2005: Business - Gear shift

Lenexa, Kan.

Despite having nearly $20 million in annual golf apparel sales and clothing licenses with the game’s Big Three organizations – the PGA Tour, U.S. Golf Association and the PGA of America – Gear For Sports, surprisingly, is relatively unknown among golfers.

But if you’ve purchased a souvenir T-shirt, sweatshirt or polo at a Tour stop or a major golf event, there is a good chance you own Gear apparel. Though you wouldn’t know it unless you’ve checked the label.

The company has maintained a thriving business by forsaking its identity on behalf of its clients: Gear manufactures “blank” clothing, then customizes it with unique designs or embroidery.

For years, such anonymity has suited Gear just fine. But not any more.

In a branded world where iconic entities increasingly dictate market dynamics, Gear realized it could more effectively grow sales and control its future if it forged its own identity – or two. Rather than try to make Gear into something it could never be, the company recently added two recognizable brands to its wardrobe: Robert Trent Jones Apparel and Sunice (pronounced sun-ice) golf outerwear.

With one name that resonates golf and another linked to rugged performance that has conquered Mount Everest, Gear executives say they now are equipped to become a major player in the premium golf apparel and outerwear markets.

“Gear provides a lot of quality and value, but it’s just viewed as decorated sportswear, not authentic golf apparel,” says Larry Graveel, the company’s president. “RTJ and Sunice give us a profile we’ve never had.”

The market is cluttered with competition, but Gear has set a goal of growing golf sales to

$50 million by 2010. It is an ambitious target, but far different from the unrealistic aspirations of apparel entrepreneurs who dream of making it big in golf each year. Gear may not be a household name, but it has 15 years of experience selling into golf’s retail channels.

More important, it is a $200 million apparel company – golf represents just a fraction of its overall business – and has the resources to make a potent assault.

Gear executives say they understand that building a brand means more than marketing a name. They have a detailed plan to distinguish RTJ and Sunice from the competition. By tapping into its sourcing operations throughout Asia and Central America, Gear says it can deliver a “better price-to-value relationship” and undercut respected rivals such as Fairway & Greene in apparel and Zero Restriction in outerwear.

On the color front, they’re planning an attack on the tyranny of black, navy and tan that so often define golf clothing. Sunice offers colors such as “citrus” (lime-green) and “lava” (red); RTJ’s palette includes “royal” (purple) and “ember” (orange). With its vibrant colors and broad assortment, Sunice also hopes to attract women, who have long been neglected by outerwear makers.

But arguably Gear’s most attractive selling point is something its long-time accounts already know: Complete and correct shipment of goods, delivered on time, nearly every time.

That service level is a point of pride at Gear, so much so that nearly everyone in the organization proudly will tell visitors, at least once, that the company has a 92 percent success rate of shipping goods on its promised delivery dates. (Pro shops often don’t experience such efficiency because their small and varied orders, with frequent “fill-ins,” create distribution challenges for vendors.)

Gear, however, has built its business on its ability to handle complex orders.

Since it was founded in 1974, the company has specialized in embroidery and silk-screen designs for an array of clients. Today, it has nearly 18,000 accounts, and is perhaps

best-known for providing virtually every conceivable type of logoed clothing to roughly 3,700 universities and colleges. Gear’s Event 1 subsidiary has an exclusive license with the NCAA to produce apparel and manage event sales for all NCAA championships, including the Division I men’s basketball tournament (aka March Madness).

The cost to handle these assignments hasn’t been cheap, but Graveel considers it a necessary investment: In 1999, Gear doled out $15 million to install an Oracle-based inventory-management system and spent$2 million this winter to upgrade it. The system is fully integrated with a state-of-the-art, 300,000-square-foot warehouse; it can automatically conduct myriad tasks, such as record the depletion of a single shirt from its racks and detect shipments that contain too many, or not enough, items.

At any given time, Gear maintains in its warehouse $40 million worth of inventory, from which it quickly can pull an order and customize at one of its five domestic factories.

But without viable, authentic golf brands to market, Gear officials realized they couldn’t maximize the potential of these resources.

So Gear struck a licensing deal with Robert Trent Jones Jr., gaining the rights to use one of golf’s most recognizable family names. The RTJ line isn’t meant to personify Jones Jr. or his late father, both famed architects, but rather the upscale legacy of the 600 mostly high-end courses the two men have either designed or renovated.

“It’s more about the lifestyle . . . the luxury and fashion associated with their courses,” says Tim Conlin, brand director for RTJ Apparel.

To bring the line to life, Gear made two key hires: Conlin, to design the luxurious elements, and David Santana, a sourcing expert from Fairway & Greene, to provide Conlin with the necessary fabrics.

Santana says Gear’s primary advantage is the way the company maintains complete supervision over pricing, quality control and worker safety compliance – all of which are major issues when working abroad.

“We don’t have agents or third parties representing our interests,” Santana says. “We don’t leave anything to chance.”

The fall 2005 RTJ collection includes cashmere sweaters ($150-$250), wool trousers ($175) and mercerized cotton shirts ($75-$90). While these are high-end prices, Conlin says RTJ apparel, generally speaking, will cost less than comparable merchandise – as much as $10 less for a polo.

The new lineup finally has earned Gear shelf space in Kapalua Resort’s pro shops, which account for three of the Hawaiian destination’s 10 retail operations. Without a high-end offering, Gear apparel had been restricted to Kapalua’s logo shop, but nevertheless did enough sales to be one of the resort’s top four vendors.

“The typical worries of working with a brand new entry didn’t even enter my mind because they have the backing of a company like Gear,” says Dana Pante, Kapalua’s menswear buyer. She ordered RTJ mostly for its bold colors, but adds, “I liked the subtle things they did, too – the way they did their stripes. Trust me, it’s hard to make stripes look different.”

Gear also intends to position Sunice as a fashion and price alternative in the outerwear category. The company negotiated a deal to become the exclusive U.S. distributor for Sunice golf products with Fletcher Leisure Group of Canada, which acquired the outerwear brand in 2004. By using Gear’s manufacturing and distribution network, and incorporating Fletcher’s “fashion-forward” look, the partners hope to grow Sunice rapidly.

Sunice’s women’s collection, with its bright colors and gender-specific styles (as opposed to smaller versions of men’s designs) already is attracting a strong following; 55 percent of the brand’s sales have been women’s goods, which is an anomaly in the male-dominated category.

Just before the holiday season, Robin Carpenter, an apparel buyer for Carl’s Golfland in Bloomfield Hills, Mich., began carrying Sunice women’s products because “most of the outerwear companies are cutting down on their women’s line. Some only offer one suit.”

That’s a stark contrast to Sunice’s numerous style, color and price options. Sunice, for example, offers a top-of-the-line rainsuit with Gore-Tex, but Carpenter opted for an alternative waterproof Sunice jacket and pants set that sells for $180. By comparison, competitors’ Gore-Tex suits cost $300 to $400.

“Some people hear Gore-Tex and automatically think it’s better,” she says. “But customers are becoming more educated and understanding that they can get quality waterproofing without necessarily having the brand name.”

With the addition of Sunice and RTJ, Gear officials say they are entering a new era, one they hope will prove lucrative.

“We are in an era of specialization,” Graveel says. “People want the best of everything, the best luxury apparel, the best outerwear. Having several brands (each meeting a specific need) makes much more sense.”






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