An interview with Ard Kessels on brand building and running a decentralized business

An interview with Ard Kessels on brand building and running a decentralized business

Posted by Ard Kessels on

This article was published in the Mann Group newsletter of March 13, 2017 and published parallel on their website.

Retailer Turned Manufacturer Solving a Simple Solution with High Return

Ard Kessels is a man of many definitions. He’s a dual national Dutch-American who lives in Germany. His bike shop, on the other hand, is located in Antwerp, Belgium. But Kogel Bearnings, the premium ball bearings company he founded, is based in El Paso, Texas.
It’s confusing, we know, but it also means that Kessels can provide some incredible insight into the world—literally—of the specialty retailer. We sat down with the recent Mann U grad to talk shop and gain some international intuition on how to prioritize community over commodity, branding and the importance of story telling.

 

How did you get your start in retail?

I have a bachelor’s degree in garment technology and worked in fashion as a product developer for 10 years until I lost interest in the industry. Working for multinationals and dealing with sourcing, price negotiation, logistics and communicating with different cultures has built the base of everything we do now at Kogel. I always had a special interest in marketing and was fascinated by the way one white t-shirt ends up at $15 for three at Walmart and another white t-shirt will cost $80 in a fashion boutique. Apart from quality and fit, the main difference is in the story telling.

 After leaving Lee Jeans, I started a home based bike shop on a 5000 euro budget. I rebuilt the living room of our house to be a work shop, customers would enter through the kitchen, my wife and I made our living quarters on the second and third floor of our tiny home. I worked from home for one year to build up some capital and a customer base and after that, I found a retail location, became a dealer of BMC, Focus Bikes and Orbea and started Antwerp’s first bike shop exclusively aiming at road and mountain bikes. A fun detail is that bike mechanic is a protected profession in Belgium. You need a diploma to open a bike shop. I spent two years in evening school and wrote my dissertation on bottom brackets.

 A Dutch person starting a bike shop right in the capital of Flanders, was not always easy. Competitive cycling is a religious experience for most Belgians after all. One of my customer’s accurately described it as: ‘Hollander opens bike shop in the lion’s den’. I felt I had to prove myself more than the next person, but it was a motivation to stay extra sharp. I liked it.


How did you get to where you are now?
My wife, who I met in Antwerp but is from Chicago, wanted to work for the US government ever since she was in high school. When the dream job offer finally came, I decided to give up mine and follow her to America. I needed a new project and knew it had to be a mobile career since her job would require lots of international relocations. Starting a brand and wholesale business was perfect.

 Ball bearings were my big frustration as a mechanic. In Belgium riding bikes in the rain is a given and I always hated the moment when customers on top dollar bikes came back unhappy because their bearings were running in squares after two months. I tried to distribute third party products for a while but that did not work out well. I have a very specific vision on how a niche product like premium ball bearings aimed at road and mountain bikes should be marketed. It was impossible to materialize this with someone else’s brand if they do not have the same goals.

 We did the first sales for Kogel Bearings in January of 2014 and it’s been a roller coaster ever since. In the early days it was just me. I remember going on a holiday with my wife, carrying a huge bag with ball bearings on a flight in order to fulfill orders while we were traveling. Three years later Kogel has three employees, we work with a couple hundred stores in the US, distributors on four continents and we just bought a house that will be home to our office and assembly.


Which part of the industry are you most passionate about?

What really makes me want to get up in the morning is the fact that I have to do it all: sales, sourcing, marketing and keeping my office clean. With the small team we have at Kogel, we all wear many hats. It really helps that I have done the retail and sourcing in previous lives, so I can relate to many of my peers from an inside perspective.

 My true passion is in brand building though. I picked what is possibly the most boring part on the bicycle from a branding perspective and we are working hard to give ball bearings an image. We often call our bottom brackets badass, because they are the silent hard workers that never get recognition for the rough job they do. We constantly try to look for opportunities for our products to connect to potential customers by telling their stories. During last year’s Interbike I made a full photo report about two of our bearings getting married in Vegas and going on a honeymoon to the Hoover Dam and Yosemite. Maybe we will release it one day.

 How do you strive to create a valuable experience for your customers?

Besides the problem solving aspect of our bearings, I want Kogel to be the company that I would want to do business with. That starts by never missing a phone call or at least returning every missed call. Never leaving an email unanswered. Our new website has a contact button that allows customers to ask us live questions via facebook messenger 24 hours a day. We are not perfect, but trying to get there. It requires that we forget about traditional office hours and be ready to answer a quick customer question while standing in line at the grocery store.

 We also have a very unique approach to warranties that is unheard of in our industry. We guarantee to keep our customers on the road for two years after a purchase. Even if their mechanic was a bit ham fisted and destroyed a part. In the end as a consumer I do not mind paying top dollar for premium products, but I absolutely hate it when these parts do not live up to my expectations. For comparison, the industry standard for ball bearings is that companies will offer up to 6 year warranty with a long list of exceptions and legal talk. No customer is interested in hearing that it was ‘probably their mechanic’ or get blamed for getting their bike wet. Customers really seem to appreciate this, the warranty requests we get are usually apologetic and friendly.

 Lastly, we have decided to educate customers on ball bearings, since there is a big knowledge void. Our approach is to not shy away from answering any questions. I recently wrote a blog post about how we source our products, it will be on our website soon. I will be happy to tell you which products I would buy if I were not convinced that Kogel makes the best ball bearings for bicycles.

 Being available for our customers, assuring them we will have their back if something goes south and building a cool factor in parts that are typically seen as boring. I’m fully convinced that this approach will set the stage to make people want to do business with us.

 How do you connect with your customers? 

We use every medium available. Phone calls and in-person visits to our retailers are the best way to maintain a good relationship. Newsletters and emails are good tools to make sure they don’t forget about Kogel.

To consumers we mostly connect via our blog, newsletters, Instagram and Facebook. Being such a small team, it is often hard to create the quality content in the volume we need. I must say that our operations manager Sem is doing an amazing job. He is completely self-educated in photography and social media marketing with the sole goal of promoting our brand. We often rely on our sponsored riders to create the content for us and connect to their audience to promote Kogel. I get a lot of sponsorship requests in a week and in one hundred percent of the cases I scroll straight past the list of race results and look at people’s social media presence.


Tell us about your experience with the Mann Group:
I was first introduced to the training of the Mann Group through a free seminar at Interbike. Dan is charismatic presenter with great interaction skills. I loved every minute of it, but constantly had to make a translation in my head to see how techniques and examples would work for my business. After all, the training was aimed at retailers and I just sat down as the owner of a component brand. As soon as the sales rep training became available to the public a year later, I jumped on it and booked it on the spot. I always jokingly say that at Kogel we are a bunch of bike mechanics, trying to be sales guys.

 My typical sales pitch used to be: walk into the bike shop, dump a load of product on the counter and kill people with kindness and tech talk. After two days spent with Dan and Leslie, we worked on a new pitch where the product only comes out in the last quarter of the meeting and we only show a few key products out of our collection of a hundred or so. It was an eye opener to me.


Is there anything uniquely American you feel you can take home and apply to your work? Adversely, is there anything you do in Germany that you think would benefit the American specialty retail market?  

I think the entire presentation is set up in what Europeans would call ‘an American way’. I get a lot of joy out of working with different cultures and the American feels the most natural to me, even more so than the Dutch. Doing business in Belgium or Bavaria is a whole different cookie to me. As an example: Americans love small talk. Waiters in restaurants asking me where I’m from and what I do is normal. Waiters in Belgium will present the details of the menu, todays specials make recommendations but never, ever ask for your name or how you’re doing today. I feel that doing sales in Germany and asking too many personal questions would make a customer very uncomfortable.

 Germans also have a very relaxed approach to shop opening hours. It frustrates me often that I cannot buy a carton of milk in Germany on a Sunday or that bike shops close at 6 on weekdays and 2pm on Saturdays (remember I am running around the city like a madman to do my groceries on Saturday morning). Americans approach this from the other extreme: opening shops on Thanksgiving evening to start sales for the day after is ridiculous to me as a newly arrived American. So if there is anything I would wish for, is to find the balance in the middle.

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