Thursday, July 5, 2012

Sports Trader visits Hi-Tec and Asics in Amsterdam

Amsterdam has become the business hub for European brands: it is central, major European cities are no more than an hour and a half away per plane, the Netherlands government offers incentives and because so many major brands have located their head offices in the city, the top creative agencies are working out of Amsterdam.

Sports Trader recently visited the new European head-quarters of Hi-Tec and Asics in Amsterdam, both companies run by executives with ties to South Africa.
Hi-Tec CEO Ed van Wezel and chairman Frank van Wezel
With a founder and chairman who is so fond of SA that he owns a beautiful house against the slopes of Table Mountain and shoe ranges found in just about every outdoor footwear SA store, Hi-Tec is often mistaken for a South African brand. So much so that customers sometimes send emails in Afrikaans in response to the invitation in every Hi-Tec product box from chairman Frank van Wezel to tell him about their experience with the brand. The Dutch-born Van Wezel even manages to respond to these Afrikaans messages! And in their modern, open plan foyer, a pair of Hi-Tec trainers with a thank you letter from former Pres. Nelson Mandela, has pride of place against the wall.
Alistair Cameron, CEO of Asics Europe and chairman of Haglofs, the outdoor brands recently bought by Asics
Alistair Cameron, CEO of Asics Europe and chairman of outdoor brand visited South Africa several times when he was in charge of New Balance SA as head of the brand’s EMEA office. “Everybody is always fighting to get South Africa in their division, because it is such a good place to visit,” he laughs.

Relocating from Southend in the UK to Amsterdam a year ago was in line with Hi-Tec’s three focus areas: Design-Accessible-Performance, says 34-year old Ed van Wezel, who was appointed CEO last year after a lifetime of training by his father, Frank, in all aspects of running the company.

In Amsterdam they have access to some of the most innovative creative advertising minds in Europe, and have also appointed top designers in the shoe industry, he explains.
 Hi-Tec’s new headquarters in Amsterdam
Just 20 minutes from Schipol airport, Hi-Tec is now much more accessible than in England, where visitors often had to travel half a day to reach them. As a family business that doesn’t believe in strict hierarchies, the chairman and CEO are accessible to all employees, who can talk to them over lunch in the staff canteen.  They relocated ten families “and we all share in the same adventure,” says Ed. “This is a much better quality of life.”

This has also had an impact on performance. In SA, sales have grown 20%, especially due to the good response to the Hi-Tec clothing range, he says. In some other Southern Hemisphere countries sales have doubled.

They are currently planning the distribution of their Spring 2013 collection – the first by their new top end designer – and have high hopes of wowing the industry at the OutDoor Show in Friedrichshafen. “The trick is to give people a product that they didn’t realise they needed, but once they’ve got it, can’t live without.” Van Wezel believes he has such a shoe, which will be launched at Friedrichshafen (more in the August/September issue of Sports Trader).
 Asics’ head-quarters in Hoofdorp, near Schipol
Commuting from Amsterdam to his family in England every weekend is much easier than the commute that he had while based in the UK as EMEA head for New Balance and then Director of Business for the largest footwear retailer, Clarks, says Cameron. 

Three years ago Asics appointed him as the first non-Japanese director as head of the European office. Since then, Asics has become completely international with most divisions run by natives of the country or region and all board meetings are only conducted in English, he says.

"It is a lovely company to work for,” enthuses Cameron. “Asics has a different working environment – there is more consideration for the interests of the whole group with decision making and one has to learn to balance patience and gratification. The attention to detail resulted in them making the best shoes for years."

Asics’ new head-office - a stunning modern building, complete with a fully equipped gym and restaurant-style cafeteria – in Hoofdorp, is just ten minutes from Schipol airport. The building, which was completed about a year ago, “is the most sustainable business park in Europe,” says Cameron. For example, even the air-conditioning is run on solar power, and sustainability and energy conservation was taken into account with the design of every aspect of the building.

For many years the market leader in serious running – for example, more than half the runners in the New York and London marathons wear Asics – the brand has made in-roads in other sporting codes over the past few years, as well. Cameron speaks of gains in “Commonwealth sports” like rugby and cricket which gets good media exposure to an affluent consumer market.

Despite the economic recession, Asics Europe, has grown market share across Europe and increased sales by 15% during 2011. It seems that consumers are happy to pay the Asics price.

“We own the market in the higher end price range,” says Cameron.

He ascribes part of Asics’ success to the Japanese principle of Kaizen: continuously striving to improve. Instead of inventing new styles every season, Asics strives to improve on their models that have proven their success.

For example, we are now working on the 19th version of the Kayano,” Cameron explains.

See the August/September issue of Sports Trader for the full texts of the interviews with Ed van Wezel and Alistair Cameron.


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