hear the cash register go ca-ching!
 
Now, check out this nice juicy quote from Vail’s prospectus.
 
While lift ticket sales….have grown each year over the past ten years, revenues from other sources have grown at a much faster rate and, as a result, have increased as a percentage of Resort Revenue from 36% in fiscal 1985 to 51% in fiscal 1996.
 
The Company’s focus on developing a comprehensive destination resort experience has also allowed it to attract a diverse quest population with an attractive demographic and economic profile, including a significant number of affluent and family-oriented destination guests, who tend to generate higher and more diversified revenues per guest than day skiers from local population centers. While the Company’s Resort Revenue per skier day is currently among the highest in the industry, management believes that the Company currently captures less than 20% of the total vacation expenditures of an average destination guest at its resorts. Vail Resorts’ business strategy is not only to increase skier days and guest visits but also to increase Resort Revenue per skier day by capturing a higher percentage of the total spending by its year round destination and day guests, by continuing to expand the range and enhance the quality of activities and services offered by the Company.
 
Intrawest says much the same thing.
 
Intrawest’s operating strategy is to link the staged modernization and expansion of mountain facilities at its resorts with the controlled development of four-season resort villages focused on high occupancy accommodations.
 
I think it’s a hell of a good strategy, and if I were CEO of a large mountain (not winter!) resort, I’d do the same thing.
 
I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t like snowboarders. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t want them on my mountain. I wouldn’t do it because I didn’t like/understand/participate in their activities and life style. I’d do it because it made business sense and my first responsibility was to my shareholders or myself as the owner. I’d believe that right now I can attract more destination guests and make more money on a golf course than a skate board park, because the people who golf have more money than the people who skate. That’s just the way it is.
 
But it won’t always be. And so the mountain resort community has to deal with a bit of a conundrum that I think explains their sometimes schizophrenic approach to snowboarding. The larger resort’s strategies seem to require them to focus on the current generation of skiers. Given that this group is constant to shrinking in numbers, skier days can only be increased by taking market share from other mountains. This explains some of the consolidation pressure in winter resorts, but it also represents a marketing opportunity for some smaller mountains (Hey-I think I feel another article coming on!).
 
But those skiers are going to get old and, someday, stop skiing. So are current snowboarders, but not so soon. How do resorts that have to rely on the current skiing generation to achieve their strategic and financial goals keep a growing and important minority of their customers happy?
 
Do they need to do very much at all? Will snowboarders turn into their parents, have similar disposable incomes, and want the same facilities and amenities their parents wanted by the time they are the destination decision makers? Don’t laugh; it’s been known to happen. I wonder if Nike will come out with an adult diaper someday (Just do it?).
 
Maybe snowboarding and snowsboarders need to take the time to understand the ski industry that we wish they would take to understand us. Betcha there’s some business opportunities there somewhere.

 

 

Now What Do We Do? Living With the Industry’s Success

I guess you can start by congratulating yourself. Though the snowboarding industry is still relatively small ($800 million at wholesale?) it’s continuing to grow at a rate most industries can only dream of and is clearly here to stay. You’ve been a part of that.

 
But now, you are face to face with the results of your own success. The consolidation we knew would eventually come is here. Three years ago, it was an intellectual concern for the future. Last year we could see it happening, but were hopeful it would be gradual and, therefore, manageable. This year, in the wake of the trade show season, it’s a lot like a cow pie dropping on an ant hill; sudden, stinky and overwhelming.
 
I couldn’t back this up statistically, but my travels and conversations tell me that a lot of companies lost money last year and are poorly positioned to carry themselves through another season. I’d guesstimate that retailers typically committed no more than half of their open to buy for the season and are expecting to rely on closeout product available during the season. Brands, including a couple of the larger ones, have been disappointed by their preseason orders. I view being positioned to do as much business in units as you did last year as a big success.   I suspect that quite a few smaller brands (hard and soft goods) are past disappointed and approaching scared.
 
There are a lot of deals being discussed among companies. Buyers want to give themselves the critical mass and product mix they think they need to be a successful industry player. They also see it as a time to pick up good brands cheap. Most sellers are making deals out of necessity. Ride has never made a secret of the fact that selected strategic acquisitions were part of its plan. The Silence board brand was acquired by Straight Line Manufacturing. I think you can count on some more announcements over the next couple of months. 
 
Everybody that’s having a tough time isn’t going out of business. But some are. I’ve talked to too many companies who’s strategy for surviving the consolidation is to “hunker down until it’s over.” The problem with that particular strategy is that they’ll have to hunker down a hell of a long time; by definition a consolidation isn’t over until smaller players without clearly defined market niches are gone.
 
It’s also not appropriate to assume that “getting through” one more year will be enough. Over capacity, which I see as the primary cause of the consolidation, isn’t going to go away that quickly. As soon as I get my crystal ball working again, I’ll let you know exactly how long it will take.
 
Well, I hope you enjoyed that little dose of doom and despair. Now let’s talk about what you can do about it.
 
The funny thing is that when times get hard and things get chaotic, there are always opportunities if you can just raise yourself out of the paralysis and myopia that is always the result of short term pressures. I’ve seen it time after time with companies in difficult transitions and been the victim of it myself. The effort, time and focus that it takes just to manage from day to day when money is tight takes most of your energy. You are so busy hiking through the forest that you never find the perspective to climb one of the trees and see if you’re going the right way, or are even in the right forest.
 
The good news is that the tougher things get, the less you have to lose my trying. You’re probably better off dying in a fall from the top of a tree than starving to death hiking through the wrong forest.
 
We all come to business with a clear sense of what “makes sense.” Forget it. Pull out all the apparently crazy ideas you’ve rejected out of hand and look them over. Put a sock in the mouth of the little voice in your head that says “We can’t do that.”
 
It’s time for absolute openness and absolute honesty with the people you work with. Listen, have respect for everybody’s crazy ideas and don’t reject anything out of hand. Stop worrying about people finding out things ain’t great right now. They already know it. Chances are they will respect you for your honesty and for dealing with it. Get the all the big uglies on the table so you can deal with them. The companies I have least confidence in are the ones who tell me everything is going great (“Oh yeah, we’re booking lots of orders!”) when I know they aren’t.
 
·         Cut that expense you didn’t think you could do without. What have you got to lose?
 
·         Ask that supplier for better terms and lower prices. All they can say is no.
 
·         Get rid of that old inventory at whatever price. Take the income statement hit and generate some cash. It’s not going to be worth more later.
 
·         Renegotiate your lease. Tell your landlord you need the rent to come down by 15% if he wants to have a viable tenant. Get him to give half of your security deposit back. 
 
·         Let people go if you have to, even if they are relatives and friends of long standing. How else are you going to preserve the company and jobs of the remaining employees (including yours).
 
·         Cut everybody’s salary 10%. And never pay payroll if you can’t pay the associated payroll taxes. Those taxes are a personal obligation.
 
·         Tell your creditors you can’t pay them now. Explain what happened and what steps you are taking to change things. Be honest with them. Keep them informed. Ask them for a discount and make a deal.
 
·         Get rid of the 800 number. Call the phone company and tell them you want a better rate per minute. You’ll probably get one. I did.
 
·         Stop making nice to people who owe you money and haven’t paid.
 
·         Raise your prices. Now. If you can’t survive with in your current financial circumstances anyway, what do you have to lose?
 
If you’re shocked by that last one, good. I want you to be. Maybe it’s not the right step for you. But there are a dozen other equally crazy sounding ones that are. All you have to do is think of them.
 
All these tactical steps will help as long as they are part of a feasible, overall plan. Don’t tell me it’s impossible. I’ve implemented all the steps above at one company or another. Remember that the power of enhancing revenue or reducing costs is in how quickly you do it. $2,000 a month becomes $24,000 over the period of a year.
 
So much for tactics. Unless you’ve got a workable strategy none of the above matters. Fundamentally, there has to be a reason why you are going to be able to successfully compete. If you can’t specifically define who your customers are and why they will buy your product instead of a competitor’s, you don’t pass go and you don’t collect $200 dollars. If you can’t differentiate your product and your company, you have a limited chance of being a survivor.
 
Ask 200 customers why they bought your product or why they came into your store. Listen to them carefully. Tabulate the responses and looks for trends and consistencies. Visit 20 other stores who are your customers or competitors. Have a check list of things you want to ask or note. What are they doing better or worse than you? How are they displaying your product?
 
Developing an effective strategy doesn’t result from taking everybody to a nice hotel for three days of meetings. It comes from a tedious process of collecting and studying meaningful information. Strategic planning is the process of looking at the same information your competitor can get from a different perspective and making better decisions as a result.
 
So you think you have identified a competitive advantage and have a strategy to carry out. Is it worth the effort?
 
Envision your store or company as you want it to be three years from now. What will it’s sales be? What will its customers think about it? How hard will you be working and what you will be earning? How much risk will you be taking? Ask the questions that are relevant to your circumstances.
 
Now look where you are right now. What resources will you need to get where you want to be? What are the risks? This is part of a much more detailed process but, in general, does it look like what you have to go through to get where you want to be is worth the time, risk and effort? Can you get the resources you need? If not, why are you considering doing it?
 
Nimble, aggressive companies that can identify opportunities, have a competitive advantage they understand, and have made an explicit decision about what they want to achieve and how they are going to get there will be the survivors. Don’t starve marching around the wrong forest. Climb the tallest tree and see which way to go even if you risk being killed in a fall.

 

 

Orders; I Got to Get Some Orders! The View From Las Vegas

Many snowboard companies came to Las Vegas this year knowing in their heads it could be tough to get orders, but hoping in their hearts that oversupply in all product areas wouldn’t stifle retailers’ demand for new, branded product. There are prominent exceptions, but a month after the show, it looks like some heads were right and some hearts broken. Companies at all levels of the sport have experienced disappointing preseason orders and face the hard decision of whether to order on faith or reduce their projections for the year.

Anybody who had hoped that the worst of the consolidation was behind the industry unfortunately knows better now. Even as retail sales climb and snowboarding becomes more mainstream and better established, some industry participants seem to be facing hard times.
 
The Numbers
 
SIA’s numbers on the show for 1997 and the three preceding years appear to validate industry conditions and suggest why some companies have been disappointed by their preseason order numbers. The total number of show exhibitors grew from 705 in 1994 to 897 in 1996. In 1997, the number declined a little more than eight percent to 823.
 
Total show square footage grew almost twenty-one percent from 427,000 in 1994 to 515,960 in 1996. In 1997, total square feet fell to a little over 504,000. That decline was reflected by the fact that no companies were exhibiting in the upstairs meeting rooms like they had the previous year.
 
The total number of buyers attending the show and shops represented also dropped. After growing thirty-one percent between 1994 and 1996, from 2,854 to 3,738, the number of shops attending dropped by over seventeen percent to 3,101. The number of buyers grew twenty percent during the same three year period from 7,761 to 9,333. It fell five percent in 1997 to 8,867.
 
My conjecture is that the decline in the number of shops and buyers attending the show is to some extent a function of an increase in orders being written at regional shows. As a result, I don’t see it as being a significant negative for the industry.
 
The Feeling
 
Comparing the mood at Vegas this year to last year was initially difficult. In past years, the peaks of excitement in the snowboard area were balanced by the valleys of the ski side. This year, with both major ski and snowboard players in the main hall, the energy level seemed more even, the peaks and valleys having leveled off somewhat.
 
Perhaps this was the result of the show reorganization. More likely, it followed from the larger booth and more business-like atmosphere, a continuation of trends from last year. The product, not the booth, was definitely the focal point. Ride and Sims must have been thrilled by that, since it appeared that the same designer using the same materials had created both their booths.
 
There were more people with ties than purple hair. Nobody was thrown out for having drugs in their booth and I heard fewer stories (only one) of product theft. There didn’t seem to be a keg in a booth anywhere. It’s possible I just wasn’t in the right place at the right time, but I’m usually pretty good at sniffing them out.   
 
My other observation about booths is that many companies were using the same booth materials they used the previous year, though the materials were assembled in a different way. I took that as one confirmation that maturing industry conditions are leading companies to be a little more careful how they spend money.
 
The booths of the leading snowboard companies seemed busy most of the time. Salomon and Bonfire shared a booth, with the boards along the back and the clothing on both sides. To keep things from getting too businesslike, Mervyn Manufacturing featured big white boards on which they listed and ranked the leading marketing gimmicks as reported by people walking the show. These included three dimensional top sheets and a bunch of others I can’t remember. Mervyn also had some women (I think they were women) walking around dressed as nuns.
 
It occurred to me that the best marketing gimmick at the show was Mervyn making fun of everybody else’s marketing gimmicks as a way of attracting attention to their booth. Thank God we’ve got Mervyn to keep us from taking ourselves too seriously.
 
The Other Hall
 
Back across the lobby, in what use to be the snowboard ghetto, it was, well, kind of a ghetto. Though traffic picked up as the week progressed, there were few larger companies to serve as a draw for the smaller players there. West Beach was the largest snowboard related company in that hall, and they seemed to be having a good show. The moral of the story may be that if you have good product, programs, financing, management, industry history and your reps do their jobs, show location may not be as big an issue for you.
 
In the corner of the hall, as far from the main entrance as you can get, was the Reef Brazil booth. I have absolutely no recollection what the booth looked like. I don’t even remember what products they were selling. But(t) till the day I die I will carry with me the memory of the Reef Brazil models standing there and signing posters. My own theory is that SIA intentionally put the Reef booth in that location to draw traffic into and through that hall in response to some of the complaints from companies who didn’t get into the other hall. I think it worked and I hope Reef took the same approach at ISPO.
 
New Brands and Manufacturers
 
I swear I didn’t expect to have to write this section. I thought the recent performance of snowboard company stocks, the publicity about over supply, and the declining prices for hard goods would cause people to be cautious about entering the industry now. Compared to previous years I suppose they were cautious. But there were fifteen or so new brands I hadn’t seen before. Even more interesting was the amount of additional manufacturing capacity associated with these brands.
 
Wolverine Snowboards is apparently owned by a Michigan auto parts manufacturer and expects to do OEM business. I don’t know for whom. Kuusport Mfg. Ltd. has a great looking accessory line but has decided to start making snowboards. They took out a full page color ad in Transworld Snowboard Business advertising what appeared to be good quality boards for between $105 and, I think, $130 dollars. Good luck to them.
 
After a few days of going from booth to booth to booth and being told by everybody that business was great and they were writing lots of orders, I had begun to feel like Diogenese searching for an honest man. At one of the new brands, I finally found one.
 
This booth was manned by an industry veteran who was old enough to have had his rose colored glasses shattered. After a few minutes of conversation, I cautiously approached the subject of his ability to compete and ask him, in the nicest possible way, why his current employer had leaped into snowboarding now and how they expected to succeed. He looked me right in the eye and, with hardly a moment’s hesitation said, “We can afford to lose a lot of money.”
 
It was one of those moments of clarity that happens all too infrequently in business. I don’t know where this guy is now. I have no reason to think he’ll see this article. But if he should, I want him to know that if I was starting a new snowboard company, I’d hire him in a minute.
 
Trends
 
Boards really do seem lighter this year. Significantly; not just by an ounce or two. It’s been suggested to me that this trend will finally run its course when durability declines and there isn’t enough weight to provide adequate dampening. Like pants can get too baggy, boards can get too light.
 
Quicksilver introduced its step in, joining the apparent rush towards that technology. But the waters were muddied a bit by improvements to traditional soft bindings that improved their ease of use and, in some cases, claimed to make them nearly as convenient as a true step in. All I really care about is that somebody makes a step in boot bigger than a (US size) 13 so I can actually try one of them.
 
Maybe a dozen companies showed some form of a three dimensional top sheet. Some claimed various performance benefits, but I see it mostly as a decorative way to reduce weight. Morrow first used this technology in a limited way maybe three years ago. It’s not new, but it’s sure gotten more popular.
 
This year’s Vegas show and the period immediately following it basically validated the changes many of us have seen coming in the industry. I won’t characterize them as good or bad, but as inevitable. Hype and image aren’t enough anymore.   

 

 

How a Brand Makes Money In the Snowboard Business

Don’t get too comfortable. This is a short article that won’t take long to read. It’s a direct result of that moment in Vegas when I finally decided I wasn’t dreaming and that there actually were a bunch of new snowboard brands and new factory capacity. What makes it even worse is that some of these companies appear to be backed by financially solid parent companies, and can afford to lose money for a really, really long time.

I had thought maybe we were making some progress in getting through the consolidation, but now it looks like we’ve got some new fodder for the irresistible business cycle and we can all be miserable a little longer.
 
To make money, do these things:
 
·         Realize that all you have is your brand name and do everything you can to build and protect it. If you don’t have a recognized one, you probably can’t expect to make any sort of reasonable return by starting to build it now.
 
·         Base your product orders on your preseason.  Don’t kid yourself about reorders. Business people I respect are ordering no more than 10% above their preseason bookings, and some are 5% below. If you have to count on reorders to break even, you might want to ask yourself if your company has a future in snowboarding.
 
·         Be clean at the end of the year. You’re better off agonizing over sales you lost than inventory you have left. Leave your retailers sold through at full margins and anxious to increase their orders next year. You aren’t giving up sales; you are just delaying them a year.
 
·         Don’t chase market share right now. I’m beginning to think market share is a code word for losing money.
 
·         Respect the fact that closed out, brand name product may be among your toughest competitors this year.
 
·         Sharpen your pencil when formulating your advertising and promotional budgets. If you’re ordering product based only on what’s already booked and you aren’t fighting for an increase in market share, aren’t there some things you can do without?
 
That’s it.
 

 

 

Hard Learned Lessons; You Can Do Everything Right and Still Get Screwed

This is the industry. Snowboarding. Some are in it to make a buck, some because they love the sport and just want to make a living doing what they love. Occasionally, the two collide and the golden rule prevails; the one with the gold makes the rules. When there’s a business lesson to be learned that might help some others, I get involved. My name’s Harbaugh. I carry a pen (well, actually a key board).

 I was working the day watch out of the precinct office when the phone rang. The boss’ name is Stouffer. My partner is O’Brien.
 
The story you are about to hear is true. The names, places and other details have been changed to protect the innocent.
 
Dum, Da Dum Dum……..Dum!
 
“The fact is I thought I had everything covered. I thought I was on the money with that letter of credit. I thought there was no way I’d get screwed with that letter of credit.”
 
Ralph thought he finally had it made. All he really loved to do was build stuff and when he learned to love to snowboard and found that he could make money building boards, it seemed like it was all coming together.
 
Not that it was easy. There were the usual startup/entrepreneur/cash flow challenges. It was 1994 when he took a salary for the first time; $25,000. The company did 4,000 boards that year with fifteen employees, one press and a simple production line. They produced for half a year. 1,500 were their own brand (let’s call the brand and the company “Burp”), and the remainder for other brands.
 
A 1995 order for $1.3 million and 8,000 OEM boards convinced him he was over the hump.
 
“I was completely ready for it. I had the process down and I knew where I wanted to go. All I needed was the volume to get up so I had enough machines. So I had a constant flow through the shop and I figured hey, get it to that point, get it running smoothly and then I can concentrate on Burp.”
 
The first 5,000 of the 8,000 board order were manufactured, shipped and paid for. The buyer called back with a problem with the inserts, which was fixed at Burp’s expense. Before making the rest of the boards, they created four samples with the insert problem corrected and sent them to the buyer for approval. They were approved, in writing, and Burp geared up to produce the boards to that newly agreed upon standard.
 
That’s when the buyer tried to cancel the remainder of the contract. But with the materials bought, that wasn’t really an option for Burp. It took the buyer around a month, until October, to determine that the boards would be produced under another label, and the order was upped to 4,000 from 3,000. A shipping schedule was agreed to and Burp began to produce.
 
The first 400 boards are shipped and paid for with no problem. The second 500 are ready to ship on time and on schedule and the buyer says “Hold it, we don’t have an address for you to ship them to.” A week later, Burp finally gets permission to ship them; to the buyer’s warehouse.
 
Ralph is starting to get nervous. He’s been shipping these boards, and getting paid, under a letter of credit. The buyer’s delays have meant that there are only fifteen or so days to ship the remainder of the product and present the documents before the letter of credit expires. It could only be extended with the cooperation of the buyer, and Ralph isn’t feeling too confident that they will be willing to do that.
 
Another thousand boards go out the door and at this point, the nameless buyer owes Burp $350,000. Another week goes by and another 500 boards are ready to go. His bank tells him he hasn’t been paid for an earlier shipment, and the buyer’s bank pleasantly informs him that their are discrepancies in the letter of credit.
 
A letter of credit is an agreement whereby a bank agrees to pay the beneficiary (in this case, Burp) a certain amount of money based on the presentation of very specifically prepared documents usually indicating the shipment by the specified means of certain goods. If any detail is incorrect, the account party (the entity that had the bank issue the letter of credit; in this case the buyer) can refuse to honor the letter of credit. Incorrect details are called discrepancies.
 
I can’t recall ever seeing a letter of credit without a discrepancy. Ralph was new to the letter of credit game and didn’t know about discrepancies.
 
“I called them (the buyer) up and asked what’s up. They drug it out for three or four days. I stopped manufacturing at this point because I didn’t have any money to pay my guys for two weeks and this is like three weeks before Christmas. Bad scene. ******* is the heroin user capital of the world. I’ve got some burley ass dudes working for me, 38 of them. And when you come to them and tell them they can’t get their pay check…..three days before Christmas, your talking about some pretty pissed off guys.”
 
The buyer claimed there were only two and a half instead of the industry standard three turns on the inserts. Ralph didn’t know what the hell the industry standard was, but he knew he was producing the boards to the standards they had all agreed to in writing. He put the extra half turn on the boards in the warehouse at Burp’s expense.
 
For the next few weeks, Ralph is the beneficiary of an education that’s not in the curriculum at any business schools. For reasons Ralph has a hard time figuring out, the CEO of the buyer gets involved. He pressures Ralph to ship the remainder of the product, but won’t pay what is already owed. He tells Ralph he’s going to take his house through some mysterious legal mechanism that was never made clear. Endless conversations, attempted negotiations, and confrontations go nowhere. People show up from the buyer with a truck on three separate occasions to pick up the product, but they have no authority to pay for it.
 
When December 31 comes around, the CEO suddenly disappears from the picture. There’s no resolution, and no decision maker for Ralph to talk to. He’s $550,000 in the whole, his business is on the verge of collapsing, and he’s got nowhere to go.
 
“These guys lied to me, straight up lied to me. This guy told me that a company check could not be revoked, a wire transfer could not be revoked, every time he’s telling me this I’d call my bank and say, listen, if a wire transfer comes from *************** how long does it take? They said it takes about four days. Okay, can it be revoked? Sure.”
 
Having run out of options, and with his company and personal assets on the line, Ralph filed a lawsuit against the buyer for $4.8 million. His attorney told him he’d win, but it would take something like three and a half years. Both he and his company would be in bankruptcy almost immediately.
 
His attorney went back to the buyer and made a deal. The buyer got the product, Ralph got some money, they signed mutual releases and walked away from each other. But the money wasn’t enough to cover all the debt.
 
Ralph’s only solution was to sell the company. There was plenty of interest, but when the smoke has cleared, there was only one buyer for the company remaining. Let’s call it the ABC company. ABC was willing to buy the assets and pay the creditors $0.45 for each dollar they were owed over three years. Ralph’s job was to convince them to take that. Overall, the deal was worth something like $400,000.
 
Ralph spent six months trying to bring the only three creditors who didn’t quickly agree to the deal into line. He couldn’t do it. Ultimately, it got too late in the year to make the season and ABC pulled out. At this point the major secured creditor, the bank, finally said they’d do it, but it was too late.
 
Ralph went back to ABC. The bank foreclosed on the assets, and ABC bought the assets, including the Burp name, from the bank for $85,000. The unsecured creditors got nothing and the bank got less than it could have gotten had it agreed to ABC’s original deal earlier.
 
Ralph works for ABC now. He’s running their factory, doing what he likes to do, and the business is well capitalized.
 
“At the end of the day, if everything had worked out, and I had made the product and shipped it and they (the buyer) accepted it, I would have been in the plus; not substantially, not like I thought I would be, but I would be in the plus. I would have paid back all my trade debt no problem and I would have been half way strong going into next year. Instead I was sitting there with $350,000 worth of debt.”
 
SIDEBAR:
 
Hard Lessons Worth Remembering:
 
1)    Letters of credit are gnarly documents
2)    Agreements are only as reliable as the people you make them with.
3)    Nothing ever works out quite the way you expect it.
4)    There isn’t always time to learn; know what you don’t know.
5)    A bank’s decision making process can be hard to figure out.
6)    When all is said and done, all you’ve got is your integrity, your ethics, and the relationships you build with people.

 

 

US Market Conditions and the Globalization of Snowboarding

Last year when somebody said to me “Write about US market conditions” it was easy. You could think of the US, Japan and Europe as distinct markets and approach the trends in each accordingly. But overcapacity and the slowing of growth have made that harder, and the interdependence of the three markets has become much more obvious.

Let’s at least start in the US at the Transworld industry conference in Vail. We’ll see that the issues on everybody’s mind reflected what’s happening in the US market, but that those conditions are at least partly the result of developments in the rest of the world.          
 
The 7th Annual Transworld Snowboarding Industry Conference in Vail, Colorado December 11th to 14th reflected US industry and market conditions perfectly. The familiar companies were all represented. But the number of total participants dropped to around 500 from closer to 600 last year with some smaller companies apparently not surviving. The new CEO’s of Morrow, Ride and Sims (David Calapp, Bob Hall, and Jim Weber) attended their first industry conference, highlighting a trend towards increasing professionalization of management.
 
There were attendees from a handful of record companies, some ski resorts and a couple of winter sports trade associations. They were all there to learn about snowboarding and, hopefully to help snowboarding with its inevitable move into the mainstream.
 
Presentations and seminars were better attended and the attitude was more businesslike than last year. I’m sure this had something to do with the fact that Transworld decided this year not to have open bars in the back of the rooms where the presentations were taking place. But it also reflected an emerging realization that industry over supply and some slowing of growth were making this a tougher market for everybody and creating survival issues for some.
 
Europe was represented by Harry Gunz from Rad Air and Charly Messmer from Generics and Blax. Salomon Snowboards had five representatives in addition to a contingent of four from Bonfire. Charly got some publicity for Generics and Blax the hard way, by hitting a rock in deep powder on day three. His board stopped, but he didn’t and the result was one broken ankle and one chipped one. No, of course you weren’t out of bounds Charly.
 
When last seen he was lying in bed smiling and seemingly unconcerned about the whole thing. I don’t think the pain medication had worn off. Anyway, it’s the time of year when he should be working, not riding.
 
The conditions in Japan were lurking in the back of everybody’s mind. Oversupply there (an estimated 300 to 350 thousand boards) has made it impossible to look at the three major geographical markets independently of each other. Many US companies had relied on cash deposit from Japan and/or site letters of credit to fund their production. It was clear those days are over for most companies. US retailer orders have to be expected to decline to the extent they represented gray market product shipped to Japan. Airwalk, Sims and probably others I don’t know about have seen some of their product show up in the retail warehouse giant Price/Costco and are moving aggressively to plug the leaks that allowed it to get there in the first place.
 
Good early season snow conditions in most of the US and mid November opening dates at many resorts are no doubt benefiting sales. My perception is that Burton and Mervyn Manufacturing (Gnu/Lib Tech) are overall the best positioned brands. Morrow, Ride and Sims are all dealing with the results of oversupply to the Japanese market and with management and organizational changes.
 
David Calapp joined Morrow as Chief Executive Officer only in August of this year and Dennis Shelton resigned shortly thereafter. David is experienced in sporting goods, but not in snowboarding. The brand is strong in the US but faces challenges in Europe and Japan. The recent announcement (during the Vail conference) that the company would not achieve its earnings projections for the year caused the stock to fall 27% in one day. Morrow’s response was to announce a buyback of 5% of its stock on the open market. 
 
Jim Weber, at Sims, has been in his new position almost a year. Like Calapp, he came to the job with sporting goods, but not snowboarding experience. His first major challenge was to prepare Sims to delivery a quality product on time. He believes the company is prepared to accomplish that. The second was to gain control of the brand. The lawsuit against DNR is being settled in Sims’ favor, with the company now controlling its distribution worldwide.
 
Bob Hall joined Ride as Chief Executive in August, 1996 with a strong background in winter sports including skiing and consumer goods. His immediate challenges were to rebuild the management team and restructure a company that suffered from very rapid growth and losses of key management people in many areas. The restructuring he accomplished quickly. Rebuilding of the management team is an ongoing process.
 
The major asset of most companies in the snowboarding business is their brand name. Many people, including myself, are of the opinion that a correct business strategy in the current environment is to protect that brand name through better control of distribution even though some sales volume will be sacrificed. Hopefully, the company will be compensated by higher gross margins on a product that is harder to find. As public companies, Ride and Morrow will have a harder time than other companies pursuing this strategy with shareholders looking for growth.
 
But don’t despair if you are a shareholder. The issue of which companies will be among the leading brands in the US is largely decided. They may fight for position against each other, but they will be here. It’s the smaller companies who have been dependent on Japan, who’s product lines are incomplete, and that are under financed that may have survival issues to deal with.
 
Ski Industry America’s retail audit numbers for the period from August through October 1996 seem to confirm these conclusions. They report that specialty store snowboard sales were up only 12% during the period by volume. In dollars, the increase was only 1%, indicating that average retail price of a board is continuing to drop. That average price was $294.00 during this period. 
 
What we see in these statistics seems to be confirmed by my discussions with retailers. Boards are harder and harder to sell at full margin. There is too much supply out there, and a more knowledgeable consumer has figured out that there isn’t that much difference among the major brands. I’ve heard of brands selling boards in quantity to close them out at $85 a board or even a little less. The result is that price has become a key factor in selling boards in the US.
 
As I’ve indicated, it’s become increasingly difficult to separate conditions in one market from those in another. That’s made very clear by an excellent report prepared by Robert C. Marvin and C. Heath Glennon of The Seidler Companies in Los Angeles. It’s called The Snowboard Industry 1996/97. You can call for your own copy at (213)-624-4232. Since I couldn’t say it any better than they do, let me quote them at some length.
 
“We estimate that the number of snowboards shipped (excluding OEM boards) to retailers by the five major manufacturers will increase about 26% from 1995/96 to 1996/97 and that the top five will account for about 45% of total boards shipped worldwide as compared to 35% in 1995/96. This should mean trouble for many of the other 200+ snowboard companies.”
 
“Unfortunately, it does not appear that the excess inventory problem will end with the 1996/97 season. We believe snowboard production for the 1996/97 season will again approach 1.9 million units. Add the 425,000 units of 1995/96 inventory that are still around and there will be about 2.3 million snowboards available for sale in 1996/97. Even if demand grows 25% to 1.5 million units, there will be 800,000 units left over in March of 1997.”
 
The report goes on to produce a similar analysis of boots and bindings, and concludes that there are excess inventory problems in both these categories and that “…snowboard boot inventories at retail were an even bigger problem than board and binding inventories.”
 
My own analysis suggests that board production this year probably exceeded 1.9 million and that production capacity may be close to 3.0 million boards.
 
This article started in Vail, Colorado but ends with a focus on snowboarding as a maturing, global business.  The markets can’t be viewed in isolation of each other any more. They never could, I suppose, but the illusion that they were separate was fostered, to some extent, by a demand that exceeded supply. Obviously, that period is over. Welcome to the world snowboard market. 

 

 

Minding Your Own Business; How’s Your Shop Doing?

Last month in this space I suggested a simple system for tracking your financial results with the goals of having better control and being able to react to surprises. If you use it for, say, six months, you are going to have some good information that will have helped you manage your shop. The next step, which this article addresses, is to use the information collected over a period of time to help you answer the fundamental question “How am I doing and what can I do better?”

The National Ski and Snowboard Retailers Association (NSSRA) can help you answer that question with their biannual cost of doing business financial survey. 64 shops responded to the survey for the 1995-96 season. NSSRA segmented the shops according to their revenues levels and calculated key performance measures so that shops can compare their performance to the others producing similar revenue.
 
 Some of the gross data was presented in last month’s Transworld Snowboarding Business. Below, selected information from the survey is presented in a different format and how you can interpret it discussed.   The table below highlights some data across the complete revenue range that I think is particularly interesting. It’s instructive to look at how you’re doing compared to shops your size, but it can be equally interesting to see how things may change (or not change) with revenue growth.
 
 
 
 
 
 
Total Company Revenue:
 
 
 
 
 
 
Under
$500,000 to
$1 to $2
Over
 
 
 
 
 
$500,000
$1 Million
Million
$2 Million
Income Statement (%of Total Revenues)
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Net Sales of Merchandise
 
 
92.9%
94.5%
92.6%
95.4%
Operating Margin
 
 
 
46.9%
41.0%
43.7%
40.0%
Total Payroll (including tax & benefits)
 
22.0%
18.0%
19.2%
18.7%
Occupancy Expenses
 
 
7.4%
5.8%
5.8%
7.8%
Other Operating Expenses
 
 
14.4%
11.3%
12.4%
12.0%
Net Income Before Tax
 
 
3.2%
5.7%
6.4%
1.1%
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Key Performance Measures
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Owner’s Compensation & Profits to Revenue
 
12.6%
10.3%
9.9%
5.4%
Total Square Feet Per Store
 
 
3,300
4,800
5,700
5,571
Selling Square Feet Per Store
 
 
1,800
3,200
3,500
4,333
Total Revenue Per Selling Square Foot
 
$243
$258
$368
$230
Total Revenues Per Total Equivalent Employee
$95,219
$80,297
$123,811
$115,900
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
 
Median Revenue Per Company
 
 
$460,816
$650,000
$1,400,000
$4,500,000
 
Before you start interpreting this data and applying it to your situation, remember that every statistical analysis has flaws. Unless you understand how it was collected, and compiled, you can reach bad conclusions using it.
  
Tom Doyle, President of NSSRA, reminded me that it tends to be the more sophisticated and better organized shops that return the survey, so the results may not be representative of “typical” shops. The survey also includes balance sheet data, but I’ve purposely excluded it from this discussion. In seasonal industries, a good company can have a strong balance sheet in January and a lousy one in July. Unless all the balance sheets are as of the same date, the survey results can be meaningless. Since we don’t know what those dates are, I’d take the balance sheet data with a grain of salt if you get the survey for your shop.
 
Don’t get too focused on comparing percentages. The absolute numbers do matter. An 85% gross margin won’t save the day if your total sales are $75,000.
 
According to Tom, the sample size is large enough to be statistically valid even when the responding shops are divided among the four revenue categories. But if you were to select different revenue ranges, you might see dramatically different results. I also get nervous about the sample size when, for example, they divide the respondents in one revenue category into the lower 25%, the middle 50% and the upper 25%. At that point, each of those segments may have so few data points that one unusual value dramatically changes the result. About all that can be done to remedy this problem is to get more of you to participate in the survey. 
 
Even though the word snowboard has been added to the association’s name, only about six percent of revenue of the responding companies is from snowboarding. Don’t stop reading. As far as I know, we don’t have any better information to work with, and if half the revenue were from snowboarding, I don’t think the calculations would turn out to be much different. 
 
So now, keeping these possible shortcomings in mind, you can go into this analysis with your eyes open. First, look at what happens to the various indicators as revenue grows. As median revenue grows from $460,816 to $650,00 (41%), owner’s compensation and profits (OCP) grow only from $58,063 to $66,950 (15.3%). From a strict financial point of view, the additional effort and risk may not be worth the additional income to the owner. But going one growth step further, median revenue growth from $650,000 to $1,400,000 (115%) yields a comparable increase in OCP of 107% to $138,600.
 
 
If we take the last step up, sales increase by 221%, but OCP is up only 75%. This isn’t surprising. You can see that most of the expense reductions take place between $500,000 and $2,000,000 in revenue. Payroll, occupancy and other operating expenses each drops a couple of points.   Operating margins are lowest for the companies over $2 million in sales.
 
A strict financial analysis then, suggests that an appropriate revenue goal for a shop is somewhere between $1 and $2 million, because that’s where you seem to get the most operating efficiencies and to maximize your pretax income as a percent of revenue. Too small an operation has to spend too high a percentage of its revenues on fixed costs. Too large and your profitability drop because you do not hold your margins and your revenue per selling square foot declines. Larger companies typically are less riskier than smaller ones and can attract capital with less trouble and at a lower cost. Perhaps a lower return on incremental sales is justified by reduced risk to the owner/investor.
 
If one use of this data is to plan your financial future, another is to manage your present business. Tom Doyle relayed a couple of instances in which his members used it to save some money.
 
In one case, a shop used it to negotiate a better deal on its lease. They showed the survey data to the landlord and successfully argued that they couldn’t afford to pay a higher percent of revenue for rent than their competitors. In another case, an owner noted that his insurance expense appeared very high as a percentage of his revenue. A few phone calls confirmed that there were better deals available.
 
Recognize that just because your shop is above or below a particular indicator doesn’t means that you have a problem or are doing exceptionally well. Evaluation of financial indicators is a dynamic process; each indicators affects others. Your goal is to understand why the variance exists and either be comfortable with it or make some changes.
 
Get a copy of this study from NSSRA. Check out the methodology so you understand what they are doing. On a piece of paper, write down as few or as many of the statistics for shops your size as you want. In the next column, calculate the numbers for your shop. In the next column record the positive or negative variance.
 
Where the absolute numbers or the percentage variance is very small (less than 5% either way?), ignore it. Where the variance is significant, write down what you think is the explanation in the next column. Note both positive and negative variances. Spending too little on something can be as bad as spending too much.
 
Where you don’t have an explanation, take the time to find one. The survey indicates that the cost of insurance for a company doing between $500,000 and $1,000,000 is 1.2% of revenue. It also says the middle range (the 25% on each side of the median) is from 0.4% to 1.7%. So maybe if your percentage is 3.2 you want to call your agent and cancel the rider that covers you against the invasion of the body snatchers. On the other hand, maybe you’re strategically situated on the hills outside of Sarajevo, and no matter what the percentage is, you think a little more business interruption insurance might be just the ticket.
 
This isn’t about comparing percentages. The term “insurance” covers a lot of things (never buy it when you’re playing blackjack) and just because your expense as a percent of revenues is different from what some study finds doesn’t mean you should change. Maintaining a higher gross margin, for example, may require that you spend more on advertising.
 
This survey is a screening mechanism that can highlight, without much effort, areas where improvement in your shop’s financial performance might be possible. It doesn’t provide black and white answers, but can be a valuable guide. Use it as a tool to help you think about your business, but temper any conclusions you reach using it with knowledge of your special circumstances.

 

 

Selling Your Business How to Get Ready and What to Expect

At some point, every business owner considers selling their company. Most that don’t go out of business are sold at some time in their history. But between considering it and selling are a host of issues, surprises, conundrums, and general confusions for the business owner who has never been through the process before. I have spoken with or heard of sellers who are minimizing the chances of making a good deal by

·         Requiring that the buyer make an offer before seeing the seller’s financial statements
·         Stating prices that are so unrealistic as to make any further discussion futile
·         Hoping to close a sale without using appropriate professional advisors.
 
If you’re going to sell your business, let’s make sure you do it right and for the right reasons. You can maximize your chances of success, and minimize wasted time, by focusing on what I call the five “Gets.” Get real, get a goal, get ready, get agreement, get help. 
 
Get Real
 
It’s as predictable as the sun coming up in the morning. The owner believes in his business. He believes in it so much that his perception of what it is worth to a buyer is, in my experience, almost always out of line. 
A sophisticated buyer won’t ignore your projections, but he will discount them very heavily. He will recognize the growth potential of your business, but balance that with a realistic assessment of the competition. He will want to know very specifically why you have been or will be successful. He will base his offer to you on the potential return he objectively thinks he can earn compared with other investment opportunities he has. In determining his maximum purchase price, he will value your business in ways that are standard for valuing companies in this or similar industries.
 
He will recognize that your growth depends on increasing working capital investment in the business and that he, not you, is the one who is going to have to take that risk. He will admit that there are some synergies in combining the two companies, but will believe (probably correctly) that his organization will be more responsible for achieving them than yours. Accordingly, he will be reluctant to pay you for them. He will understand that the business is dependent on you and perhaps a few key managers, and will be concerned with your motivation once the deal is closed. So if you expect to receive the value you perceive in your business you should expect to do it in an earn out.
 
He will look closely at your historical financial statements. They will frequently be the single most important (though not the only) factor in determining the price he is willing to offer and no amount of explaining, rationalizing, projecting or shucking and jiving will change that.
 
So, to begin, make a realistic estimate of the value of your company. There are many ways to value a company. None of them give a right or wrong answer. But when you are done, and you may need help to do it, you will have a reasonable range of value for your company. You may also want to value it under different scenarios. For example, your company may be worth more as part of a larger organization because your sales will no longer have to support, on a stand alone basis, all the overhead expense you currently have.   Value it, in other words, as the potential buyer would to get insight into his thought process.
 
This knowledge is a powerful negotiating tool. Make sure you have it.
 
Get A Goal
 
What do you want to accomplish by selling (besides get money)? What do you want to sell; assets or equity? How do you want to get paid? Will you take stock? Cash at closing only? Is an earn out acceptable? What will be your role be in the business after the deal closes? For how long? How hard do you want to work following the sale? What is the minimum price you will accept? 
 
There is no way to know if an offer is a good one or a bad one unless you know what you are trying to accomplish by selling the business. You always want the other side to put the first offer on the table, but you never want them to be able to control the negotiating process because you haven’t thought long and hard about what a good offer looks like. You can be successful in your negotiations if you know specifically what you want to accomplish and why.
 
The converse is that you must also know when to walk away. If you are desperate for a deal, you’ll get a bad one.
 
Get Ready
 
From the time the first contact with a serious purchaser begin, it you can generally expect it to take six months or longer to close a deal. But preparations may begin literally years earlier, when the owner concludes, based on the kind of valuation and goal setting described above, that her best long term strategy is a sale of the business.
 
Try and increase awareness of your company among potential buyers. You can do this, for example, by being active in the appropriate professional associations. Get articles about your company published in trade journals. You may be better positioned to negotiate if the buyer comes to you. 
 
Have systems that prepare consistent, accurate financial statements and information that can be easily verified or audited. It’s a critical element in determining a purchase price and an important indication that you are a competent business person the buyer can rely on to operate the acquired business.
 
Clean up your balance sheet. Get rid of old inventory and write off uncollectable receivables. It’s never a good idea to fool yourself about the value of assets, and you won’t fool a potential buyer. But by not making these adjustments you may find your own competence and credibility questioned during the acquisition process. “What other surprises are hidden here?” wonders the potential buyer.
 
Have a current business plan that validates your strategy. Make sure the warehouse is brightly lit and painted. If there’s any tax issues, litigation or disputes with employees out there, settle them.
You can’t put your best foot forward if it’s stuck in the mud.
 
Get Agreement
 
This may seem a little obvious, but it’s a good idea if all the shareholders agree with the decision to sell the business and have a common understanding of what constitutes an acceptable deal before the negotiations begin. Legally, it’s possible to sell a business with the approval of less than 100% of the ownership. But in a private company, with only a few shareholders, it can be difficult. A buyer may be concerned about litigation by a minority shareholder. If a dissenting shareholder is expected to continue to work for the acquired company, an uncomfortable operating situation can result.
 
While you can’t please all of the people all of the time, it’s usually a good idea to try and get acceptance (enthusiasm would be nice) from other key stakeholders. These may include customers, suppliers and key employees. At the very least, make sure they have good information about what is going on as negotiations reach their final stages.   They will all be asking “How is this going to affect my relationship with this company?” and you need to have an honest and accurate answer.
 
Get Help
 
Sale of a company demands an accelerating time commitment from the owner. My experience is that as the deal gains momentum, you can either manage your business or work on the deal. There’s often not enough hours in the day to do both well.
 
Let’s look at a typical scenario. You’re selling the business you built. It’s your baby. You’re proud of it, and are far from objective. To make it more interesting, you’re entering into a process with which you have little or no experience. And this deal is potentially the most important and lucrative transaction you have ever entered into.
 
Let’s say that on the other side of the table is the representative of a larger company. He’s been through this before and knows what to expect. At the end of the day, whether or not there’s a deal, he gets paid the same and goes on to work on the next deal. He’s completely dispassionate and may not have any stake in the outcome.
 
Somewhere in the course of the negotiations he looks at you and says, “I assume you’re willing to warrant that there are no outstanding disputes with any federal, state or local tax authorities except as disclosed in appendix A of the agreement?”
 
Now, a good response, assuming it’s true, is something like “I’m willing to warrant it to the best of my knowledge,” but if you’ve never done this before, you might not know that. Happily, you’ve got an attorney sitting by your side to handle those kind of issues.
 
But if he’s the attorney who drafted your will, helps you collect from delinquent creditors, or kept you out of jail after the IRS audit, he may be waiting for you to speak up. Your attorney must be experienced in representing sellers of business.
 
The same is true of the other professionals who may work with you; your financial advisor, tax accountant, business valuation advisor and possibly others. Get help. Do it right. You may only get one chance.

 

 

SIA 1996; It’s Just Business

Business. It was all business.

 
Well, maybe not quite all. The ladies and gentlemen at Mervin Manufacturing were dressed in all white outfits (they claimed not to be angels) and Mike Olsen was shooting money out of a cannon at irregular intervals.   But the snowboard side of this year’s SIA show in Las Vegas showed that the industry is maturing. There were the usual crowds and noise and excitement. But there was also, especially among the larger companies coming to dominate the industry, a more subdued sense of purpose and focus.
 
They weren’t there to have fun; they were in Vegas to do business. 
 
You felt it as soon as you saw the booths. Many were the size of my house, except my house doesn’t have a second story . Now I know why Morrow did a public offering. To pay for their booth.
 
Larger, sleeker, cleaner, sophisticated, with more controlled access and private rooms for meetings and order writing. Less beer being consumed during show hours. No companies thrown out for use of controlled substances. To put it succinctly, snowboard industry leaders had booths that looked, well, like ski company booths; except they were busy.
 
This was the year where it seemed that the ten or so companies that control 70 plus percent of the US snowboard business heaved a collective sigh of relief. They knew snowboarding was here to stay. They knew they were going to have a prominent part in it. They realized that the small, undercapitalized companies not being run like businesses would disappear or, at worst, be like fleas on a dog; occasional and momentary distractions.
 
Their focus was on taking market share before the competitive situation solidified and establishing their positions against the other large players.
 
Their tools were complete product lines, payment terms, discounts, pricing, reliable delivery and customer service coupled with marketing and promotional programs only they could afford. Retailers, nervous after late deliveries, poor and/or late snow in much of the US, and left over inventory didn’t have to have their arms twisted-much. Their interests, and those of the Burton/Sims/Ride/Morrow/Mervin snowboard juggernaut generally coincided.
 
Now under these circumstances, you might expect that the size of the show would have stabilized or (be still my heart) even declined a little. Nope. Booths spilled out into the lobby and took over the meeting rooms on the second floor. I don’t know how much of the growth was the result of companies taking more square meters, but I’d estimate there were a couple of dozen new snowboard companies. Or at least people with boards in booths hoping to become companies. The directory lists about 300 snowboard brands in total.
 
My conversations with them tended to be the same as with other new companies last year. They had limited capital and product lines, no competitive strategy, and couldn’t explain how they were going to differentiate themselves. If I hear “We’re closer to the market than our competition” one more time, I’ll shoot myself (I shouldn’t say that. I’ll be dead at the next trade show.). I didn’t have the perception that these companies were writing any significant orders, though of course you can’t expect anybody at the show to say “We’re doomed” when you ask them how it’s going.
 
There didn’t seem to be much change in board design or construction. What I did notice was the size of the line of some of the players. Between the Ride, Mercury, Liquid and 5150 brands, Ride, if I counted right, had 84 boards. Let’s see a sales rep put all those in his van. Graphics were simpler and colors varied but muted. Yellow seemed popular. As companies go mainstream, the goal of graphics seems to be not offending anybody.
 
Traditional bindings offered incremental improvements. The hot product had to be the step in bindings. In addition to K2’s Clicker, Switch and Device, Wave Rave, Blax and Marker/DNR had models to sell. Burton didn’t have one, but was taking orders anyway. That’s market power.
 
Over 300 companies were listed in the show directory as offering snowboarding apparel. The statistics I’ve seen indicate that Burton and Columbia by themselves account for 50 percent of sales in the US, making it pretty clear that many of these companies have their work cut out for them if they are going to succeed.
 
One thing I didn’t see at the show was the usual number of representatives from Japanese companies frantically looking for new snowboard product lines. This seems consistent with current conventional wisdom about oversupply and general competitive conditions in Japan. As discussed below, it has critical implications for the viability of a large number of US snowboard hard and soft good companies.
 
Essentially, what happened was that companies were pushed down the feeding chain. Larger companies tried to require bigger commitments from retailers, pushing out second tier brands. These brands sold to stores they had not previously done business with to try and maintain their volume. The smaller companies were pushed out of these stores, sometimes leaving them with no place to go.   
 
What was seen at the show has been confirmed in the six weeks or so since it ended. I’ve had calls from perhaps half a dozen smaller apparel companies who did not write the anticipated orders at the shows, and who’s Japanese orders have been significantly reduced or are not yet received. At least one larger apparel company has picked up an additional distributor in Japan because of the reduction in orders from its existing distributor. Where orders have been placed, there’s increasing reluctance to provide the historically favorable financing terms of 50% down and 50% sight letter of credit.
 
In the US hard goods reps for other than the major companies are having a hard time getting orders, and personal relationships appear to be the key factor in determining their success. 
 
Retailers are cautious in their ordering. Often they are already committed to the major suppliers. In addition, some have more stock than anticipated left from last year.
 
A new factor seems to be retailers perception of product availability. Historically, companies produced only what they could sell in the preseason, and retailers were confronted with an inability to get reorders. Late season availability was not a problem last year. Late deliveries and poor snow conditions in much of the country meant retailers were getting called by snowboard companies with product to sell at attractive prices. Combined with the increased availability of quality domestic manufacturing, retailers seem comfortable in holding back some of their open to buy for later in the year.
 
An industry consolidation does not start with a bang at a particular moment in time. However, the SIA show this year made is absolutely clear that the long awaited consolidation isn’t just starting. It’s in full swing.

 

 

Hard Choice Time; Strategies for Success in the Snowboard Industry

It all kind of came together for me at the industry conference at Banff, though I couldn’t say if it was on the lift, in the spa or at the bar. Probably at the bar. The time is over when a small or medium sized independent player in this industry can just focus on getting from one year to the next. If all you think about are tactics and operations, chances are that one year soon, you won’t make it even as the industry as a whole continues to prosper.

 Your choices are pretty clear cut. There are four. They are discussed below. The goal of this article is to motivate you to dispassionately evaluate your business and the market, and then actively pursue one of the four. To do that, we’ll consider the impact of some recent industry transactions and identify the problems that most smaller companies say they have in common.   To begin, we’ll get past some of the hype and excitement of snowboarding and look at it as another industry starting to enter its maturing phase.
 
In 1980, a Harvard professor named Mike Porter wrote a book called Competitive Strategy. The whole volume is worth your consideration, but Chapter 11, “The Transition to Industry Maturity” is especially relevant at this time in the industry’s evolution. I think we can safely assume that Dr. Porter was not a snowboard pioneer, but his discussion of what happens in a consolidating industry (any consolidating industry) will look ominously familiar to anybody who thinks about what snowboarding is going through.
 
Step One in our analysis, then, is to agree that as much as we may love it, and as exciting as it may be, the evolution of this industry won’t ultimately be different from that of any other industry. At this point in time, the only difference I perceive is that it is happening faster than it does in most industries. I believe that’s because there are really no significant barriers to entry, but the fact that you have to commit to the next season before the last one ends makes it hard to get out.
 
No entrepreneur succeeds without an almost heroic belief in themselves and their business; if they didn’t have it, they would never take the risk.   It can be difficult to have an objective perspective on industry trends and the potential of their company. The euphoria engendered by rapid growth, the hype of any fashion related business, and the fact that companies try to make themselves look bigger than they really are (except Burton and Gnu/Libtech, who seem to want to look smaller) can make it tough to be dispassionate.
 
Get dispassionate. Talk to business people outside of snowboarding. Set some measurable goals. Figure out what success means (hopefully more than bare survival). Formally decide if the risks are worth the potential returns, financial and other.
 
Step Two is to look at some recent industry transactions to figure out why, in general terms, they happened and what their impact on the industry may be.
 
Let’s see, Morrow went public, Salomon bought Bonfire, Ride bought Thermal, Hooger is buying American Snowboard Manufacturing, Madison Sport bought Purged/Mantle and Variflex bought Plunkett Snowboards, Inc. What’s going on?
 
Companies are building their balance sheets, vertically integrating their businesses, associating themselves with stronger partners, developing year round cash flow, and generally positioning themselves to survive and compete with lower margins on higher volume. 
 
Are we shocked by all this activity? No, because under Step One we agreed that the same trends that occur in any other maturing industry will also occur in snowboarding.
 
Let’s look specifically at the Variflex deal. Variflex produces protective equipment and in-line skates that it sells directly to large retailers.  In May 1995, it acquired Plunkett Snowboards, Inc. to produce its Static brand of snowboards. Variflex’s goal at the time was to produce a board that retailed in the $300 price range but was comparable in features and quality to the most expensive brands.
 
Because Variflex sells directly to retailers, from a financial perspective this goal won’t be difficult to achieve. Based on my discussions with a number of board manufacturers, I’d estimate that the cost to produce a high quality board in volume is probably under $90.00. Let’s say it is $100 and the board is sold to a retailer for $140 to give Variflex a 40 percent margin over cost. The retailer wants to make their traditional 40 margin too, so the consumer pays $233.
 
Hey, what happened to the $300 retail price? Remember this is a bit of a moving target, and K2 already has the Dart out for a suggested retail of $270. K2 and Variflex are both selling direct, as is Elan with the Nale brand. Eliminating the profit for that extra middleman frees up a lot of margin.
 
Happily, there’s more than financial calculations at work here. Even in skiing, brand names and marketing keep retail prices higher than they need to be from a financial perspective. Nobody is going to scurry to give up margin before they have to. But I do see the day where a high quality wood core board will retail not too far north of $200. With boots and bindings, there appears to be more of an opportunity to keep margins up through technological innovation, assuming you can afford the cost of developing those innovations. 
 
Step Three is to identify problems most companies have in common. One’s obviously price pressure. It’s more or less important depending on your market segment and size, but it exists for everybody.
 
A second is inability to differentiate a brand. Most smaller companies are unable to spend enough to make an impression in the market. Even when they do spend it, it gets lost among the hundred of brands trying to do the same things, driving operating margins down even further.
 
A third issue is the working capital requirements of a highly seasonal, fast growing business. Success probably requires you grow at least as fast as the market. Seasonality, and the increasing tendency of retail accounts to require longer terms, means you have to tie more and more capital up in the business for longer and longer periods. Many company’s’ track records and profit potential don’t justify either a loan from a bank or an investment. Lacking a rich uncle or a trust fund, it’s going to be tough to come up with the money. 
 
Fourth is dependence on the Japanese market. A few months ago, several sources estimated that there would be 800,00 boards brought into Japan this year. Interestingly, I’ve also heard 400,000 and 1.2 million. Maybe 800,000 is a reasonable number.
 
I don’t know what reality is in the Japanese market. But I am certain that the days of 50 percent cash deposits and 50 percent site letters of credit are going to vanish. Companies creating brands that are sold only in the that market should not expect those brands to survive. How will they replace that cash flow?
 
In summary, then, margins are declining while required marketing costs increase. The financing
necessary to grow quickly enough so that volume offsets reduced margins is, at best, difficult to find. Cash constraints will be accentuated by changes in the Japanese market.
 
Step Four is to look at possible strategies given the conditions and market evolution described above. There are four of them.
 
The first is to find enough capital to reach a volume world wide, as a manufacturer or a wholesaler, that makes you a “player.” That is, that puts you in a position to compete at least partly on price and to be profitable under the circumstances described above. As a stand alone snowboard industry company, if you aren’t close to being there now, you probably won’t be able to get there. The reason is that you won’t be able to show the return on investment required to attract the funding.
 
The second, in theory, is to find a market niche where you can differentiate yourself so that brand loyalty offsets sensitivity to price and, to some extent, insulates you from the emerging competitive conditions. I say “in theory” because the only company I believe has really accomplished that is Mervin Manufacturing, and they’ve done it by having a consistent focus over a period of years. Nitro, with what I’ll call their high tech, retro-ski approach to advertising this year, may be trying to establish a niche for themselves and I think they’ve got a good chance to do it. Not a jumping rider in sight on some of their ads. For a long time, they tried to disguise the fact that they were a European owned company. Now it looks like they are using that “liability” as a strength.
 
AK Bommer Boards in Valdez, Alaska is another good example of a niche strategy. They make individual custom snowboards. “Big Boards for Burly Riders with Big Feet” it says on the business card. As a guy with a size 13 attached to my leg, I called for information. Probably won’t ever be a big company, but at $500 a board, their margins should be okay and their break-even point low.
 
They have the additional advantage of knowing exactly who their market is; “Big Boards for Burly Riders with Big Feet.” Think of the power of that phrase. With those eight words they know exactly who their competitors and customers are and what their position in the market is. Consider the efficiencies it gives them if only because they don’t waste advertising and promotion dollars.          
 
The problem is that there are too many companies and not enough niches, and no niche completely insulates you from price pressure. Sales dollars required to break even are rising, and I expect they will continue to do so.
 
The third strategy is to become a product line of a larger company with year round cash flow. You share overhead, facilities, possibly distribution channels and reduce your break-even point. Year around cash flow eliminates or at least reduces the annual crisis of working capital common to one season businesses.
 
A corollary to this strategy is to find someone better capitalized than you are to distribute your brand. You continue to control product development, and maybe advertising and promotion, and earn a royalty on sales. It’s probably a lower return strategy, but it’s lower risk as well.
 
The fourth strategy, which is inevitably the least popular, is to pack up and go home. If you go through the kind of analysis suggested above and can’t find a way to implement one of the three strategies I’ve identified, maybe the chances of success don’t justify the risk and effort anymore.
 
There’s actually one more strategy, if you want to call it that. It’s what I characterize as the “more of the same” approach. This will prove to be the most popular approach and some companies taking it will succeed. A lot won’t. There’s not much to this; just keep doing whatever you’ve been doing before and hope it works. Every company has a strategy- even if it’s a bad one and they didn’t actively chose it.
 
I know how hard it is to find time to deal concretely and dispassionately with issues of strategy when you’re trying to run a company. But the surest path to failure is to be caught in between strategies, unable to compete on price and not having established a defensible market niche. If you are caught there you aren’t going to enjoy it, and you aren’t going to survive.
 
SIDEBAR:
 
Trends In Any Maturing Industry
Shamelessly plagiarized in a good cause from Competitive Strategy by Michael E. Porter
·         Firms sell to experienced, repeat buyers who shift their focus from the decision to buy to choosing among brands.
·         Industry profits fall. Smaller firms are most affected. Cash flow declines when it is most needed, and capital becomes increasingly difficult to raise.
·         Danger of over capacity accentuates the tendency towards price competition.
·         Company attitudes must be disassociated from the euphoria of the past.
·         New products and applications become harder to develop.
·         Dealer margins fall, but their power increases as more brands compete for shelf space.
·         Slowing growth means more competition for market share. Frequently that competition can border on irrational.

Competition may emphasize cost and service