Written by Arthur Treff | Photos by Anthony Harden & Courtesy of Olympia Motosports
A single story brick building in Hendersonville is the home of Olympia Motosports. There are no signs, nor retail windows, and the door is propped open.
Modest décor shows off framed vintage motorcycle poster art in the two-seat reception area. In the next room, a freestanding full-length mirror reflects a collection of technical outerwear hanging from industrial pipe. The large, central table looks multi-purpose, easily accommodating meetings, the layout of clothing patterns, or lunch duty.
An attractive small kitchen counter sits behind. Populated with a Keurig coffee maker, heated sandwich press and flanked by a full sized refrigerator, all signs indicate that this shop takes care of its employees. Autographed pictures of customers, thanking the Olympia Motosport team for superior service, are tastefully displayed,
Noise and sunlight from the street abruptly flood the hallway. Amidst the swish of ballistic nylon and flashes of day-glow, the owners of Olympia emerge, clutching their helmets. They fill coffee mugs from the machine and remark on what a lovely day it is for a ride.
Kevin Rhea attended the University of Cincinnati, attaining a Bachelors in fashion design. Student internship found him working a sewing machine on the assembly line at an apron factory.
The Gotham Grind
After graduation, he moved to New York City, and like generations before him, paid his dues in the fashion garment industry, taking tedious jobs to climb the ladder of success. Years of work yielded a good posting at First Manufacturing, a Pakistan-based, contract clothing manufacturer specializing in leather goods. ‘First’ is the largest leather garment manufacturer in the world, producing goods for many well-known brands.
Wilson Leather became Kevin’s account. Responsible for sales as well as design, Kevin landed where every fashionista dreams of: designing a men’s leather clothing line for an internationally recognized brand, and getting paid to do so. Life was suddenly very good.
Kevin drew up a storm of garments, his employer cut and stitched them together, and Wilson Leathers sold millions out of their retail supply chain. At the same time, First Manufacturing put Kevin in charge of their own motorcycle apparel line, which appealed to Kevin, an avid motorcyclist since age thirteen.
“I was working for First Manufacturing—Wilsons was my account—doing clothing design and sales,” says Kevin. As a fashion design student coming of age in the heyday of Calvin Klein and Ralph Lauren, all young designers dream of achieving that level of success.”
To stay informed about the moto-market for First Manufacturing, Kevin attended trade shows in Italy, Germany and the annual Motorcycle Retailers Show in Indianapolis, Indiana. Here, suppliers from all over the globe displayed their wares to buyers from the large dealers and distributors.
Motorcycle clothing has evolved from its humble beginnings, where jeans, work boots, and a t-shirt were all that stood between the pavement and a rider’s skin.
Today, protective clothing is made from leather or synthetics, and includes lightweight armor embedded in elbows, back, and shoulders. Sophisticated coatings and membranes keep the rain out, while engineered ventilation systems allow cooling air in. Bright fluorescent colors and retro-reflective tape keep riders safely visible, day and night.
At the show, European manufacturers displayed stylish, protective garments, crammed with safety features that would make NASA smile, with high altitude price tags. Other manufacturers, playing to the low end of the market, copied the Europeans’ styling, using inferior materials and processes.
It was during his first Indy retail show that entrepreneurial enlightenment struck.
“When I saw a need in the market for high quality, safe, motorcycle apparel at reasonable price points, I had to do it,” says Kevin. “I decided to switch dreams. I’d leave the high-flying fashion industry, in exchange for helping to save lives…and being my own boss.”
Creating a line of safe, protective clothing that most riders could afford drove Kevin in a different direction, away from his successful fashion career. His clothing business would be more of a public service, Kevin felt. There was a lot of work ahead for the young man, but by then he was part of a team.
Flash from the Past
Back in Ohio during his senior year, Kevin dated a woman named Karilea, which was bittersweet, because life sent them in different directions, and they lost touch. Ten years later, while waiting for an elevator in New York City, he spotted a familiar face…lightening does strike twice. A year later, Karilea and Kevin Rhea were married and settled into a home in Croton-on-Hudson, New York.
Since graduation, Karilea had also worked fashion jobs with high as well as low visibility, and found a niche for herself representing Italian knitwear manufacturers to American retail stores. The clothes were manufactured in Italy, labeled, and shipped in volume to high-end department stores, Saks Fifth Avenue being one of her largest customers.
With 38 years combined experience in the apparel industry, the Rheas were both skilled designers, and in addition, each had developed competencies that would serve them well in this new endeavor.
Kevin was very familiar with the all the steps required in taking a sketch to a mass produced garment, and he had worked with manufacturers in the United States, Pakistan, India, Korea, and China.
Karilea’s expertise with retail stores, offered her in-depth knowledge of product forecasting, production planning, importing, and inventory control. These skills would come to be extremely complimentary to Kevin’s manufacturing experience.
Capitalizing on the need for high quality motorcycle garments at a more affordable price required controlling all aspects of design, marketing, sales and distribution. No middle men would be invited into the sales channel, the Rhea business would bypass distributors, passing the savings on to their customers, which meant the new business would have to wholesale directly to individual dealers.
Fabric of Trust
European motorsport clothing manufacturers had been using leather as well as a heavyweight nylon or polyester fabric to protect the wearer’s skin against the heat and abrasion of a high-speed slide on pavement.
Cordura, a proprietary blend of nylon/polyester threads was developed by DuPont during WWII and found usage as aircraft tire reinforcement, parachute parts, and high wear areas of backpacks and combat clothing. Other nylon-based textiles are turned out by fiber manufacturers, but the highest quality, toughest fabric is still manufactured by DuPont and marketed under the name ‘Cordura.’
Abrasion testing data can be seen on DuPont’s website, and Cordura brand fabric performs between two and fourteen times better than generic nylon blends in controlled testing.
Less expensive—and therefore less trustworthy—clothing is composed of this generic nylon. Kevin and Karilea planned from the outset to use only materials of the highest pedigree, therefore, all the important pieces of their garments would be sewn from Cordura. All garment components would be from trusted brands, including YKK brand waterproof zippers, and armor approved by the European standards, CE (Conformité Européenne). It was a core value for their products to save lives if called upon to do so.
[quote float=right]Being avid motorcyclists, they had spent cold rainy days in the saddle and ridden in searing heat— these two knew what features would best serve their customers.[/quote]Safety was not the only concern. Being avid motorcyclists, they had spent cold rainy days in the saddle and ridden in searing heat— these two knew what features would best serve their customers. Plus, their fashion background enabled them to design gear that looked good too.
The young designers continued working at their fashion jobs but sketched motorcycle protective gear and business plans in their spare time. When the moment was right, they gave notice and launched into their new venture…just when Al Qaeda launched theirs.
Post 9/11 New York was no place to start a new enterprise. Small business loans were anathema to banks, and there was a sudden shortage of industrial space. Undeterred, the pair financed their fledgling business with credit card debt—every piece of bank junk mail—promising initial zero percent credit and zero annual fee—was mailed back in.
Every new business we’ve spoken to puts a lot of brainpower into the name. How could the pair gain enough credibility to entice people into buying their garments?
The answer came from fashion industry experience: co-marketing. They researched and secured a license to use the name and logo from a well-established leather glove manufacturer named Olympia Sports. This company had been started in 1940, and by 2001 enjoyed a 70% market share of leather and textile motorcycle glove sales.
Karilea and Kevin would distinguish their clothing company from the glove establishment, by using the name, Olympia Motosports.
How on earth does a two-person company running on credit card debt launch a complete clothing line? Sure, it would require contract manufacturing, but how do you choose one?
Picking a Partner
Kevin was acquainted with manufacturers of leather, and Karilea knew companies that could knit, but the cornerstone of Olympia’s line was to be DuPont’s very expensive Cordura fabric, which came with strict application instructions for manufacturers.
They asked DuPont which garment factory had the most experience working with their product. It turns out that a facility in China is the largest handler of Cordura in the world. Olympia got busy.
A quote package was sent, and the relationship was started. Olympia’s clothing is so complex that it requires 20 pages of schematics to define one jacket to a clothing manufacturer, and Kevin used an industry standard four-step process to bring the garments to market, a process that he follows to this day.
The first prototype out of the factory is usually a quantity of one, handcrafted by pattern makers. During the build, quite a few explanatory emails are required, and when finished, the sample is shipped to Kevin for inspection. Once the factory has understood his feedback, a second prototype batch of a higher quantity is run on the production line.
Second-run prototypes are not shipped to Olympia. Instead, Kevin takes the time to inspect the second batch on the factory floor in China. Feedback sessions include adjustments to materials and processes, with Kevin giving suggestions as to the manufacturing flow. This process can take days.
The third prototype round, or ‘pre production’ run, is considered 99% correct, and in a larger quantity than the second. Shipped directly to Olympia, these garments are used for product advertising photos, as well as sales samples for sales reps and trade shows. If corrections are required, they are usually minor, and can be communicated via phone and email.
While the pre-production samples were being photographed for sales collateral, Karilea had to rub her crystal ball and forecast how many products Olympia would require for a half of a year. This was crucial, because the manufacturing lead time is between four and five months. She had to calculate quantities of what products, colors and sizes would be sold in the immediate future, and then (big gulp) write a sizeable check to the manufacturer…with no sales orders in hand.
When Karilea’s production batch was ready, Kevin flew to China to inspect everything before the lot was boxed for shipping to the Olympia warehouse stateside.
Now came the acid test: They had to sell all the garments in the warehouse to recoup their investment. Olympia’s public debut was at the retail show in Indianapolis. Their booth, bearing the same logo as the well-established Olympia glove line, was crowded. A buzz had been created; everyone wanted to see the new, expanded Olympia line.
“Co-marketing is very common in the fashion industry. Unknown clothing lines will license a logo, say, from the NFL, or NASCAR, or an established designer, to gain a market foothold. It provides instant credibility,” says Kevin.
The Rheas were pleasantly surprised by the show response; they booked more orders than expected, which had gained them some breathing room. The preparation, planning, and financial risk were moving them in the right direction. Olympia’s market share grew, mostly by word of mouth, and they became very busy.
Tragic attacks on the World Trade Center created a large surge in the New York City suburb residential real estate market. Manhattan dwellers, fearing another devastating event wanted out of the city. This was the Rheas’ chance to sell their home and erase the credit card debt that financed the startup.
Thinking in the Box
Location is important, as it drives shipping costs, especially if you’re wholesaling directly to your dealers, so Olympia let motorcycle statistics guide them. Data shows that the highest concentration of motorcycle retail activity takes place east of the Mississippi.
Karilea had a brilliantly simple idea: She drew a box on a map, with corners anchored in New Orleans, Miami, Bangor, and Cincinnati. Next, two intersecting lines were drawn between the four corners. This intersection depicted the epicenter of the motorcycle world, and it happened to fall in the Asheville area, a region that is internationally known for superior motorcycling roads. Both of these facts swayed the Rhea’s decision.
They purchased a brick building in Hendersonville’s Terminal District, which has been Olympia’s home for the last 11 years.
“Our first five to six years—80 to 100% annual growth—2008 being our best year,” says Kevin. “Then the recession hit. Sales dropped off a bit, and we’ve been working hard to get back to ’08 levels since.”
In a little over a decade, Olympia’s sales are in the multi million dollar range, and the company in Hendersonville, North Carolina, has become one of the most trusted manufacturers of motorcycle clothing, with a reputation for high quality, safety, and good value.
Every industry has been hit hard by the economy and sales of new motorcycles have been down since 2008. Moto clothing sales have been held down by two additional factors: 2013 has been the rainiest spring and summer in forty years, so people aren’t riding as often, and the second reason is the bank crisis.
Dealers used to be able to bundle protective clothing purchases into new bike sales, allowing the buyer to finance it all. That retail courtesy has dried up, because a new vehicle can be repossessed, while helmets and armored garments cannot.
Throughout the company’s history, Kevin and Karilea have stuck to their original business plan: To produce the highest quality protective clothing possible at a modest price point, their strategy is simple:
Selling factory direct to retailers.
Sourcing materials of only the highest quality.
Manufacturing with a trusted, quality, factory at a competitive price point.
Keeping their overhead costs under control.
Relying on customer word of mouth to grow the business.
Being personally involved with Olympia dealers and customers.
Cost control by direct wholesaling may sound trivial, until you consider the day-to-day details involved. Bypassing the large distributors and selling directly to retailers is work.
In addition to the daily communication required with all their American outlets, the Rheas load a truck with two racks of clothing and for six weeks each year, visit most of the Olympia dealers. This annual roadshow is not only an opportunity to demonstrate changes to the product line, it’s also a crucial relationship building exercise.
The financial crisis has made most Olympia retailers cautious about the cost of stocking, especially since fewer people are buying new gear. Added to that challenge, distributors are now offering Olympia retailers consigned stock of competitors clothing line—meaning a dealer only pays for what he sells.
Olympia, in adapting to this challenge, has brought on two of the larger web-based retailers, both known for their quality of service. This has boosted sales in the sagging market.
United States headquartered motorsports clothing manufacturers abound, but Olympia is the only one considered a ‘mom and pop’ enterprise. Evidence for the difference this makes is everywhere. For instance, Kevin personally answers 95% of all customer emails.
Emailing is time very well spent, as not only is he bonding with the individuals who wear his gear, but he also gains valuable feedback, can monitor trends in product popularity, and keep tabs on the competition.
Trusting the Gear
“Eighty percent of the motorcycle protective gear on the market today is low cost, and low quality, driven solely by profit margin,” says Kevin. “We’re different. Safety is our primary concern, not the bottom line. We still use Cordura, even though the cost has doubled in the last ten years.”
A read through the customer feedback bin on their website www.olympiamotosports.com erases any doubt that Olympia’s safety and comfort mission is successful. It is filled with customer testimonials about how well the gear works. The stories range from driving rain, searing heat, collisions with vehicles, bears, and deer with the ensuing high-speed pavement slides. ‘Your gear saved my life’ is a statement repeated over and over.
“The best part of this job is being our own boss,” says Kevin. “Olympia isn’t controlled within some huge corporate umbrella, so we can react quickly to challenges as well as customer feedback. That’s very gratifying.”
Every business has its challenges, and for a manufacturer of expensive apparel, the tough one is forecasting sales projections—get it right and you end the season with very little inventory and zero unhappy customers. Miscalculations, on the other hand, are costly.
“When a visitor looks at all the inventory out there,” says Karilea, nodding toward Olympia’s warehouse door, “they see a colorful display of new products. When we look through that door, we see our retirement draped on those hangers. If we don’t empty the stock, we can tack another couple years onto our working lives before we can retire.”
Kevin and Karilea comprise two of the five employees (plus 16 independent sales reps) that Olympia employs. They firmly believe in hiring the right full-time person and paying them a good wage, rather than the popular trend of using only part time workers to reduce costs and avoid having to pay for their benefits. We were pleased to learn that in addition to good wages, the Rheas pay all of their employees’ health insurance premiums.
Speaking of stewardship, Olympia made a concerted effort to spread some of the manufacturing to North Carolina clothing factories. Some of their garments have zip out insulating liners, not nearly as complex as the Cordura outer layers, which could be manufactured locally. They were shocked by the results.
Prototype packages were sent to four leading companies. One refused to private label anyone’s garments, declining to work with Olympia.
Another revealed itself to be a sweatshop every bit as bad as those Kevin had seen in Pakistan and India. They were removed from the running instantly. The remaining two factories never got around to delivering prototypes, in spite of a long lead time, Karilea’s coaxing, and extending Olympia’s production schedule to accommodate them.
This behavior was the polar opposite to their China based manufacturer, who has clean, state of the art facilities, and an educated staff who match Karilea and Kevin’s zeal for making quality garments. They have assigned pattern makers to the Olympia account, as well as English speaking liaisons to communicate critical data to the operators on the factory floor.
For most of us, it seems scary to ship a package of drawings to an overseas manufacturer, but bear in mind, that for Kevin and Karilea, they’ve been doing this since college.
It helps that, in addition to designing the clothing line, they both have the experience to make patterns, cut, and then sew an entire Olympia garment themselves. Many times during a factory inspection tour, it’s not surprising that Kevin will show his manufacturer how to tweak the build process to achieve less waste, or save time.
We’ve heard the true horror stories of Chinese factories pirating a United States company’s intellectual property, thereby competing for the same customer base.
Olympia trusts their Chinese partner for a few reasons. The factory manufactures a large volume of Cordura based products, and news of any piracy would find its way back to DuPont, which could jeopardize the entire business. Secondly, there isn’t a market for protective gear in China, motorcycle protection isn’t a part of Chinese culture, most ride in sandals without helmets.
We’ve heard this many times, but never tire of hearing what advice successful entrepreneurs would give to someone wanting to follow in their footsteps.
“Whatever business you start,” says Kevin, “you’d better love it, because the ‘ups’ are lovely, but the ‘downs’ are pretty devastating. Be prepared to work hard, and in this economy, be well capitalized so that you can keep the doors open until you’re profitable. Finally, be smart. Pay attention to everything, because you never know what comes next…you must be willing to change direction if the need arises.”