2005 Person of the Year: Max Brownlee
Talk to Tennis Retailers and others in this business about Babolat North America’s general manager, Max Brownlee, and the same phrases keep popping up: “professional,” “honest,” “high standards,” “great products,” “man of his word,” “industry leader.”
Brownlee is not a flashy character. He seems to like letting others receive the credit. But as the driving force behind Babolat in North America in terms of sales, marketing, and distribution, Brownlee has overseen, even choreographed, what many industry-watchers say is a “phenomenon.”
The French company Babolat was the first to make strings for tennis racquets, back in 1875, and the brand has been well-known in the U.S. and globally for its popular VS Gut. Racquets were added much later, first in Europe, then in the U.S. market, and that’s where Brownlee’s genius comes in.
The Babolat Pure Drive frame was introduced in the U.S. five years ago, and from having no market share in racquets in 2000, Babolat “is closing in on 19 percent” market share today, says Brownlee, the fastest growth ever in the U.S. market. By any measure, that is a phenomenon. Just before this year’s US Open, Babolat introduced its first tennis shoe to the U.S., partnering with another longtime French company, Michelin.
But Babolat’s story in North America is about more than just product that appears to jump off retailers’ shelves. As the company’s front man in the U.S., Brownlee is well-respected for what he does within the industry, for protecting his retailers, for controlling product distribution. And for 2005, Brownlee is RSI’s Person of the Year.
Brownlee’s involvement in tennis began decades ago, as a USPTA teaching professional. He was with Wilson Racquet Sports for nine years, then with Prince for 14 years. He joined Babolat North America, which is headquartered in Boulder, Colo., in 2000.
Brownlee is typically modest when recalling that launch, attributing the racquet’s success to two words: “Andy Roddick.”
“We were very fortunate when we introduced the racquet, because Roddick started his phenomenon at the same time,” says Brownlee. “People would say, ‘Andy’s doing well, and he’s playing with a racquet we’ve never heard of.’ It brought so much awareness that junior players started calling us.”
At that time, Babolat had about 150 dealers in the U.S, says Brownlee. “We weren’t a racquet you could easily find in the marketplace. At the beginning, the Pure Drive became known as a junior racquet. It took a couple of years for the Pure Drive to become a real name out there,” he says. Gradually, more top players started using the Pure Drive. (Currently, Roddick, Rafael Nadal, Kim Clijsters, Mariano Puerta, Ivan Ljubicic, Nadia Petrova, and Fernando Gonzalez, among others, play with Babolat frames.)
The Pure Drive racquet, after its introduction in April 2000, spent nearly 2½ years working its way to No. 1 in terms of dollars in pro/specialty stores in the U.S., according to data from Sports Marketing Surveys USA. It hit the top position in September 2002 and, over the next three years, has held a firm grip on No. 1 (with the exception of two months: February 2003 and April 2005) — an unprecedented 34 months as the top-selling racquet at pro/specialty shops.
Behind the scenes of the racquet launch was Brownlee, controlling the distribution, working with marketing director Marc Pinsard, and protecting both price and, at the time, his relatively small but loyal retailer following.
Industry-watchers say the slow buildup and sustained peak in sales, atypical for racquet introductions today, was due to a couple of factors. First, Babolat was new to the racquet business in the U.S. and Brownlee was carefully building up his network of top-quality distributors. Second, and possibly more important, Brownlee kept his efforts — and that of his retailers — focused on the Pure Drive; he didn’t bring other racquet models to the U.S. market.
“Max truly understands how to market his racquets in this country,” says Mark Mason of Mason’s Tennis Mart in New York City. “By opening up only a few accounts the first couple of years, Babolat became so important to each account that we all felt the need to give it maximum exposure. I love how he views Babolat as a specialty-only brand, and how he understands the need to have every account hold prices.”
And when it comes to holding prices, in particular a manufacturer’s “minimum advertised price,” or MAP, Brownlee is a champion among specialty retailers. MAP policies allow local retail stores to maintain margins and compete against larger stores and internet retailers. Babolat recently won a court case against a California company that went against Babolat’s MAP policy, and Brownlee says they’re currently pursuing another U.S. company. “We have an advertising policy, and we’re a strong believer that if you have one, you should enforce it,” he says.
Babolat now has more than 700 authorized racquet dealers in the U.S., says Brownlee. “We’re a very profitable brand for retailers,” he says. “We don’t change our racquet line on a frequent basis, and that’s been very important for retailers. [Company President] Eric Babolat and senior management [in France] have entrusted in me when we feel we need to bring racquets into the U.S.
“This summer, we didn’t introduce any racquets in the U.S., while all the other brands did,” he continues. “Our philosophy is that unless there’s a reason to introduce a new racquet, we won’t. Dealers appreciate that.”
This “cleanness” of product line is appealing to retailers. “Max goes against the norm of the way the business has tended to operate,” says Dale Queen of Your Serve Tennis in Atlanta. “As far as distribution and price, they keep the product very clean, and they stay with product longer, picking and choosing dealers that will represent their product favorably, as opposed to just being sold on price. If other companies had [the Pure Drive] racquet, they’d have gotten rid of it or changed it somehow.”
Brownlee says the company is taking the same controlled distribution approach to its new shoe line that it did for its Pure Drive racquet launch. “We now have a little over 125 dealers in the U.S. for the Team All Court shoe,” he says. “In 2006, we’ll introduce a slightly larger line, and expand to about 300 dealers. We’re taking it slow because we want to make sure Babolat shoes are going to be received well by the retailer and consumer.”
Industry insiders say that under Brownlee, Babolat is forcing other manufacturers — whether consciously or not — to take a hard look at how they’re doing business in the U.S., and how they relate to their retailers.
“Max,” says Queen, “is certainly a leader in this business, not a follower.”
Max Brownlee’s Tips for Success
- Build a solid foundation that stresses long-term growth and success.
- Support the people, and retailers, that supported you early on.
- Do your homework before introducing new products, so as not to overwhelm retailers.
See all articles by Peter Francesconi
About the Author
Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.