Wetsuit and apparel specialist Huub has just celebrated its first birthday. Over the past 12 months, the up-and-coming brand has made a splash within the international triathlon community. Starting with a launch in the UK, Huub has already expanded into a number of overseas markets.
Taking a look at what makes Huub tick, we spoke to Huub founder Dean ‘Deano’ Jackson and two of the company’s investors Colin Maber and Tom Mawhood of Turning Point Investments (TPI).
TPI is an investment group that principally works with SME businesses in the UK. Amidst the current economic backdrop, TPI is specifically keen to focus on ‘fundamentally sound business models’. In addition to offering funding, the TPI team gets actively involved behind the scenes with its investment partners.
triathlonbusiness.com (TriBiz): Tell us a little bit about Dean Jackson!
Dean Jackson (DJ): I joined the industry in 1989 with the launch of my own run store at the tender age of 19. I come out of a track and field and cross country background, and then took up triathlon. I had been a duathlete from 15 years of age… blimey that is ages ago!
I have worked for several leading brands including ASICS, Brooks, Orca, Quintana Roo and blueseventy.
In terms of me: I’m driven, social and I like to think very caring and supportive of others. I’m someone who knows his weaknesses and ensures those bases are covered off with external and internal resources. I’m also very trusting, very forgiving; but only for the first time. I’m a big believer in you reap what you sow.
Tom Mawhood (TM): I first met Dean on 28 September 2011. It was a good meeting, and from this point all of us [at TPI] saw qualities in him. Pretty quickly we realised that this was something to get involved with. There was a good vibe from the outset.
Colin Maber (CM): I saw someone who was an enthusiast, who knew the industry. He was also going out of his own comfort zone, for a personal and professional point of view; and for his family. He was at a point in life where he was ready to do something different.
TriBiz: What prompted you to launch the Huub brand?
DJ: 4 kids , wife and mortgage. Well the reality aside I had come to a point where I wanted/needed to do my own thing. I am not young for the triathlon business so decided to go it on my own; although this time, the oysters I am diving for are not for someone else.
I wanted to create my own thing and use my skill-set to bring to market a product where others had failed to understand my vision. And of course working with some of the industry’s greatest experts like SwimSmooth, Huub Toussaint and the Eidnhoven Facility is a real driver.
I also wanted to bring a product to market that was better, different and delivered some research. Not knocking product in the industry right now, it’s alive and well, but having worked for three wetsuit brands I have perhaps the best picture of what levels of research and testing are undertaken; and to be honest, I do not think it’s enough.
Look how bikes, wheels etc have progressed. Wetsuits are really still stuck in a world of steel frames with open pro rims and DH bars. That may sound a bit over critical; the new suits coming through are nice suits. But the comment really comes from a remark made by Dan Empfield at a Triathlon America [Triathlon Business International, TBI] meeting last year, where he stated “Wetsuits are no faster now than in my day.”
Now, we know Dan has been around longer than shoe laces! But that comment made me think. At first I was annoyed and wanted to defend it, but what could I defend it with? What actual performance improving numbers exist in the industry? So from that point, I started to think how we could make a wetsuit faster, what we could do to improve the swim performance and what input was needed to create a new type of product and way of thinking…
TriBiz: What does Huub stand for?
DJ: Huub is actually an ancient Germanic name meaning ‘bright mind’ and is also the name of one of the expert advisors to the brand – Huub Toussaint – from Amsterdam. The brand was actually going to be called Flynn as to my getting totally hooked on the new Tron remake movie, but Huub was born on a napkin (yeah I know, that old start up story); but it was, in a pub on a napkin.
TriBiz: Talk us through the product development process thus far
DJ: The development has been a truly global affair, with one group testing in Perth Australia and another in New Jersey, with my group in the UK and the Netherlands (Eindhoven research centre – Innosport). The first test suits were based on ideas from SwimSmooth, Huub Toussaint and my own experiences.
We have tested over 40 prototypes to get the right one and I must thank the manufacturers for working so quickly in support of our project. Suits were tested in the lab, in actual race conditions and also with the SwimSmooth training group, as well as some strange group swims with masters swimmers and a guy powering up and down in his blank test suit.
TriBiz: And the fund raising process?
CM: At Turning Point Investments (TPI), we are a group of around a dozen like-minded investors. To date, we’ve invested in 10 businesses of varying description – from start-ups to well-established companies seeking a capital injection. On a monthly basis, we receive one to two investment pitches. These are lively 1 hour to 2 hour sessions, with a main presentation and debate. It’s a bit like [UK TV show] Dragon’s Den. Although, we’re not there to create TV; we’re there to do business.
When we met Dean, there were lots of questions from the presentation. At that time, there were no orders in place – only indications of support. But the market interested us. It is very fast growing worldwide. The social mix of consumers and thus the active demographic group are ideal. We see a base of consumers who value performance and who will pay for it.
We quickly grasped the international potential of triathlon and multisport, even if we had initial questions about the detail. As a group of investors, we are interested and appreciate quality, science and good design [by UK design agency Scothorn Design]. We associated with the Huub brand doing something different and being something of class. On the back of this, the success of the business thus far has been phenomenal.
TM: The Huub funding process was also a record breaker in terms of its speed. Following my initial meeting with Dean on 28 September 2011, we received his pitch on 4 October; and the heads of agreement were signed on 18 October.
An initial courtship and going through the legal process can typically take several months. With Huub, we processed the first tranche of funding in October in a matter of weeks from our first meeting. Ordinarily, this kind of thing simply doesn’t happen. It’s a testament to the value we saw in Dean, Huub and the SwimSmooth team.
CM: At the outset it was a leap of faith. It’s still an emerging market and we had to see indications of support turn into firm orders. Although, as a group, we did see the value of the work that had been done to date. The technical work by the team in the Netherlands was very impressive.
TM: Dean’s investment pack was also very thorough. We saw the competition clearly and where they were placed. Dean’s vision had genuine substance. We bought into the science and saw that there was genuine quality and technology behind the product.
After all, we are talking about a very sophisticated consumer. Dean’s vision for the Huub brand engages well with this consumer in a clear and non-patronising way. Essentially, active triathletes are aware of their split times and are keen to reduce 5-10 seconds or more wherever possible. Triathlon is of course about a massive physical commitment but it’s fairly simple to understand. Triathletes are immersed in this need to beat their own times and beat their opponents.
TriBiz: What special features of the new suit(s) would most appeal to the multisport athlete?
DJ: Well I have to say, all of them! we deliberately put these suits together with true and real function.
Firstly, we can look at what is missing. In fact we have seen test results of forearm panels and they do not work; they could actually be a hindrance… so they are not in. Everything in the suits is there to perform, or improve the comfort and reduce fatigue. Features exclusive to us and where patents have been applied are: bicep release, calf release, crossover restriction panel and the x-oskeleton.
All of these are designed to improve the multisport athlete’s body alignment, reduce arm fatigue and assist in delivering a more efficient stroke. As an industry, and dare I be so bold as to say, we have not really been serving the triathlete the best we can. 85% of triathletes come from a non-swimming background, yet the suits are designed with equal buoyancy proposing all swimmers swim the same and have the same body make up and swim style. Maybe Dan Empfield was right? Up to now, nothing has really changed.
With the Huub suits being offered in 3:5 and 4:4 buoyancies (the first number relates to upper body thickness and the second to lower body thickness), we have been able to create a suit for your swim type.
This aligns with SwimSmooth and its Swim Types study and coaching, which is based around how you swim and your body type. [The Swim Types microsite – www.swimtypes.com – identifies the six fundamental styles that triathletes and swimmers use to swim freestyle. Once the type has been identified, the Swim Type system gives tailored and targeted advice to improve an individual’s stroke.]
TriBiz: Entry level or a premium positioning?
DJ: Premium, but as the company strap line says ‘research-science-reality’; and the reality is not only piecing the suits together using current and developing techniques, skills and materials, but also keeping the price ‘real’.
I firmly believe the top suit Huub Archimedes [currently £495 / US$700] should retail for a lot more, but that is not reality and so there is a balance to be met. There is also a £220 suit, the Huub Aegis, that is far from entry level, being full SCS and no nylon panels, but again priced around reality, not making huge margins.
TriBiz: What do you see are the main needs for the open water swimmer in general?
DJ: For the newbie swimmer and the accomplished, there are two very different needs. The newbie needs a nice well fitting, generous cut and flexible suit – with ease of breathing on the chest and no feeling of ‘straight jacket’.
The more accomplished open water swimmer will be looking for buoyancy that is neutral with great flexibility. And let’s not forget the female athletes, with a less dense muscular structure they do not need 4mm and 5mm; that’s why the Huub-Aura suit has only 3mm chest neoprene thickness and 3mm on the legs/hips.
TriBiz: Do you differentiate between the triathlon and open water swim categories?
DJ: Open water and triathlon are covered exceptionally well by Huub, and better than by any other brand; how can I say that? Because each of the two top suits are available in two differing key buoyancies. Just because someone is an athlete working on their technique and pool time, it does not mean they will not be looking for the best suit they can buy. The same applies to the open water racer; here the 4:4 version is typically more to their liking.
Maybe it’s my running shoe background, but you don’t say to someone needing a medial pillar in their shoe that they can only have cheap shoes!
The open water and triathlon athlete are both catered under the Huub suits and their varying options. The new product we have coming through will further reflect the needs of the competitive swimmer and those seeking FINA approved suits.
TriBiz: What route to market have you opted for?
DJ: We take a traditional retail supporting route. Brands are built by independents. They are the ones willing to give a new brand a shot and help build the line. There are other great options and a friend of mine keeps telling me I should be selling direct with reduced MSRPs, but in all my years’ experience I know it’s with independents that if you support them they will support you in return.
This though does demand discipline, and it’s hard at times to not chase the quick return, especially when cash flow dictates.
We have a strong global distribution model where we have found great partners who understand our goals; and their investment in the brand has been incredible. Across Australia, Canada, USA, Poland, etc – in all these international markets we have amazing partners with passion and a desire to succeed.
TriBiz: Not tempted with a direct-to-consumer model?
DJ: No, yes… I mean no,no, no!
Every now and again I will think, Xterra wetsuits have a great business model; should I have looked in their direction? But I always come back to wanting to support the independent multisport retailer and I enjoy the business with the UK independents especially. They are like old friends and of course they will never give me an inch of bragging rights, for getting the product out there, even if we did win a couple of high profile wetsuit tests!
TriBiz: What are your key countries of focus in 2013 and beyond?
DF: 2013 will be focused on:
- Solidifying the distribution channels and bringing them all into the full product offering
- Launching our very exciting swim program with our Olympic gold medalist male swimmer; and
- Our new, small but very technical clothing line and accessories range.
My main objective though is creating a solid foundation for future launches in 2014 and for that I need more UK and international retailers, growth from my distributors and even more research.
TriBiz: How do you see the wetsuit category evolving in the coming years?
DF: Great question. It scares me where it could be going and at the same time excites me. The current marketplace is a bit of a mess. You can buy a wetsuit for £100 and the same brand supplier will offer you a suit for nearly £500.
I just struggle with how you can do that to a marketplace where a suit cost £200 in 1999 when I had my run stores. How can we devalue a category so much? There is no real margin for anyone at these low-end price offerings and it deteriorates the middle market.
With the low margin value propositions can come big volumes; and it can only be a matter of a few seasons before the low end suit market becomes an eBay driven business where everyone re-cycles the suit they wore once for a big event and then moves on to another low cost offering; we shall see.
What is also a concern is, in my opinion, the lack of discipline when it comes to opening new retail and online outlets. I am a firm believer in giving a strong territory to a retailer (ensuring they are aware of how many suits you expect from the territory of course). It does no favours to anyone to open too many stores that lead to a price war to win sales. It’s great for the consumer in the short term, but not for the long term viability of these local businesses. For a retailer brand it’s not wise, in my opinion.
I think the high end market is exciting. Here, if we invest in research and alliances then we can bring some very exciting suits, materials and ideas to market. There are some great grants, tax benefits and opportunities to take our research at Huub to new levels and with such projects as Patent-Box we can create, protect and reap the benefits through patented ideas and technologies.
Amongst all of this, as an industry, I just hope we keep our ideas grounded as to what the market is willing to pay. The suits you can buy for over £1000 I think really need to be ground-breaking if they are to command such a high price.