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Rapha making moves: Shipping from Portland, larger office, new hires

Posted by on February 8th, 2012 at 3:07 pm

Northeast Portland resident Slate Olson is general manager of North American operations for UK-based Rapha Performance Roadwear, a company with over $20 million in sales last year.
(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.

National Bike Summit - Day three-27

Chris DiStefano, shown here lobbying
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).

Cross Crusade #1 Alpenrose-54-54

Olson, a racer himself, has
brought Rapha into
the cyclocross world.

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.

NAHBS_Rapha Roleur Photo Exhibit -4.jpg

Rapha has lent their support,
and name, to several local events.

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.

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  • Scott February 8, 2012 at 4:32 pm

    The first thing Rapha should address is durability. For the price they are asking, their product should last a lot longer than it does.

    It is made in China too, so it’s not like they’re not making their nut.

    I understand they offer repairs now, but that is still stop-gap at best. For those prices, it should last.

    A PR guy from the world leaders in durability like Shimano and Chris King should address this immediately.

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  • Todd Boulanger February 8, 2012 at 5:00 pm

    I loved my Ralpha Plus Fours for winter commuting to my old job. They have taken much abuse and still look good. They fit better than any other locally available product I could find then. I give the first shot to local when it works out – like my shoes (Whites Boots), other winter wear (Filson), etc. The reduction in shipping costs with local distribution will help cut a big chunk of cost assuming you did not wait for sale items or free shipping in the past.

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  • Emre Yildirim February 8, 2012 at 5:10 pm

    Totally agree with Scott. I own several Rapha products, even the very simple ones like their casual t-shirts. I recently bought the backpack, which is very well designed in terms of function. Durability is a nightmare though. All the seams are coming loose at the most crucial points (the straps and the attachments to the bag itself). Same with my shirts and base layers — the seams are all slowly falling apart and unraveling. I recently decided against buying a Rapha jacket, just because I know it won’t last long.

    Such a shame, because I absolutely LOVE the design and functional aspects. That’s my only complaint (a little less of the radioactive pink accents would be nice too). I’d gladly pay the high price, being well aware that it’s a premium product with lots of marketing invested into it. However, it ABSOLUTELY HAS TO last a few years, otherwise I can just get a product by Specialized, Gore, Showers Pass or Ibex. I think Rapha needs to look at Patagonia/North Face/Arcteryx on how to make durable outdoors accessories & apparel. Or even at the competition for that matter.

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    • Scott February 8, 2012 at 5:26 pm

      PATAGONIA! The last word in outdoor wear. I just turned in a 5 year old Patagonia jacket that I had been hit by 3 cars in and it was only when the front zipper broke that it was no longer a viable jacket. I took it to Patagonia and they credited me the FULL purchase price of the 5 year old coat and I am now wearing a brand new Patagonia coat.

      I won a Rapha jacket in a race some years back and the sleeve under my bag strap completely seperated from the jacket in about 45 days of use and my replacement inquiries were not returned.

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      • sorebore February 9, 2012 at 2:13 pm

        That’s why it was a Prime prize!! 🙂

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  • captainkarma February 8, 2012 at 6:57 pm

    I’d rather buy groceries or put my money in the bank.

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  • Matt February 8, 2012 at 8:46 pm

    Patagonia makes some great stuff, but even after many, many years they still have an occasional production run of an item that catastrophically fails due to design, construction or materials related issues. This kind of thing happens with all companies. Especially ones that contract with factories overseas.

    The one thing that Patagonia and Rapha do have in common is their commitment to offering a very high level of customer service. That is not cheap, and often gets abused by consumers who think the warranty extends to their unborn grandchildren. Things wear out due to normal use and abuse. Consumers should not expect companies to replace an item that gets used hard and put away wet every day for 3 years.

    From what I have seen (and I see this stuff every day from multiple companies) Rapha is growing and learning from design, construction, and materials issues and they are correcting issues as they put out new products. The key will be that as they grow, they do not have a disconnect between the problems that consumers encounter, and getting the the product developers, designers and QA people in the factories to correct problems in future production runs of those products.

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  • Jason February 8, 2012 at 10:57 pm

    This is a lifestyle brand that wants to be the paradigm-shift in cycling apparel… one that balances performance with look. As others have pointed out, if their was such a thing, the product durability to price ratio metric is typical of a company looking to make a splash. But now the customer is starting to ask, hey, Is this supposed to be heirloom quality or just another rip-off fashion-driven consumable? If we aren’t buying something made to last, what DO we get from a $200+ synthetic cycling jersey? But hey, Congrats to Chris D. I’m sure he’ll make the most of it one way or another.

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  • Ted Buehler February 8, 2012 at 11:38 pm

    “is not only more than twice the size of their cramped Mississippi Street offices,”

    I looked them up on google — It shows them in the Pistils Nursery building at Failing St. Are they upstairs? I don’t recall seeing a sign.

    At any rate, congrats, and thanks for covering this.

    Ted Buehler

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    • A.K. February 9, 2012 at 9:02 am

      They probably just don’t want random people off the street wondering in. If you need to be there (for a meeting, or whatever) you’ll probably be able to find it. 😉

      I work for a manufacturing company that only receives visits from vendors and delivery folks, and we don’t have street-side signs or anything. Just a logo on our door.

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  • Doug Klotz February 9, 2012 at 1:11 am

    I’d be interested in why the British are not as concerned about loss of manufacturing in their country as we are.

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  • Kit February 9, 2012 at 6:51 am

    As an employee of OIA (a homegrown Oregon company) it is cool to have Rapha as a customer. OIA has a handful of employees that commute by bicycle and our company has rewarded us with a new space in the warehouse to park our bikes complete with a bicycle stand and place to stash our gear.

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  • nuovorecord February 9, 2012 at 9:52 am

    Rapha bibs are the bomb! Best chamois ever.

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  • Tom February 9, 2012 at 1:02 pm

    “We’re saying, ‘Go ride these beautiful roads,’ so the least we can do is help make sure they stay that way.”
    Thanks Slate, you’re absolutely right!

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  • sorebore February 9, 2012 at 2:06 pm

    “Rapha, not just for Japanese cheerleaders anymore!!” That’s ad copy I would like to see ,along with true sizes for athletes that are NOT petite. peace. (no hate directed at Japanese Cheerleaders by he way…)

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  • Ben Guernsey February 10, 2012 at 11:48 am

    The few Rapha items I own have taken more than their fair share of a beating. I don’t expect them to last forever.

    Props to Rapha, I see this as nice for Portland’s growth. I understand a lot of Portlander’s want to complain about how much their products cost because we like to be a low cost DIY town. But a lot of other places this is common price point in fact they like to show it off. To each their own. I am happy Portland is gaining some good jobs from it.

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  • Nathan Gibson February 14, 2012 at 3:50 pm

    Raphas stuff is pretty bomb proof but still it is delicate cycling clothing, not a pair of carhartts. My Rapha bibs have far outlasted any other brand.

    You want Rapha to sew their garments in the US? Good way to turn a $200 jersey into a $350 one. Ever hear of comparative and absolute advantage? Though Keen, new balance and Dr martens have moved some manufacturing to the us and England with decent luck. Look up what happened when ghandi said Indians should only buy textiles made in India.

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