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Executive Insight: Bernard Mariette

Bernard Mariette

Since resigning the post of president at Quiksilver in February 2008, Bernard Mariette has had over a year to reflect on the action-sports industry from a non-partisan position. Mariette has used this time to study where the industry is, the strategies he implemented in his fifteen years at Quiksilver (where he was VP Europe, President Europe, and President of Quiksilver Inc. from '01 to '08), and his outlook for the future of the lifestyle and action-sports world. Mariette recently became the CEO of Montreal based Coalision Inc., the owners of Orage and Lolë and is working to develop the men's and women's outerwear and lifestyle brands into four-season, international mainstays. We caught up with Mariette to find out his strategies for the future and reflections on the past.

Congratulations on the new position. What have you had going on since leaving Quiksilver in 2008?
I was with Quiksilver for fifteen years and really enjoyed every bit of it. Well maybe not the acquisition of Rossignol, but coming from this industry and having built that with Bob, I've learned to love the action-sports world, all the people, from the athletes to the accountants, the retailers, everything. This is a world which I'm really passionate about. When I left Quiksilver I wanted to take some time. I've been working with Bob for fifteen years, like non-stop. It was all about 24-7 and run, run, run, so I thought maybe I should take some time off. I wanted to take photographs, to do nothing. It was very nice. It's exactly what I needed.

It probably really revitalizes you for coming back in to a position like this too at the CEO level?

Yes. One of my passions is to lead and run teams through challenges and towards things we believe deeply in. I love textile, I love the sports, I love the kids, this is what I want to do.

Why did you decide to join Coalision?
It’s difficult to run a company when you're on Wall Street. That was one thing I didn't want to do, to go back to a public company. Coalision was perfect. It's a small company, privately owned – very Canadian. They want to be international, but they haven't gone there.  Coalision was perfect because it's not too small, it's big enough for me to have an impact, but not big internationally. One of my strengths is to know the world pretty well, so it was a perfect match. The culture of the company is very passionate about the product, the sports, nature. Business is just an excuse for the passion. I love that feeling.  That's the only way to wake up happy in the morning. At the end of the day we're still doing things that are stressful sometimes, but that doesn't matter. We really look together at the challenges of the two brands.

One of your biggest successes at Quiksilver was the growth in the European market. Are those brands fairly well distributed over there?

No, they're very small. Like a million dollars, it's nothing. So that's one thing we're going to focus on developing in Europe and internationally – the States, all of the Americas, Russia, all the cold countries

I understand that one of your big goals and initiatives with Coalision is to bring Orage and Lole more into the lifestyle sector.

The Orage brand is already a strong lifestyle brand, but it needs to be a bit more four-season. Today it's very winter focused and we will be spring and fall, that's my ambition, in the next three years and capitalize on the brand and the product.

How would you describe the brands?
Lolë is a brand for active women and is actually bigger than Orage. It’s fairly diverse as far as offering outerwear and lifestyle. It's very balanced for a young brand.

Orage is definitely anchored in the modern mountain culture. Not like Rossignol which was more classic mountain. Orage is into the modern culture. It's about the kids, not the very, very young, it's about 18 and up, the kids that have just left their parents and moving to the mountains, to their first job, but they still love the action sports in the mountains and skiing.

Are you looking to get more penetration into the snowboard world?
We're freeski focused, but there are a lot of people doing both now. There's not a strong division between snowboard and freeskiing like there used to be ten years ago. I'm sure there are kids snowboarding in Orage, just like some freeskiers are wearing Burton, DC, and Volcom. There is a bridge between the brands now.

Do you see the 18 plus demographic as an emerging niche that you're trying to fill?
I really believe that the action-sports brands like Quiksilver, Billabong, Rip Curl and all those guys, we've been working for the last twenty years on developing people. The focus was people between ten to eighteen and making them love the sports, the spirit. Then when they get older, some of them are dropping to other brands, but there are no other brands in the industry after graduation. There are The North Face's of this world, but they're about nature, big mountains, and “Never Stop Exploring.” I think in the action sports, there's not a brand for this category or age.

How do you see the playing field for the outdoor and mountain lifestyle categories in this economy?
(Laughing) There are a lot of things that are very clouded. I've always been in the field growing the business, this time I was watching for the last 12 months, and what I saw is that the value of action sports,  the value of these brands from Quiksilver to Burton are going to be stronger and stronger. It used to be only for kids, I think now it's on a larger demographic scale for two reasons: one, the values of this world, not only money, but respecting the environment, being happy, not wasting, all these values are going to grow. The second reason is that for many years, decades, the brands have been building people around these values and now they're between 28 to 40, and these people still feel as young as when they were 18 but they don't want to dress like a clown, but they still love the sports, but sometimes they aren't sure how to dress. You can either take a brand that was the brand when you were a teenager or a brand which means the same thing for an older demographic. I really believe that what we've built for the last twenty years is having an impact on the thirty-somethings of this world.

You mentioned that one of your goals was in three years to be more into fall and spring. What's your goal from a distibution focus in that time frame?
For Orage, I really believe that being Canadian is a plus. Here we have a Canadian brand with a very strong DNA about nature, passion, about people loving the cold. When we started Quiksilver winter, it was so difficult because we were a summer brand.  Not only because of the product, but also because we didn't' have the right retail network and we had to support people that were just starting into the business as an alternative to skiing. We have grown together with these guys. Now you have the classic ski shop, the outdoor stores, and you have action-sports retailers.

I believe that if you want to survive you have to be able to address all of those. The outdoor sports have to stay true to outdoors, but also recognize that the demographic they're serving, which is a bit older usually, wants a bit of the action sports feel. Maybe not the same brands that the teens like, but they want to have some more active, dynamic brands.  I really believe that is going to increase.

The other thing that is going to happen, all the outdoor sports, not so much in North America but in Europe, are very strong in winter and they are so weather dependant that it's painful. They have to try and find themselves less weather dependent and less season dependent. They have to morph themselves into a true spring and fall focus also. It's just going to kill them if not.

So are you focusing on all three of those channels then?
Yes. We're not going to be the brands for everyone. Volcom and DC are going to be the brands for the kids, but the guys who are a bit older, twentyish, that's going to be our sweet spot.

I understand that the goal of the Rossignol acquisition at Quiksilver was to really take that traditional, hardgoods manufacture into the lifestyle and four-season market as well. Are you taking a similar model and applying that to the Coalision brands?
I think the vision we all had was great, but it's been a failure for many reasons. There's no point going back to that, but if we didn't have the hardgoods debacle, we would have been able to do the textile vision properly. I don't think the vision was the problem it was the short term execution that was the big problem. We had to do it short term and we had the perfect storm. If it could go wrong it did at the same time. There was no snow, we had the subprime, then the credit crisis – the whole world collapsed when we were trying to change these things. In the case of Orage, we already have textile and we're doing it smoothly and we don't have to fix the hardgoods problems, which was like $400 million in that [Rossignol] case. Yes, there is a similarity in the sense that we should expand the brand more into the fall and spring, which by the way is what we did with Quiksilver about fifteen years ago. It was a summer brand and we slowly went into the winter, and now they're selling more winter than summer.

What lessons from bringing Quik into winter and working on the Rossignol plan can you apply to Orage?
Many, many. We learn more from our failures than from our successes. On the one hand there are many lessons, but the world has definitely changed. There's one thing you cannot do, and that's push. If a retailer doesn't want to buy, once you explain your vision, your product, your brand, I don't think you can really push. It is, what it is. In the old world you could push them to get bigger and because of the consumption model everything was fine. Today everything needs to be aligned, your product, your brand and your distribution. If a retailer doesn't believe in your brand, product or vision, then don't force him. Don't try to be aggressive, that doesn't work.

So it's all about the correct fit and relationships?
Yes, and if it takes one more season, it takes one more season. More than before it's about taking your time.

It has got to be refreshing not having Wall Street breathing down your neck?
What I used to say with Rossigol is it was like having two surgeons trying to fix the patient. It's like he's in hospital and needs lots of attention from the doctors and behind their backs you have hundreds of people lined up saying "he's bleeding," "look at his head,” “no you're doing it wrong." And then the guy dies.

It sounds like you really still believed in the Rossignol brand when you left Quiksilver?
I do believe in the brand. It's a hundred years old and has been a leader in its field. The brand and many of its people are great. I really believe that there were things that should have been done before like restructuring the factories, restructuring the industrial model, even the business model. The transition to textile should have been done before. One of the big problems was we tried to do everything at the same time. It's already difficult if the environment is helping, when the economy is against you, it becomes impossible.

What's your take on how things have played out for Quik and Rossignol?
It's very sad because I think it honestly could have worked. I'm not saying we didn't make any mistakes. It's not very black and white, but the environment really played hard ball with us. It's a shame that we didn't realize our vision for the brand, for the people. It has been very tough for people at Rossignol and Quiksilver. If we could do it again I wouldn't, but obviously that's easier in hindsight. At the same time in 2004, we bought DC and that was really smart. Quiksilver is an unbelievable brand. I really believe that Bob is an incredible, charismatic leader and he's going to make this brand stronger. The pain in the neck from the balance sheet is behind them and when people at Quiksilver work at something, they move mountains. I think Quiksilver is refocusing and is going to be stronger than ever. In five years time people will remember but not as painfully as they do now. I remember, I started as president after 9-11 at Quiksilver and I tell you that was so painful. The stock was at the same price, around two dollars, so I'm sure that Quiksilver is going to be stronger than ever in several years.

Rossignol, I think they're going to prove that it's a strong brand. The new model is working very well. They're generating cash and they're going to finish the work we started and going to be a strong brand. I'm not just talking; I really believe that that's going to happen.

Quiksilver is going to go back to the surf core and Rossignol is going to go back to the ski core. In difficult times you have to go back to your core. That's how you're going to survive.