TWMX All Access: KBC Helmets

 

Over the last three years, KBC has been working on creating their own image and brand name in the helmet world. But they’ve also been manufacturing helmets for far longer, for some of the most recognizable names in the sport.

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Pat Lio is the VP of Sales and Marketing for KBC, and he said, “We’ve been around for about 14 years, and we’ve been making a living making helmets for other brands. Actually, other than Thor, Fly and Troy Lee, we make them for almost everybody.”

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“Three years ago we decided to take the KBC brand to another level. So we started branding our own line, and putting the money and effort into marketing and promotion which we’d never done before. I think we have the momentum now. Out here in California everyone is very brand-conscious. We hardly saw any KBC helmets. Now, I see them almost everywhere. I think our marketing effort is working.”

“Our goal is actually to make the best helmet that we can. Right now we know we’re not number one or number two, so basically we bend over backwards in service, taking care of warranty issues, just trying to make up for things that we’re not number one in.”

“Our goal is to be in the top three. J.D. Power this year ranked us number four. They based their rankings on image, design, and satisfaction. They do it in a different age group every year, and this year it was from 20-35 years old.”

Less well known is the textile side of their business, where they’re the liaison for the apparel needs for several large manufacturers. Pat explained, “We didn’t initially start this. Customers started calling and asking, ‘Can you find out about this or that for us?’ We have people all over Asia, and have sub offices, and can handle almost everything a customer is looking for. Pat says, “For private-label they usually give us the design. But sometimes we have a lot of input, and others don’t have their own design capabilities¿they just have the distribution capabilities, or they own the brand and we give them a turn-key type of package.”

Touring through their new facility, it’s easy to see they’re investing for the long-term, whether it’s the in-house gym, or room to grow. Pat said, “The last facility was about 12,000 square feet, with 60% of it being warehouse. Our new office is about 55,000 square feet, with 60% of it being warehouse. We needed this facility because we kept growing. We’ve segregated our people into different groups. Harley and Polaris are such big accounts that we have about six people handling them alone. We also have textile, helmet and 3D guys, we needed to separate them into their own R&D department. We also have sales and marketing, and logistics and administration.

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So how did KBC get into the helmet market in the first place? Pat explains, “Mr. (Jin) Hong and Ken Yi who started KBC read a story in the newspapers about mandatory helmet use laws being implemented in the United States. Since he had a background in plastic and fiberglass, Mr. Hong thought, ‘I could do this. If it’s mandatory, there’s going to be money to be made.’ So he looked into it, and initially he purchased some of Bell’s molds, because Bell was going out of business.hey’d sold the Bell motorcycle brand to Bieffe at the time. The first helmets came out like bowling ball weight and they didn’t know anything about the fit or anything about helmets, but he wanted to give it a try.

He studied a little bit more, and made a few samples that were pretty decent. He went to the Las Vegas show, and heard that Tucker Rocky were the king of helmets at the time. He didn’t really know who was in charge of helmets, or who Bob Nickell (former owner of Tucker Rocky) was, but he felt that he could wait around the bathroom because these guys would eventually have to stop by there.” (Laughs)

“He had his sample helmets, and when he noticed some of the Tucker guys, he approached them, and through some introductions he met Bob, and Bob invited him to Texas and it all started from there.”

Making the jump from fledgling helmet manufacturer to making helmets for some of the biggest brand names in the world wasn’t always easy. “We’ve had our growing pains, understanding the fit, ventilation, and composite of the helmet, but we have all that experience under our belt now. We’ve been putting millions into development, and I think the market’s going to see that.”

“Actually our biggest help in taking our company and the quality to another level was forming a partnership with the design team in the U.K. These guys have been riding and designing motorcycle products and accessories for¿it seems like since they were born. They’re real enthusiasts and understand the business. In Canada we also hired a group of 3D designers and engineers that understand the functionality of helmets. These guys grew up riding and have been involved in racing. Those kind of combinations, put together with our manufacturing capabilities in Asia, I think we have the best team in the world right now. For us it’s been a great help to take it to another level. I think the sky’s the limit. I think we have the right people in place.”

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“Our U.K. office has a helmet graphic designer, his name is Andy Beasley. Everyone in the world wants him. Arai wants him, Shoei wants him, so he’s a big part of our brand.”

“The director in the U.K., his name’s Sam Neal, and he has a background in leather, textiles, helmets, he’s a design guy. Growing up, his father owned one of the biggest distribution companies in the U.K. He grew up in the business. All these individuals want to be the best in the industry, and we have a partnership with them. I don’t think any company has this kind of global team, and we have meetings at least three or four times a year to improve and develop new products.”

“We used to just research and copy. We used to joke that we had an R&C department. We stopped doing that about three years ago. With all our team together, with the engineers, and understanding how important the functionality of the helmet is¿ventilation, fit, weight, balance, we’ve given an extreme makeover to all our helmets. On the dealer level it’s what the dealership sells and what’s on the shelf. Whatever they push, the customers buy. But enthusiasts, I think they’re more knowledgeable and looking for technical features. They care about everything. We’ve gotten very technical. We used to just go by trial and error, but the technology is there now where we can do a lot of simulations.

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Pat showed off a sample of a new high-end dirt helmet that they’re working on, which is slated to be introduced to the public in ’05. But while it was too early to display here, Pat’s excited about the future. “It seems like safety is a given these days, it doesn’t matter what price range. We’ve always been confident with our designing of the shells and the graphics because of all the experience with all the private labeled helmets that are ‘the brands’ in the industry. Our tastes for the level at looking at designs has gone up tremendously. We wanted to do better stuff with our own brand of helmets. But the dirt is kind of tough, because it’s traditionally just had a goggle opening, and about all you can change is the mouth vent and visor. In the past we weren’t really concerned with ventilation and fit as much as we are now. The riders are riding for a long time and they don’t even want to feel that helmet on their heads. That would be the ultimate.”

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“Since we sell helmets all over the world, we also have to consider standards such as DOT and Snell. In Australia they have QAS, there are standards in the EEC, and Japan as their own standard. They all have their own specifications. So when you make the helmet to meet the worldwide standards, there are so many layers of specs and variables to overcome, it’s tough. I think in the USA is tough because you have DOT and Snell. Without Snell you can’t go to the races. There’s no big selling point. Everyone seems to know Snell very well now. DOT is law.”

“This is also the first year we started sponsoring some AMA pro riders. We can’t afford anyone big like Bubba or anyone like that, but we’re sponsoring the Subway team and Ryan Clark¿guys like that. I think one of the better things we started this year was an amateur program for the first time. I do see a lot of amateur racers wearing our helmet now. That’s helped create visibility, too. We use Sponsorhouse, and that’s been a big help.”

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“We’re also an official sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Bobsled team. They’ve been giving us a lot of exposure in Europe. My understanding is that this is the first time they’ve allowed helmet and boot sponsors to put their logo on the products. When you watch them on TV, you see the KBC logo everywhere. We had to develop a new anti-fog shield just because of them. It’s been fun to be an official sponsor.”

“I think the cost of doing business has gone way up. Now we have racing programs, advertising. The racing program has cost a lot. We’ve had to hire more people to nurture it. Sending helmets, winning championships, going to the races is costly, too. We took on Mat Mladin, and we’re fortunate that he’s been winning. We have someone at the races to take care of him. It’s like that for everybody. If they want to take it to another level and start their own brand.”

While chatting with Pat, he mentioned that they’re currently building a major manufacturing facility in China. “Everyone’s going to China. As far as going to China, the labor costs in Korea have gone up so much, and overhead, real estate and everything is very high, so for us to be competitive, even to take it to another level, we needed to go to China.”

“It’s the same with manufacturing helmets, leathers, boots¿like t-shirts, anyone can do it, as long as the labor’s cheap. Whenever there’s technical stuff involved, even as Korean manufacturers with facilities in Korea, it took us a lot of trial and error to bring it up to this level. But China, all of a sudden is bringing their level up really fast. For us, to run away from them, just trying to butt head with price points, we really need to take it to another level.”

“South America is attractive, but we’re more familiar with the Asian culture. The Euro is going up, so manufacturers are closing down. They can’t manufacture it because it’s so expensive, and everything is shifting to Asia.”

Overall, Pat’s quite pleased with the progress KBC has made in the last few years. “Instead of having dirt or cruiser or sport bikes or ATV separated into different segments to brand KBC, we just want the name KBC to be known as a very good helmet and a very good helmet manufacturer. That’s the big picture. So we’re not really trying to compete with certain brands, we just want KBC to be one of them.”

“I travel to dealerships, and when I first starteddously. We wanted to do better stuff with our own brand of helmets. But the dirt is kind of tough, because it’s traditionally just had a goggle opening, and about all you can change is the mouth vent and visor. In the past we weren’t really concerned with ventilation and fit as much as we are now. The riders are riding for a long time and they don’t even want to feel that helmet on their heads. That would be the ultimate.”

[IMAGE 6]

“Since we sell helmets all over the world, we also have to consider standards such as DOT and Snell. In Australia they have QAS, there are standards in the EEC, and Japan as their own standard. They all have their own specifications. So when you make the helmet to meet the worldwide standards, there are so many layers of specs and variables to overcome, it’s tough. I think in the USA is tough because you have DOT and Snell. Without Snell you can’t go to the races. There’s no big selling point. Everyone seems to know Snell very well now. DOT is law.”

“This is also the first year we started sponsoring some AMA pro riders. We can’t afford anyone big like Bubba or anyone like that, but we’re sponsoring the Subway team and Ryan Clark¿guys like that. I think one of the better things we started this year was an amateur program for the first time. I do see a lot of amateur racers wearing our helmet now. That’s helped create visibility, too. We use Sponsorhouse, and that’s been a big help.”

[IMAGE 7]

“We’re also an official sponsor of the U.S. Olympic Bobsled team. They’ve been giving us a lot of exposure in Europe. My understanding is that this is the first time they’ve allowed helmet and boot sponsors to put their logo on the products. When you watch them on TV, you see the KBC logo everywhere. We had to develop a new anti-fog shield just because of them. It’s been fun to be an official sponsor.”

“I think the cost of doing business has gone way up. Now we have racing programs, advertising. The racing program has cost a lot. We’ve had to hire more people to nurture it. Sending helmets, winning championships, going to the races is costly, too. We took on Mat Mladin, and we’re fortunate that he’s been winning. We have someone at the races to take care of him. It’s like that for everybody. If they want to take it to another level and start their own brand.”

While chatting with Pat, he mentioned that they’re currently building a major manufacturing facility in China. “Everyone’s going to China. As far as going to China, the labor costs in Korea have gone up so much, and overhead, real estate and everything is very high, so for us to be competitive, even to take it to another level, we needed to go to China.”

“It’s the same with manufacturing helmets, leathers, boots¿like t-shirts, anyone can do it, as long as the labor’s cheap. Whenever there’s technical stuff involved, even as Korean manufacturers with facilities in Korea, it took us a lot of trial and error to bring it up to this level. But China, all of a sudden is bringing their level up really fast. For us, to run away from them, just trying to butt head with price points, we really need to take it to another level.”

“South America is attractive, but we’re more familiar with the Asian culture. The Euro is going up, so manufacturers are closing down. They can’t manufacture it because it’s so expensive, and everything is shifting to Asia.”

Overall, Pat’s quite pleased with the progress KBC has made in the last few years. “Instead of having dirt or cruiser or sport bikes or ATV separated into different segments to brand KBC, we just want the name KBC to be known as a very good helmet and a very good helmet manufacturer. That’s the big picture. So we’re not really trying to compete with certain brands, we just want KBC to be one of them.”

“I travel to dealerships, and when I first started, I’d wear a KBC uniform and walk in, and people would ask, ‘Who the heck is KBC?’ Now, I just came back from the East Coast, and even in places where the stop sign says, ‘Whoa,’ that’s how boonie it is, they knew who I was. Even if they don’t carry KBC, they’d heard of KBC. I was proud of that.”

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“Now I see people wearing KBC on the street, and anything that I have in my car that’s KBC I stop and give it to them. At Daytona I saw a KBC helmet hanging next to the bike. I had a new KBC hat and put it in his helmet. I do that anytime or anywhere I have something. I’m always so proud to see KBC.”

Contact:

KBC Helmets
2830 N. Ontario St.
Burbank, CA 91504
(818) 526-7771
www.kbchelmet.com

rted, I’d wear a KBC uniform and walk in, and people would ask, ‘Who the heck is KBC?’ Now, I just came back from the East Coast, and even in places where the stop sign says, ‘Whoa,’ that’s how boonie it is, they knew who I was. Even if they don’t carry KBC, they’d heard of KBC. I was proud of that.”

[IMAGE 8]

“Now I see people wearing KBC on the street, and anything that I have in my car that’s KBC I stop and give it to them. At Daytona I saw a KBC helmet hanging next to the bike. I had a new KBC hat and put it in his helmet. I do that anytime or anywhere I have something. I’m always so proud to see KBC.”

Contact:

KBC Helmets
2830 N. Ontario St.
Burbank, CA 91504
(818) 526-7771
www.kbchelmet.com