Posted by Jonathan Maus ( Publisher/Editor ) on February 8th, 2012 at 3:07 pm
(Photos © J. Maus/BikePortland)
It’s been four years since UK-based cycling apparel company Rapha chose Portland as its North American headquarters. Since then, the company has grown by leaps and bounds, and now they’re making an even bigger commitment to Portland.
I recently sat down with Rapha’s North American GM Slate Olson to hear about what they’ve been up to. Short summary: A lot! And it’s very exciting for our local bike economy.
The company has recently made several major moves that could lead to a big 2012.
“We don’t want to be chasing breaks all the time, we want to be out there, leading the race.”
— Slate Olson
The first was hiring Chris DiStefano from at Chris King Precision Components — where he’d worked for the past six years. Prior to that, DiStefano spent 10 years as PR director for Shimano America. Getting a guy like DiStefano is a huge coup for Rapha. Olson says he’ll help them with strategic direction and will help the brand reach an audience of discriminating bike lovers beyond those who read bike magazines.
for bikes at the National Bike Summit,
will bring his talents to Rapha.
Having DiStefano on their team, Olson said, will give Rapha a dedicated person to cultivate relationships with major media sources and put together strategic partnerships. Summing up what he feels DiStefano will bring to the company, Olson went to a racing analogy; “We don’t want to be chasing breaks all the time, we want to be out there, leading the race.”
In another hiring move, Olson says they’re going through the final stages of bringing a Rapha employee from London to work at the Portland offices. When they first opened in Portland in 2008, it was just Olson and a few contractors. Now, with this new employee, they’ll have six full-time employees based in Portland (and one in New York City).
Olson also shared that Rapha has signed a two-year agreement with OIA Global Logistics to handle all North American shipping and distribution (Keen Footwear also uses OIA). Previously, Rapha goods ordered from U.S. customers were shipped from the UK. Having Portland-based shipping will mean better service and less hassle — it also means a larger local footprint for Rapha.
And perhaps their biggest news is that Rapha is moving! By mid-March, they’ll be settled into new headquarters in northwest Portland at 19th and Kearney. The space, owned at one time by Paramount Pictures to store film, is not only more than twice the size of their cramped Mississippi Street offices, it also comes with a 35-seat screening room.
Olson says they plan to hold events and screenings, such as live showings of the upcoming spring classics like Paris-Roubaix and the Tour de France this summer. “It allows us to be social again,” says Olson.
Rapha has found success in part by building its brand through visually stunning short films, a surprisingly successful cyclocross racing team, inspiring and epic ‘Continental’ rides, and carefully chosen events and product partnerships. Rapha has also ridden a surge of interest in bike apparel — both urban and performance-minded — that goes beyond the neon spandex many Americans associate it with.
While the company has succeeded, the relatively high price of its products and their “Made in China” label has its detractors. Earlier this year, UK-based Rapha staff published an article on their website originally titled Made in China that directly defended the practice. Many U.S. observers were offended by the article, which made it seem as thought U.S. made goods were not on par with what Rapha can make in China.
Olson was happy to talk about this. He said the company simply wants to make, “The best stuff, with the best partners we can find.” He also pointed out that in the U.K., where Rapha is based, the aversion many Americans have to Chinese-made goods, doesn’t exist. As the uproar around the article spread, Rapha UK apologized and made several edits to the story.
Rapha has had about 80% sales growth each year since it was founded in London in 2004. The Oregonian recently reported their 2010 sales at $11.1 million. Last year sales growth was a bit lower, but still increased to a healthy $20.5 million (globally). According to Olson, the North American market accounts for 35% of Rapha’s total global business.
Looking down the road, Olson said they hope to start playing a larger role in bike advocacy through their Rapha Continental project. Since riding beautiful roads is the heart of that campaign, Olson said he envisions a formal program at the company that will dedicate a portion of profits to preserving them. “We’re saying, ‘Go ride these beautiful roads,’ so the least we can do is help make sure they stay that way.”
Rapha’s success in Portland is just the latest sign that our local bike economy is alive and well.