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Zhik 2016 Isotak Ocean

From PLC to ZHIK: Crowie's transition from the multinationals

by Mark Jardine on 19 Dec 2016 19 December 2016
Zhik's Founder Brian Conolly and CEO David Crow © Zhik

We spoke to Zhik's CEO David Crow, known as Crowie, who came into the company from a corporate background and now works alongside the founder and former-CEO, Brian Conolly.

Mark: Could you tell me a bit about your business background before you joined Zhik?

Crowie: Yes, where I come from is FMCG (fast-moving consumer goods) land - big corporates. I came out of university as a management trainee into Unilever through their beautiful marketing process, which they run all over the world. Then, after four years of that, I moved to France with Unilever and transitioned to GlaxoSmithKline, another good old PLC, so became a bit of a London junky, with six and a half years at the European desk of GlaxoSmithKline, going from Marketing Director of the UK and then Marketing Director of the European desk for GlaxoSmithKline on their consumer side. Then I got rudely head-hunted by British American Tobacco (BAT) - another PLC - where I joined them to go to a job in Indochina, based in Singapore working through Indochina and I was mobile with them from Indochina up to Europe, back down to Australasia, over to Africa and then ended back in Australasia before Zhik. So I went PLC 1, PLC 2, PLC 3 and then the massive, monstrous concern of Zhik based out of Sydney, Australia!

Mark: So moving from companies with thousands of employees to something on a far smaller scale?

Crowie: Absolutely.

Mark: How was the transition like that?

Crowie: It's been fantastic to be honest; it is something that I have wanted to do. As you said, Glaxo was 60,000 employees, BAT I think has 88,000, and Unilever has around 45,000. So going to 54 total employees globally, of which 23 are employees and the others are long-term contractors, is a unique concept, but it is what I have always wanted to do. I have done 30 years in corporate and I wanted to get some time in private equity and that is why I went out hunting and got very, very lucky to find connections through some of the shareholders who have started to buy into Zhik and Brian's business, and literally hit the process which I wasn't expecting.

I have done a lot of professional sailing in my history, so to combine what I wanted to do in private equity and a small creative business and then suddenly someone says, 'By the way, there is this really creative company in the yachting and sailing business' was just ridiculously lucky and fortunate. That conversation happened in April, so I'm a very happy boy, very lucky and it's a remarkable transition.

Everyone has asked me if it's really difficult and it's actually not - it's quite liberating because you can do things rapidly. You never have enough resources in any business and Zhik is the same as GloxoSmithKline or BAT - you are always struggling to do more and more and that is the same story here. It is fun, it's young, it's creative, it's incredibly energetic and we are doing things that are different and disrupting an industry, which I think is really fun.

Mark: Brian is a uniquely creative individual and he founded the company. Have there been any tensions between you both during the transition of management across to you?

Crowie: No, to be honest; he has been remarkable. I had heard all about him from the guys who work with him and he is incredibly creative. Brian built this thing out of nothing, out of a dream, and the innovation, the inspiration, and also the disruption that he has caused in the industry, bringing a really fresh, new, young approach is extraordinary; that's what I wanted to do.

He made the decision to bring me in, together with the other shareholders. He was about half the company when I joined, and I think he sold some of that equity on this last transition, but he is still sitting eight feet away from me. He has been brilliantly kind to me, because emotionally it must be bloody hard if you have built a business and it's your baby and then you bring a commercial guy to sit alongside you.

He tells me to remember he made the decisions to do this; he wants to expand the company and grow it. He has been really open about where his skill sets are strong and where things could be done by someone else better. He said, let's bring Crowie in, or let's bring a commercial individual in, to do the expansion globally. He is now focusing as the Founding Director, so he does all the technology, all the innovation, all the stuff that he absolutely adores and is literally world class at. We've done a really good split of the roles with him as Founding Director and I'm CEO.

On day one, we put a whiteboard up in my office, with a red line down the middle, and he said, 'Crowie, I am going to do this and this, you need to do this and this'. We moved a few things and that stuff is still in my whiteboard today, which is quite amazing five or six months later.

Mark: Talking of innovation, this year at METS you literally walked straight into a DAME Award with a category win for Avlare. How does that feel?

Crowie: It's extraordinary! We have been coming to METS now for 9 years and the business is only 11 years old. It is very... it's extraordinary. Bart, who is the head of global design, literally opened the doors, as the boys were a little late and we were rushing around trying to find the room, and we walked in just as the announcement went out, "and the winner is, Avlare!"

Bart walked straight up on the stage in his beautiful black Zhik T-shirt looking very cool and picked up the award for what is an amazing innovation. Avlare has only been out since the Rio Olympics, so it's still very early days. We gave the Olympians a first run at it, a sort of secret weapon for the Brits, the Aussies, the Kiwis and a few others.

It is a remarkable piece of work in terms of materials engineering and it is a material that just does not get wet. People find that extremely hard to understand until they try it. It keeps the water out, it lets you breathe and it stretches with your body, but you can literally hold one over the sink, fill it up with a couple of litres of water and walk around for hours and the material just doesn't get wet and that is Brian at his absolute best; to discover, to find, to hunt down the right materials people in Taiwan, in Japan, in Portugal and find these guys and work with them to develop the material is just absolutely classical Brian Conolly and that's why I think our team is so happy.

For me, being six months into the job, it's a remarkable event. You feel so blessed that this company has got the innovation it has. To win the award in front of about 30,000 people here at METS is extraordinary. It is a nice recognition for what Brian has done in terms of the innovation in this company, and it's truly built on innovation.

Mark: Zhik has its background in the dinghy scene and has more recently moved into yachting with the Isotak and the Isotak 2 ranges. Where do you see the major growth for Zhik in the next one, two and maybe five years ahead?

Crowie: Dinghy has been an absolute focus since day one and we have really started to dominate that market place. In Rio, out of 30 medals awarded, 17 of the sailing medals went to Zhik team riders. We are the no.1 clothing supplier, apparel supplier, technical supplier of wetsuits and boots to those guys which is a real credit to Brian. That is the work that goes on because the company has been built by those Olympians - we co-develop the material with them and it is a remarkable process - it's a great way to run a company. The provenance of this brand is in those athletes. We've changed zip lines, cutting patterns and materials to suit the athletes to get that absolute margin of incremental growth of speed in the boat.

We then moved into yachting about four years ago and it has really taken off in the last couple of years - last year yachting grew 57% - so it is a remarkable growth story. Again the technology comes to the fore, Isotak is now out on the market and the research has now come out from Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology which shows that it is 10 times more waterproof and durable than its competitors in the market place - the industry standards and the things that we all used to wear and be proud to wear. This brand is now lighter, more flexible, more durable and lasts four times longer on that waterproof durability, when it is bashed around on a yacht, when you're sitting on the rail and getting bounced around in the salt water, getting bounced across the Atlantic.

Now we have just started our #madeforwater strategy which is in the SUP, kayak, surf-ski and recreational watersports. That has become really powerful because that's where the growth in waterborne activity is. That growth is rapid in North America, Europe and in South-East Asia as well. So we have started that growth as well, but yachting is a real powerhouse at the moment.

Where do we see ourselves in one year's, three years' time? The growth is rapid. This company is expanding as you have seen in the last four / five years. That growth will continue as we go into new territories. We basically go in and offer consumers better product, we offer teams better solutions that are faster, lighter and more durable and that is what people want on the boat. The #madeforwater strategy is cranking now, so we are really getting involved in that as well so we see the company growing substantially over the next three to five years.

Mark: While the brand is extremely well known in the racing scene, how do you create that kind of impact and brand awareness in the cruising markets?

Crowie: We have focused on where the pinnacle of innovation is, so we have really top-end athletes. We are working with guys from the America's Cup, the Volvo Ocean Race, the Vendee Globe and obviously the Olympic teams. We work on a trickle-down strategy. The reality is, the company has been built with the top 150 to 200 athletes in the world, whether they be on a yacht, a SUP, kitesurf, kayak, surf-ski at the Olympics or in a dinghy like Robert Scheidt or Tom Burton. We work with them to develop clinically innovative solutions that answer the problem of an individual who is on the water in tough conditions. We build, we prototype, we test, and we have seen that classically with the America's Cup where we do a lot of prototyping and we build specific materials because the sport has changed. Doing 45-50 knots and hitting something, you need protection and that is where products like Kollition™ have come from, to try and offer athletes on those boats some impact protection. We them move that through the scale and then we commercialize that development.

So yes, the stuff at the top end, designs for the Volvo or America's Cup and bespoke prototypes, but that innovation then flows down. The best analogy I can give you is: I used to be involved in Formula 1 in my previous life and you see exactly the same process there. The technology you build for a Formula 1 car today ends up in that Hyundai or that Golf 1.6 nine years later. We are hoping it comes down faster and we are trying to trickle it down faster. But for the cruising helmsman, for the family that goes out on the Solent or goes to the Med and does two weeks on the water, you may not need Isotak Ocean for that two week holiday, but the technology we are taking from that is moving into much more affordable commercial products that come down through the range, so for half that price you can buy really similar technology but it just doesn't have all the bells and whistles; the stuff that you don't need.

We are streaming that down rapidly now, that's been really successful and is where we are seeing a lot of our growth as well. The top end is a very small market, the real market is in that open mass market that we see here at METS: people buying GPS units, radar systems and other equipment for their cruising boats in the Med. The trickle-down process is happening rapidly in all industries, but in ours in particular.

Mark: It is fascinating to watch the growth of Zhik and hearing how you have transitioned into the company. Many thanks indeed for your time.

Crowie: My pleasure.

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