TWMX All Access: HJC Helmets

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This week we popped over to HJC Helmet’s headquarters in Cerritos, CA, and visited with Steve Blakeney, their Product Development Coordinator.

Steve is a transplanted Canadian who came to California from London, Ontario. “I was at an Action Accessories distributor meeting, and I saw what was going on, and I’m like… “Let me try and paint a helmet.” So the big boss says… “Alright smartass… try it.” Gave me a helmet. The first helmet I painted, I didn’t know that you had to like scuff the paint to give it some tooth, so I’ve got some graphics like sliding off the side. But I managed to make it stick and the first graphic we did went out and had good success. After six or seven years later of freelancing for HJC, they said, “Come on out to California and we’ll use you full-time.”

Now Steve’s riding almost 70 miles a day aboard an HJC-supplied Honda CBR600 (as well as a pair of Yamaha YZs), testing product. “You want to talk dream jobs… you mean… that’s one thing that’s really cool. But the thing is, you’ve got engineers and the big brains in Korea to do a lot of the engineering, but a lot of these guys don’t have the opportunity to ride. In Korea, you can’t ride a motorcycle on the freeway. It’s just against the law.”

“They depend heavily on me to go out there and get some of that input, and of course you get feedback from guys like Rich (Taylor) or Aaron Yates on the product. They’re the guys that’ll go out there and tell you if it works at 140 m.p.h.—I’ll leave that to them.”

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TransWorld Motocross: How about a little bit of history on HJC?

Steve Blakeny: Sure. They started off, around thirty years ago in Korea, making a lot of riot gear related stuff. It was a pretty good business out there and I guess they saw that a lot of the materials lend themselves to motorcycle helmets, so they started doing motorcycle helmets domestically in Korea.

W.K. Hong was the eldest brother who started the company. I guess it would be ten years to twelve years after that, they sent his younger brother, Scott Hong, out here, to see if they could get some work started in the U.S. Scott cruised around the country for two or three years, going to SNELL, seeing what the standards were, trying to hook up with distributors and whatnot. I guess about three years later he hooked up first initially with Bob Miller at Helmet House, who looked at the product and basically said ‘Okay, we’ll hold your hand through this and tell you what we need to happen for you to be a real player in the States.’ Little did they know at that time that HJC would become so huge.

So Bob Miller contacted a bunch of his current Shoei distributor buddies… ’cause at the time they were all Shoei guys… so you had Bob Miller at Helmet House, you had Bob Sullivan at Sullivan’s, Ron Robinson at Castle Sales and way back then it was Jack Ramsey out in Canada, with Action Accessories. They were all Shoei guys and they saw this Korean company coming in who could be a great mid-range helmet, as opposed to the high-end Shoei stuff. It just went from there. They developed and got better, and it must be almost ten years, they became the number one helmet in the U.S. in volume… not necessarily in bra name, but in volume sale. It’s been like that now for ten years and by a pretty huge margin.

That’s pretty much the whole history of the thing. It’s really a family business, and you know… of course, there’s a big core of really good engineers and creative and what not, and this office really started taking shape about five years ago. For the first five years Scott literally ran this thing out of the garage out of his home out here in Cerritos, which is like, two minutes away, and then obviously it just got too big for that and then he developed this office (which also houses Vigor Sports and Chatterbox).

TWMX: So what gets handled out of this office?

SB: Sales and warehousing are handled through distributors. We’ve got a section back there for warranty service, and our race helmets. It’s been referred to as a marketing office.

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You’ve got the President of HJC, you’ve got George, who’s our in-house attorney, who also helps out a lot with the marketing. He’s a pretty dynamic Korean-American guy who’s like really into the whole thing. He’s really involved with all the distributors and the whole bit, and then we’ve got Chuck who’s my assistant, the tech guy for the race program… Isaac is my other assistant for the painting… and then I do the design and the advertising and the race program out of here. I’m also really closely linked with the director in Korea… H.G. Lee… a guy that used to work at Ford Motor Company. He’s a pretty cool dude… and I work a lot with him.

Besides graphics, I do all the helmet testing out here, experimenting with ventilation and stuff, that’s been developed out of this office. Normally I’m just a design guy and all of a sudden I’m doing more like product development stuff, so it’s pretty cool.

We’ve developed a more quiet helmet out here by playing with the bottom edge trim and we’ve developed a channeling system to flush humidity out, and that’s all just been riding around and trial and error… you know… riding around with a roll of duct tape and trying stuff… not incredibly scientific, but we’re getting the results… and then when I get those results to Korea, then the real techie engineer guys get in there and make it happen.

TWMX: How about a quick description of your model lines.

SB: There are two main divisions. Our mid-range is a polycarbonate composite that we use, and it still meets SNELL and DOT and everything else, it’s just that to meet the SNELL standard, it tends to be a little bit heavier than fiberglass combinations… which is why we have it in our mid-range line. Then you get into the upper end, like our AC series, and it’s going to be a fiberglass… though it could be a Kevlar-composite, you know, depending upon the variations and all… depends on what you want to attain to meet SNELL and what weights you want to meet.

We’re toying around with carbon fiber, which has some really nice properties, and hopefully we can try and maybe implement that before SNELL 2005 comes in. And that’s the main thing for the outer shell.

For the inner shell, actually that technology hasn’t changed in a whole helluva long time… it’s basically just very technical layering of EPS.

TWMX: What are you doing to help build HJC’s high-end brand image?

SB: HJC achieved its success without advertising at all… and that was thanks in a huge part to building a good helmet, at a really good price, and what we had was probably the best sales force in the States. With the three distributors in the U.S., and the one in Canada, they were almost like helmet specialists. Yes, there are other big distributors out there, like Parts and Tucker… but you know, the guy shows up at a dealer’s counter with a phonebook of stuff… whereas we had our guys showing up a small little brochure with some Shoei, some HJC and maybe some clothing, so they had a lot of time to focus on your product, and that’s how HJC got to be number one before we ever even ran one consumer ad.

But about five years ago, right about the time that I came in here full-time, they started wanting to add onto the mid-range with a more high-end product, which is the AC series. I made them understand, with the help of the distributors explaining, that to do that, you needed to have more product recognition, because it wasn’t just good price that was going to push the product… it was quality and it was prestige of the product… like Arai and Shoei with years and years of race heritage. You’ve got to develop it. So with Scott and W.K.’s permission, we fired up the race program, which included off-road and street, and we ran it for the first year with a really little budget, and we started off doing a little bit of consumer advertising and we’ve had really good success considering how puny our budget is and from there we start developing a name.

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Now we’ve got riders coming to us as a real viable upper-end brand, especially motocross… we have a lot of interest in the product, but as you know in motocross, the prices of some of the top guys are way up there, and also, you have Fox and Thor… heavy hitters… and they have their own helmets now, so it’s really hard to compete as a helmet company with these guys. But I think we’re going to have a really good year next year, but that’s been the main focus… just to start to get out there and earn the reputation. Not just go out there and buy some big-name racer or whatever… go out and earn it. For example, in road racing we’ve got Aaron Yates… we’ve got a 600 championship last year, and Ben Spies … a new star… and you know, we’ve got our association with Pridmore and his riding school and the whole bit.

Then the motocross side we’ve got Nate Ramsey for two years, we’ve got him on again next year hopefully, and we’re talking to some serious 250 guys, to up the ante for next year. I had a talk with Scott and looks like we’re going to have a more aggressive budget for next year, so I’m excited about that, because we’re starting to get some success with the AC, and you have to understand, the guys in Korea, sometimes, have difficultly gauging the success of the AC series, because our bread-and-butter at the CL series… and you’re selling hundreds of thousands of those… and then you turn out with your AC series and you sell maybe tens of thousands of those, and they’re like “Well, what’s up?” It’s a whole different market… there’s not that many people. So they’re starting to understand that, and realizing that they’ve got to get behind it.

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If you’ll notice in our ads, it almost looks like a racer showcase… in the sense where I’ll run an ad—it looks like an Aaron Yates ad, or it looks like a Nathan Ramsey ad, ’cause we really want to show, ‘Hey, this is what this guy wears and he’s out there and he’s riding his ass off.’ You know what I mean… that kind of stuff? As opposed to just being like a product ad where you’re talking features and what not… so that’s the whole concept there.

The whole combination they’re starting to put together… because the thing is, it was always amazing is… HJC has been like the number one brand in North America for so long, and so little people knew the actual name ‘HJC’ you know… so that’s what we’re trying to do with the program… it’s turned out pretty good. We’re slowly getting there, and I’m pretty stoked about it.

TWMX: You’ve had kind of a bad string of injuries to the MX guys that you sponsor.

SB: Yeah, yeah… it’s been rough… but that’s just the nature of the business, I mean… those guys are riding at levels that you and I could never even friggen imagine in… if they’re going to get hurt, or whatever, you can’t say jack about it. It was a rough luck for us, but next year I want to get the motocross pool deepecus on your product, and that’s how HJC got to be number one before we ever even ran one consumer ad.

But about five years ago, right about the time that I came in here full-time, they started wanting to add onto the mid-range with a more high-end product, which is the AC series. I made them understand, with the help of the distributors explaining, that to do that, you needed to have more product recognition, because it wasn’t just good price that was going to push the product… it was quality and it was prestige of the product… like Arai and Shoei with years and years of race heritage. You’ve got to develop it. So with Scott and W.K.’s permission, we fired up the race program, which included off-road and street, and we ran it for the first year with a really little budget, and we started off doing a little bit of consumer advertising and we’ve had really good success considering how puny our budget is and from there we start developing a name.

[IMAGE 3]

Now we’ve got riders coming to us as a real viable upper-end brand, especially motocross… we have a lot of interest in the product, but as you know in motocross, the prices of some of the top guys are way up there, and also, you have Fox and Thor… heavy hitters… and they have their own helmets now, so it’s really hard to compete as a helmet company with these guys. But I think we’re going to have a really good year next year, but that’s been the main focus… just to start to get out there and earn the reputation. Not just go out there and buy some big-name racer or whatever… go out and earn it. For example, in road racing we’ve got Aaron Yates… we’ve got a 600 championship last year, and Ben Spies … a new star… and you know, we’ve got our association with Pridmore and his riding school and the whole bit.

Then the motocross side we’ve got Nate Ramsey for two years, we’ve got him on again next year hopefully, and we’re talking to some serious 250 guys, to up the ante for next year. I had a talk with Scott and looks like we’re going to have a more aggressive budget for next year, so I’m excited about that, because we’re starting to get some success with the AC, and you have to understand, the guys in Korea, sometimes, have difficultly gauging the success of the AC series, because our bread-and-butter at the CL series… and you’re selling hundreds of thousands of those… and then you turn out with your AC series and you sell maybe tens of thousands of those, and they’re like “Well, what’s up?” It’s a whole different market… there’s not that many people. So they’re starting to understand that, and realizing that they’ve got to get behind it.

[IMAGE 4]

If you’ll notice in our ads, it almost looks like a racer showcase… in the sense where I’ll run an ad—it looks like an Aaron Yates ad, or it looks like a Nathan Ramsey ad, ’cause we really want to show, ‘Hey, this is what this guy wears and he’s out there and he’s riding his ass off.’ You know what I mean… that kind of stuff? As opposed to just being like a product ad where you’re talking features and what not… so that’s the whole concept there.

The whole combination they’re starting to put together… because the thing is, it was always amazing is… HJC has been like the number one brand in North America for so long, and so little people knew the actual name ‘HJC’ you know… so that’s what we’re trying to do with the program… it’s turned out pretty good. We’re slowly getting there, and I’m pretty stoked about it.

TWMX: You’ve had kind of a bad string of injuries to the MX guys that you sponsor.

SB: Yeah, yeah… it’s been rough… but that’s just the nature of the business, I mean… those guys are riding at levels that you and I could never even friggen imagine in… if they’re going to get hurt, or whatever, you can’t say jack about it. It was a rough luck for us, but next year I want to get the motocross pool deeper, you know, and that way if you’ve got a guy that goes down or whatever, well you’ve got a couple of other guys still on the track. But no… this year we got hurt… and it’s our own fault, too… we admittedly went too heavily into road racing the past two years, and now I’m back in charge of the race program and I’m very aware that we’re lacking in motocross, and not to say that Kyle Lewis and Larry Ward and Nathan Ramsey aren’t great guys, but when you’ve got two of ’em down, you’ve got only Larry flying your colors in the 250 class, you’re gonna hurt. So next year we’re going to do our best to make sure that doesn’t happen… and actually Rich Taylor is helping us out a lot, contacting some of these guys and making stuff happen.

TWMX: Does HJC private-label helmets for other brands?

SB: Yeah. We do Harley Davidson product along with some other helmet manufacturers. We make the complete Thor helmet line. We do also Z1-R, which is a smaller Parts Unlimited line… I think it’s mostly a snowmobile line. And then we got Icon. We used to do Yamaha and Kawasaki a while back, but we’re not doing those anymore… but those are the main guys that we do.

TWMX: How about graphics… how important is really nailing the graphics for you guys?

SB: The top three reasons for buying a helmet are style, which is mainly graphic; then comfort and price. Graphics have become a major, major, issue with the success of the product, and proof of that, absolute proof of that on the street-side is Suomi. They’re over here and they’ve become a major player in the past two years, with a helmet that’s not even SNELL, and it’s because they’ve got fantastic graphics.

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I’ve been doing the HJC graphics now for ten years, and obviously they’re going to have the “Deiter Def” flavor on it. That was my business name was before I came on board. But we’re always getting some new graphics in from a variety of different designers to give us as much of a variety to offer the consumers as possible. For example, we’re also dealing with Flying Colors… and they’re helping us out a lot. He’s got some real nice style. We’re pretty stoked, because Bargy is also helping us out with graphics, and his street stuff is really fantastic. We’re also dealing with OCD out of France. So besides our own in-house stuff, these guys are helping us out a lot.

TWMX: HJC really filled that mid-price niche, and it seems like a lot of other companies have taken notice, and it’s gotten a lot more crowded in that area lately, hasn’t it?

SB: Oh yeah. Well, HJC, like I said has become number one over the past ten years in that market, and one of the reasons was because there was nobody else there, admittedly… we owned it. And now in the past, I would say three or four years, yeah, there’s a lot of competition out there. Like China’s really opened up. Hell, we’ve even opened up a factory in China… and that’s the only way you can remain competitive. But they tend to be more low- to mid-range helmets, you know what I mean? It’s literally divided into the countries. You’ve got China and Taiwan, which will do your low- to mid-range. Then you’ve got Korea, which will do your mid- to high-, and then you’ve got Japan and then the European countries that try and get into strictly high-end.

[IMAGE 6]

TWMX: What’s going on with safety standards these days?

SB: Well…they’re coming out with SNELL 2005, and everybody right now is scrambling to get the new specs and to get their helmets ready. SNELL, combined with DOT of course really set the standard for a safe helmet. Without them, who the hell knows what they’d be selling out to the general public, I mean… you’ve got a lot of manufacturers popping up now… in China, in Taiwan, or whatever. I’m not going to knock any brands, but it’s a good thing there’s DOT and SNELL ’cause some of the mannufacturers would put stuff out here and they wouldn’t give a sh*t who bought it. A lot of people tend to focus a lot on SNELL, but like the DOT standards are getting pretty stiff, and they’ve got some serious tests that have to be passed or what not, and it all contributes to one guy walking away from a crash or not. When it comes down to it, if it wasn’t for them, I mean… who knows what we’d be wearing?

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you know, and that way if you’ve got a guy that goes down or whatever, well you’ve got a couple of other guys still on the track. But no… this year we got hurt… and it’s our own fault, too… we admittedly went too heavily into road racing the past two years, and now I’m back in charge of the race program and I’m very aware that we’re lacking in motocross, and not to say that Kyle Lewis and Larry Ward and Nathan Ramsey aren’t great guys, but when you’ve got two of ’em down, you’ve got only Larry flying your colors in the 250 class, you’re gonna hurt. So next year we’re going to do our best to make sure that doesn’t happen… and actually Rich Taylor is helping us out a lot, contacting some of these guys and making stuff happen.

TWMX: Does HJC private-label helmets for other brands?

SB: Yeah. We do Harley Davidson product along with some other helmet manufacturers. We make the complete Thor helmet line. We do also Z1-R, which is a smaller Parts Unlimited line… I think it’s mostly a snowmobile line. And then we got Icon. We used to do Yamaha and Kawasaki a while back, but we’re not doing those anymore… but those are the main guys that we do.

TWMX: How about graphics… how important is really nailing the graphics for you guys?

SB: The top three reasons for buying a helmet are style, which is mainly graphic; then comfort and price. Graphics have become a major, major, issue with the success of the product, and proof of that, absolute proof of that on the street-side is Suomi. They’re over here and they’ve become a major player in the past two years, with a helmet that’s not even SNELL, and it’s because they’ve got fantastic graphics.

[IMAGE 5]

I’ve been doing the HJC graphics now for ten years, and obviously they’re going to have the “Deiter Def” flavor on it. That was my business name was before I came on board. But we’re always getting some new graphics in from a variety of different designers to give us as much of a variety to offer the consumers as possible. For example, we’re also dealing with Flying Colors… and they’re helping us out a lot. He’s got some real nice style. We’re pretty stoked, because Bargy is also helping us out with graphics, and his street stuff is really fantastic. We’re also dealing with OCD out of France. So besides our own in-house stuff, these guys are helping us out a lot.

TWMX: HJC really filled that mid-price niche, and it seems like a lot of other companies have taken notice, and it’s gotten a lot more crowded in that area lately, hasn’t it?

SB: Oh yeah. Well, HJC, like I said has become number one over the past ten years in that market, and one of the reasons was because there was nobody else there, admittedly… we owned it. And now in the past, I would say three or four years, yeah, there’s a lot of competition out there. Like China’s really opened up. Hell, we’ve even opened up a factory in China… and that’s the only way you can remain competitive. But they tend to be more low- to mid-range helmets, you know what I mean? It’s literally divided into the countries. You’ve got China and Taiwan, which will do your low- to mid-range. Then you’ve got Korea, which will do your mid- to high-, and then you’ve got Japan and then the European countries that try and get into strictly high-end.

[IMAGE 6]

TWMX: What’s going on with safety standards these days?

SB: Well…they’re coming out with SNELL 2005, and everybody right now is scrambling to get the new specs and to get their helmets ready. SNELL, combined with DOT of course really set the standard for a safe helmet. Without them, who the hell knows what they’d be selling out to the general public, I mean… you’ve got a lot of manufacturers popping up now… in China, in Taiwan, or whatever. I’m not going to knock any brands, but it’s a good thing there’s DOT and SNELL ’cause some of the manufacturers would put stuff out here and they wouldn’t give a sh*t who bought it. A lot of people tend to focus a lot on SNELL, but like the DOT standards are getting pretty stiff, and they’ve got some serious tests that have to be passed or what not, and it all contributes to one guy walking away from a crash or not. When it comes down to it, if it wasn’t for them, I mean… who knows what we’d be wearing?

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the manufacturers would put stuff out here and they wouldn’t give a sh*t who bought it. A lot of people tend to focus a lot on SNELL, but like the DOT standards are getting pretty stiff, and they’ve got some serious tests that have to be passed or what not, and it all contributes to one guy walking away from a crash or not. When it comes down to it, if it wasn’t for them, I mean… who knows what we’d be wearing?

Sponsored by: