TWMX All Access: Gaerne USA

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On any Sunday, there’s more than just the racing on the track. There are also challenges for market share; whether it’s bikes, gear, helmets, or boots. This week, TWMX stopped by Gaerne USA, and talked with Bob Rathkamp, who wears the dual hats of being the honcho behind Sinisalo USA (since 1991), and also the importer of Gaerne for the last five years.

Bob is a veteran of the motocross industry, having worked with Jim Hale during the heydays of AXO in the 80s, and as the U.S. honcho behind Sinisalo since 1991. Calm and relaxed in his office, Bob was getting ready to leave for a visit to Gaerne, where he was helping work on the ’04 product line.

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TransWorld Motocross: So where does Gaerne fall in the pecking order among boot brands?

Bob Rathkamp: In dirt I’d like to think we’re the secondary brand behind Alpinestars. We’ve kind of got some knobby-tired emotions around here. We like road racing, we think it’s incredible, but we haven’t really embraced it like we have with the off-road. Gaerne makes a street line and we sell some, but we haven’t done as much to move it along. It looks like Sidi has done it almost the opposite. We hear from dealers that they’re pretty strong in the street. We don’t hear so much other than Alpinestars on motocross boots, but we do hear Sidi on the street side. We could do a better job with that I think.

There are a lot of boots made in China that are high-volume, but you wouldn’t see them at the race track. I think the pecking order, when you’re talking about quality boots, I think we’re the number two brand. Alpinestars is the king, we’ll give them that. They got the holeshot on us and they’ve been out there and done a good job. They do all the right things. They’ve got good marketing, they’ve got guys like Kenny (Safford) working for them, who is just a terrific designer. They’ve got a lot of A1 people. But I’d like to think that’s where we are, and certainly that’s our goal. Like when we started this, there didn’t seem to be anyone in the premium boot market except Alpinestars, and we thought everyone’s going after that cheap boot, and it might be harder to get the premium boot market, but that’s where we think we should go because like I said, if they’re Coke, we want to be Pepsi. We want to be that secondary brand. That’s our goal.

TWMX: What’s Gaerne’s strong point?

BR: With Gaerne, they’re really passionate about the quality, which makes them pretty cool to work with. They don’t sell out, they don’t make anything in China. Romania is kind of like Europe’s Mexico. There’s a lot of interaction there with crossing the border because it’s cheap labor. A lot of people have set up factories in Romania to try to save on the price. Frankly, I’ve asked them, “Why don’t we do that?” They say, “See these people in the factory? They’re our family.” I respect that, but at the same token, you just think, “Man, we’ve got to work twice as hard to sell the fact that we’re selling quality,” and try to say competitive. We’re not selling Prada thongs to women for 500 bucks. It’s motocross boots. Of course, kids have budgets, so they look for deals, too.

More and more, that’s whate hear from our consumers is about the quality, “Man, these things really hold up.” I think there’s some merit to that. I think there are people who still want a quality product. There are people who want cheap stuff, too. I think that’s been true of our sport over the last few years. There have been a lot of entry-level guys. Whether they’re tearing around their cabin in Wisconsin, or out in the farm in Texas. They’re not necessarily hitting the racetrack, but they’re getting acquainted with handlebars and knobby tires and going, “This is fun!” If they stick around and evolve and they buy a CR125, they’re going to be looking for a little bit better quality product, and we hope that maybe we’d be a consideration.

TWMX: Is the brand growing?

Definitely the Gaerne brand has been growing, which has been very encouraging. Alpinestars is the king, no doubt about it, but we’ve really been growing. We’re entering our fifth year already, and from when I started, we’ve grown the sales six times what they were the first year, so that’s good growth. That’s been fantastic. But as you grow it’s harder to get more because you’re really growing, and you’re kind of filling a hole and finding out who your competitors are.

TWMX: It looks like the premium boot market has gotten a lot more competitive lately.

BR: I think a lot of people saw us there and said, “Hey, there’s another brand that looks like it’s succeeding, so we’d better jump in this boot market too, maybe there’s some room.” Sidi changed their distribution about the same time, and the Motonations guys got it. Bill Berroth and Tom Webb and Donnie Emler, they’re all owners, and they’re all sharp guys. I think they’ve fluffed that brand up a little bit and made some inroads. Certainly on the street side I’ve seen their product quite a bit.

Other companies like Fox decided, “Hey, we need to make a new boot, and Thor’s making a new boot, and O’Neal’s making a new boot. So everyone came with more product. Oxtar, Acerbis, and on and on. So there’s a lot of boots being brought into America.

I think Alpinestars leads the way in the premium boot market as being most expensive. Keep in mind, look at their salaries in athletes alone. You’re crazy to think that someone’s not paying for that. When you’re paying Ricky Carmichael $100,000 to wear your boots, and from there on, who knows? Add ’em all together, and somebody has to pay that bill.

We don’t have the biggest budget in the professional side, so we’re trying to give as much value as we can so we’re a little under them. Our top of the line boot retails for $289, and I think theirs is $325. I think Oxtar came in, with their most recent debut, at three-something. Sidi’s maybe between us and Alpinestars at around $300. Those are the premium boots.

We’re right in there, and again, I supposed I’m somewhat biased because I work for Gaerne, but I worked at AXO for 10 years. The original founder of AXO is a real good friend of mine and a real great guy. Even he said to me, “You know, Bob, it’s probably the best-made boot in Italy. Those guys are just crazy about the quality. Everybody knows that. But they haven’t been as stealthy about the marketing as a company like Alpinestars.” It’s about marketing.

Back at AXO, Jim Hale did a terrific job of marketing. Honestly I can remember, we’d look at other people’s boots and try them on and particularly the Gaernes in the Johnny O’Mara days, we’d think, “Man, these fit great.” We’d look at them and try to figure out what they had over us. But I guess you’d say we sold the sizzle and not the steak at AXO. We sold a lot of boots in those days.

If you lived in a perfect world and guys were just wearing things because of their fit, and guys were riding the bikes they wanted to ride, we’d see some different things. I’d like to think you’d see some of that with the boots. If everybody had to buy product, we’d see, I guess.

It’s been interesting and fun to work with someone who’s really passionate about their brand. Of course in business you want to make a profit, but it’s just been a pleasure working with people who are so into their product and trying to make it the best they can make it. It’s been pretty cool. The Gazzola family who owns Gaerne, that’s their deal…quality. Ernesto is the founder, and he’s been at it for quite a long time. He worked for a hiking shoe company when he was a young man, and then set off to go on his own. I think for a while he did make some hiking shoes. I don’t remember the year, but at some point they got into making some motocross boots, and ironically enough, they kind of teamed up with Sinisalo I think, and maybe even JT to make some of the first boots with their name on it. Private label stuff, and then they launched their own line.

They were very successful in the late 80s when Eddie Cole and Answer Products had them. They were selling a lot of boots. That was about the time we entered into the market with AXO, and you’re always looking at the radar screen seeing where everybody is. At the time it was Hi Point boots, which was an Alpinestars, but John Penton was the guy. He really built the brand in this country, and Gaerne was the other brand—it was really a two-horse race. Later, Hi Point went away, and when Eddie Cole sold Answer Products, it seemed like Tucker Rocky wanted to expand the Answer boot name, and they kind of let Gaerne fizzle out. They neglected it. As things evolved, AXO got stronger, and I think Alpinestars decided, “Hey, if we’re going to sell boots in the U.S., we’re going to have to sell them under our own name.” That’s about the time they entered the market, and the rest is history.

TWMX: Who do you sponsor now?

BR: The first guy we sponsored when I took over was Mike LaRocco, which was really cool for us. Mike was kind of going through a transitional time. He’d come from Kawasaki and was on Suzuki, and a lot of people said he was done. Then he started with Ziggy and Factory Connection, and he was our first rider. In fact, I had to go to Chaparral to buy him his first boots, because I’d just started and he’d agreed to a deal with us, and so I had to get boots.

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Of course, that’s evolved to Mike and a four-man 125, and we’ve been involved with that from the get-go. Ziggy’s been great, and we hope to continue to be with them as that’s kind of our focal point.

In Europe they have Mickael Pichon, and Joel Smets.

Over the years we’ve had Timmy Ferry a couple times. Now this year he’s back with Alpinestars because of a Thor deal. Because Parts Unlimited sells Alpinestars, they wanted him to wear them. We have Heath Voss. We have a bunch of off-road guys; Jason Raines, Barry Hawk, Randy Hawkins, Shane Watts, and a few more. We’ve also got the ECC team, and a few other privateer guys, and some up and coming guys like Trent Pugmire, and Dominic Izzi. When you look at Alpinestars list it just goes on and on. Of course, we’ve got to grow properly, too, but we try to pick some guys that we things are pretty visible and that we like.

TWMX: How does it work when you’re working with both Sinisalo and Gaerne? Do you try to lump them together? Or keep them separated?

BR: It’s not a top secret, we’re not trying to hide anything from anybody, but I look back at the marketing when I worked at AXO, and Gaerne was with Answer. The two were strongly associated. It was like if you wore Answer, you wore Gaernes. We decided that if we were going to take on the distribution of Gaerne, we wanted to try to separate it as best we could.

Of course if we can sponsor a rider, where we say we’d like you to wear Sinisalo, but we’d like you to wear Gaerne, too. That’s good, but it’s also important for us to have a F everybody had to buy product, we’d see, I guess.

It’s been interesting and fun to work with someone who’s really passionate about their brand. Of course in business you want to make a profit, but it’s just been a pleasure working with people who are so into their product and trying to make it the best they can make it. It’s been pretty cool. The Gazzola family who owns Gaerne, that’s their deal…quality. Ernesto is the founder, and he’s been at it for quite a long time. He worked for a hiking shoe company when he was a young man, and then set off to go on his own. I think for a while he did make some hiking shoes. I don’t remember the year, but at some point they got into making some motocross boots, and ironically enough, they kind of teamed up with Sinisalo I think, and maybe even JT to make some of the first boots with their name on it. Private label stuff, and then they launched their own line.

They were very successful in the late 80s when Eddie Cole and Answer Products had them. They were selling a lot of boots. That was about the time we entered into the market with AXO, and you’re always looking at the radar screen seeing where everybody is. At the time it was Hi Point boots, which was an Alpinestars, but John Penton was the guy. He really built the brand in this country, and Gaerne was the other brand—it was really a two-horse race. Later, Hi Point went away, and when Eddie Cole sold Answer Products, it seemed like Tucker Rocky wanted to expand the Answer boot name, and they kind of let Gaerne fizzle out. They neglected it. As things evolved, AXO got stronger, and I think Alpinestars decided, “Hey, if we’re going to sell boots in the U.S., we’re going to have to sell them under our own name.” That’s about the time they entered the market, and the rest is history.

TWMX: Who do you sponsor now?

BR: The first guy we sponsored when I took over was Mike LaRocco, which was really cool for us. Mike was kind of going through a transitional time. He’d come from Kawasaki and was on Suzuki, and a lot of people said he was done. Then he started with Ziggy and Factory Connection, and he was our first rider. In fact, I had to go to Chaparral to buy him his first boots, because I’d just started and he’d agreed to a deal with us, and so I had to get boots.

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Of course, that’s evolved to Mike and a four-man 125, and we’ve been involved with that from the get-go. Ziggy’s been great, and we hope to continue to be with them as that’s kind of our focal point.

In Europe they have Mickael Pichon, and Joel Smets.

Over the years we’ve had Timmy Ferry a couple times. Now this year he’s back with Alpinestars because of a Thor deal. Because Parts Unlimited sells Alpinestars, they wanted him to wear them. We have Heath Voss. We have a bunch of off-road guys; Jason Raines, Barry Hawk, Randy Hawkins, Shane Watts, and a few more. We’ve also got the ECC team, and a few other privateer guys, and some up and coming guys like Trent Pugmire, and Dominic Izzi. When you look at Alpinestars list it just goes on and on. Of course, we’ve got to grow properly, too, but we try to pick some guys that we things are pretty visible and that we like.

TWMX: How does it work when you’re working with both Sinisalo and Gaerne? Do you try to lump them together? Or keep them separated?

BR: It’s not a top secret, we’re not trying to hide anything from anybody, but I look back at the marketing when I worked at AXO, and Gaerne was with Answer. The two were strongly associated. It was like if you wore Answer, you wore Gaernes. We decided that if we were going to take on the distribution of Gaerne, we wanted to try to separate it as best we could.

Of course if we can sponsor a rider, where we say we’d like you to wear Sinisalo, but we’d like you to wear Gaerne, too. That’s good, but it’s also important for us to have a Fox rider, and O’Neal rider, and a Thor rider. Because if we want to really sell boots, we want the consumer to feel like he’s a possible candidate no matter which gear he’s wearing.

The phone’s also ringing. There have been some interesting calls made here lately. Pretty much the top guys, whether it’s bikes or clothes, the Carmichaels or Reeds or Stewarts, aren’t going to make any changes this year. But there are a bunch of secondary guys that are moving around, and they’re tipping over stones to see what’s there. We’ll see what happens.

TWMX: What’s your take on Alpinestars having gear on riders here in the U.S., but not selling here?

BR: I saw Gabrielle (Mazzarolo, the owner of Alpinestars) at Salt Lake, I see him all the time. We’ve been friendly before I started with Gaerne. He used to stop by here and we’d talk, like when we worked together during the days of the Yamaha of Troy sponsorship. He looks at me a little differently now because I’m selling boots. I’m sure I’m more the enemy, but you know, it’s the short life we live, and I figure we can coexist. I mean, you’re never going to own 100% of the market, so what’s the big deal? So I tried to talk to him and asked, “When are you doing the clothing? ‘Never!'” That was his immediate answer, “Never in the U.S.”

I see them pushing the Kenny Bartram, and the KTM team, and if you never thought you were going to bring it here, then why would you spend that money? Because it’s not free. If you say, “We’re trying to advertise boots more,” c’mon. They’ve already got everyone in their boots.

I think as they continue to grow, and their appetite for sales continues to be more, that the inevitable is that they will launch that gear. I think enough people will go, “Man, your gear’s cool,” where can I buy it? I believe they’ll hear that and say, “What are we waiting for? What are we afraid of? Let’s go.”

TWMX: Are the Gaerne boots made in the same area of Italy as the rest?

BR: Yes, in Treviso. It’s a small little town. It’s interesting though, because everything seems to be like going back east. They’re old cities. You’re driving around and you’re kind of in a cornfield. You take a right and there’s Sidi. There’s Alpinestars, Gaerne, and the guys who private label the Fox boots. Everybody’s in this little village.

You know the leather salesman, he goes from place to place, and the guy who makes soles, and the guys who sell the buckles, they’re all located there. It’s such a hotbed for footwear, not just motocross, but skiing, hiking, and footwear, that Nike has a little satellite office there. They feel it’s important because there’s so much stuff happening there, they want to be in that pulse. Not that they’re making anything there, but they want to have a little design office and hear what’s going on.

It’s funny, I was there in December. They picked me up at the hotel, and we were driving down the street, and there was Gabrielle. The guys I’m with say, “Yeah, he has coffee at that place every morning.” It’s just a little town.

You go to lunch and run into guys from Sidi. It reminds me of the cartoon I used to see when I was a kid with the wolf and the sheepdog. They’d go to the field in the morning and punch in, chase each other and beat each other over the head all day, then at 5:00 they’d punch out and say, “Bye, Steve.” “Bye, Bob. See you tomorrow.” It’s almost that way. Everybody’s working their butts off to try and gain market share. It’s what they do, and for the most part they’re proud of the fact that they’re making boots for the world, but of course, they want to be the shining star and say, “But I’m the guy.”

TWMX: Do you do much direct retail sales?

BR: We hadn’t done much of that, because dealers tend to not like it, but I’ll tell you what, it’s been difficult to compete with the Parts Unlimited giant. T