A snowboard fanatic from The Netherlands, Joost Grootswagers heads up Liberated Brands in Europe based out of South-West France. Volcom, Electric, Spyder & now Captain Fin Co fall under the Liberated Brands umbrella and we spoke with Joost to find out how they operate on both the front and back end. Keeping sales forces separate per brand, but marrying back office operations such as digital, Joost explains just how this approach allows them to grow brands sustainably and we explore just how the company differentiates between sales models from one region to another and how.
Read on to find out about Volcom Snow’s terrific momentum, how they separate a core Alpine ski company (Spyder) from a core boardsport brand (Volcom), while promotiong sustainable growth and we also hear first word from the group on the integration of Captain Fin Co. into the fold. Interview by SOURCE Editor Harry MT.
Joost, tell us about your career in action sports that led you to working for Volcom.
My career started in sports marketing at Canon, managing key events in Formula 1 & Football on one hand and building programs with the International Red Cross and the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) on the other hand.
One day I worked on a project where we bundled an O’Neill backpack with a Canon Digital Lexus camera. After working closely with O’Neill I soon realized that the action sports world suited me quite well and luckily managed to get a job at their HQ.
From O’Neill I moved to SoleTech (Etnies, Emerica, eS, 32) eventually leading to a job at Volcom in 2011. The first 5 years were dedicated to the commercial side of the business and after gradually transferring to managing the whole company in Europe. Over the past 11 years I was fortunate enough to gather a super strong team around me which helped to transition into the Head of Liberated Brands Europe (Volcom, Spyder, Electric and now Captin Fin Co) since a little over 1 year now.
Volcom also allowed me to fully live my passions of which snowboarding is the key one!
How has the last few years been at Volcom since leaving the Kering umbrella?
Very exciting! Working with Kering was really motivating in terms of learning how to curate and build brands. However now on top of being brand builders we are back to being entrepreneurial again. Working directly with the owners of Liberated Brands makes us very agile and reactive. We have been lucky to benefit from the best of both worlds and now we are very well positioned for the future.
Please explain how the Liberated Brands Co works.
We have built a machine with Volcom over the past decades in terms of operational excellence, premium brand building and sustainable growth.
When Covid-19 hit, these strong pillars really surfaced and we have been ready and prepared to apply this knowledge to other brands as well. Due to the strong relationship between Liberated Brands and ABG (Authentic Brand Group) we managed to tap into a brand like Spyder. Due to our existing relationships, we have onboarded Electric and we are working on other brands to follow (Captain Fin Co, recently announced). The recent growth has also allowed us to invest in doubling our warehouse capacity here in the South of France.
In the end it comes down to making key investments. One of them being very important is our teams. At Liberated one of the core values is family. We really see all our teams and relations as a big family whereby investing in time, education and attention we will continue to be strong.
To share some interesting facts:
- We have created a hybrid work model between office and home working for all staff
- We have passed the 200 employees mark at Liberated Europe
- We have an average age of 34 at our group
- We are a fully equal employer: we promote and respect diversity. We provide equal opportunities to all candidates and an inclusive environment for all employees.
So in other words we are a super cool place to work.
How does it work with staffing teams on the back-end vs front end of Volcom and other brands under the ABG and Liberated Brands umbrella?
We have created a group called Liberated Brands Europe and under that group we separately operate Volcom, Spyder, Electric, Captain Fin Co and future brands. The back end is fully integrated on all brands where we really use our knowledge to optimise all processes.
On the front end we mix where appropriate and keep it separate where required. As an example, our sales force is completely separated between brands. On the other hand, for instance our digital department is fully operates across all brands.
How are you approaching the Spyder business? How do you keep it separate enough from the Volcom core snow channel, while still growing the business?
Volcom is a snowboarders’ brand and Spyder a ski brand! So, by nature we deal with a completely different target audience.
Volcom Snow is on fire at the moment and we are just coming out of the biggest sell-in season in our history. We have managed to really curate the brand well in the core channel and have been making very conscious choices over the past years in order to make sure Volcom Snow has a long and healthy future.
Spyder was completely new for us and we have focused a lot on getting the brand up to our Liberated standards in terms of operational excellence and premium brand building. We have been very positively surprised and managed to get our orders back to pre-Covid levels.
Now we are focusing on investments in marketing and collections to ensure we have a fun ride ahead of us. We will work on making Spyder relevant on and off mountain and cover the full mountain. So, besides our focus on Alpine skiing, you will see more in freeride and après ski as well. Spyder (like Volcom) has a very strong brand heritage, and we will continue to build upon that.
By making the right investments into operations, collections, relations and marketing we really feel there is a lot of potential in all the brands we run.
Please talk to us about your wetsuit program and how it’s been received.
It’s been very well received by the market. For us it is a small program with a dedicated distribution and marketing. The quality is super good, and it is resonating in the right way.
The program is backed by some of the best surfers in the world and we use them also actively in the product development.
For many years we used to get a huge demand for our riders’ wetsuits, and according to the market it was definitely the right time to launch a proper program. After successfully launching men we are now looking at launching women’s and accessories.
It feels like a full circle with Electric returning to the fold, what are your plans for the optical market going forward?
We focused first on cleaning up the distribution. Now we are working on building a strong action sports distribution in surf and snow. At the same time we have re-implemented a fixtures program. The optical market is on our radar but we have to get the basics right first before we expand.
We are building a real marketing program for Europe to ensure brand heath and future demand.
We are investing in digital campaigns in surfing and snowboarding. Building a proper EU rider team with big names joining the family like William Aliotti and Jonathan Gonzalez in surfing. On snowboarding we are capitalizing on the momentum of stars like Arthur Longo, Torgeir Bergrem and Marcus Kleveland.
One of the great points about Electric is the quality of the products (eg made in Italy) and the heritage of the brand.
What lessons has the company learnt from coronavirus and how are you taking them forwards?
We really kept our focus during Covid on our operations (eg we always delivered on time), never stopped investing in brand building (a lot of online activations) and last but not least we kept communicating with our partners at all times.
So going forward we keep our focus on our strategic pillars and expand them to a bigger group of brands. This is easier said than done but we put a lot of effort into staying calm and focusing on the basics of business during turbulent times.
What pros and cons do you find with working across direct, agency and distributor models? What’s the future?
The key is to find the right mix for the market and for the company. Then you must treat all your partners the same. For us at Liberated Brands there is no difference in dealing with direct employees, agents or distributors. For the future the mix is key. Developing markets with distributors, mature markets direct or with a (master) agency.
The argument is also financial. Where many tend to focus primarily on the initial margin difference per model it is equally important to focus on the cost/risk side associated to the different business models. For instance, during Covid we have been very blessed at Liberated Brands with not having too many direct operations. As a result, we could clearly manage our costs. In the end it is all about the right mix and we roughly operate 1/3 direct, 1/3 (master) agents and 1/3 distributors.
Captain Fin has recently been acquired what was the thinking behind this move and how will the brand be integrated in Europe?
As mentioned before we are building a group and leverage what we have created over the last many years. Captain Fin Co is super solidified in the core channel and we will firstly add our operational excellence to the brand and work on a dedicated website on our Liberated platform. We will then carefully start looking into where we can apply our apparel knowledge to the brand and consider future opportunities. At Liberated we are really excited with this addition and we see a solid future for Captain Fin in Europe.