Tennis Industry magazine

 

2007 Person of the Year: George Napier

By Peter Francesconi

For George Napier, it’s all about the team. When he talks about the recent success of Prince Sports, you rarely hear him use the word “I.” In fact, Napier, the CEO of the Bordentown, N.J., company, often seems uncomfortable when the spotlight shines on him alone.

“Prince, at the end of the day, and without sounding schmaltzy, is a big family,” says Napier. “We’re disciplined in business, but we’re more than just a corporation. We have a group of people who have a common interest in the game of tennis and who share that interest in many ways, from product to promotion ideas, to branding, to whatever it might be. It is intended to be a big family.”

As CEOs go, Napier is one of the most unassuming, low-key guys around, preferring to let his team take the credit for the company’s success. “It all comes down to the people,” he says. “I get out of their way and I’m just there as a sounding board and someone they can open up to, ask questions of, bring me opportunities, bring me problems, bring me solutions — whatever it might be.”

But while Napier’s style is to remain in the background, colleagues and other industry partners cite him as the one who is leading Prince’s charge in the tennis industry and revitalizing the brand. And for all the success he’s had in doing that, George Napier is Racquet Sports Industry’s 2007 Person of the Year.

“When you look at what Prince has accomplished under George’s leadership in the last four years, since the management buyout from Benetton, it’s pretty significant,” says Prince Sports President Doug Fonte. “Adding almost 10 points of market share and rebuilding a brand that was down and out after 10 years of neglect and bad decisions is not easy. He has a team of passionate people who believed in the brand and helped immensely in this difficult task.”

“George takes very little credit for all that he has done in growing Prince,” says retailer Dale Queen, the president of Your Serve Tennis, which has seven locations in metro Atlanta. “He’s great at gathering all the information and making committed decisions based on the facts. He doesn’t have a problem taking a chance on new, innovative concepts and technology. I have great respect for George in business and personally.”

Napier has been involved in the management of sports and recreation companies for about 30 years, including a stint at Wilson Sporting Goods as COO. In 2001, he was tapped by Benetton Group, based in Italy, to be the president and CEO of Benetton Sportsystem USA Inc., which included the Prince tennis brand.

In May 2003, Napier formed Prince Sports Inc., a new company that acquired the rights to the brand from Benetton Group, which had owned Prince since 1990. Prince Sports then relocated from Italy back to Bordentown, where the original company had been founded in 1970.

This past August, as Prince stood poised to break $100 million in sales for its fiscal year, the company swapped investment backers, trading Lincolnshire Management for Nautic Partners.

“Four years ago, when we carved Prince out of Benetton Sportsystem, we linked up with Lincolnshire,” says Napier, who has been on the board of directors for the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association for five years. “We went through an initial growth phase, underpinned by the launch of O3. Today, off of that success, we felt it was an opportunity for ‘second-stage growth,’ tackling other opportunities like footwear and apparel more aggressively, going after certain geographic markets, like in Europe, where we’re quite underdeveloped, I would say, and in China, where the opportunities are quite significant.

“So we decided collectively that it would be the right time to change our investment partners,” he continues. “Lincolnshire and the management team sold their interest to Nautic, and management has reinvested a good portion of the proceeds into the new deal, so we continue to be stakeholders in the new business, and are committed to leading this new round of growth.”

Prince has grown quite a bit from its origins as a tennis ball machine manufacturer. In 1976, the company came out with the first oversize racquet at 110 square inches. Prince introduced the “Longbody” racquet in 1995.

Under Napier’s leadership, the company has had a string of successes, in part because of Prince’s commitment to increasing its research and development budget. In racquets, 2005 saw the launch of O3 technology, which transformed traditional string holes into giant “O-ports,” creating a larger sweetspot, says Prince. The next year, the O3 Hybrid Series combined ordinary racquet technology with O-ports. And earlier this year, the O3 Speedport was introduced, which Prince says is up to 24 percent faster through the air and has a sweetspot up to 59 percent larger than a traditional racquet.

As other manufacturers have found out in the past, it’s difficult to get consumers to accept a racquet technology that looks different from traditional frames. But with O3 technology, Prince, under Napier’s guidance, took a chance on changing what a normal racquet looks like — and the frames have consistently topped the list as best-sellers.

For instance, the O3 White, played by pro Maria Sharapova, was the best-selling frame in 2006. And in 33 of the 36 months from September 2004 to August 2007, Prince’s dollar share has increased over the same month in the previous year, according to the TIA/SMS Retail Audit of Specialty Tennis Shops. (The company also owns the racquetball brand Ektelon, which Prince says has dominated the U.S. racquetball market for years.)

And Prince uses its stable of pro players to help in the development of its frames. “Some of these players are very knowledgeable about product,” says Napier, “and we tend to tap into that when they’re open and willing.” For instance, Napier says Sharapova has been involved in developing product “in a pretty serious way.”

(In addition to world No. 4 Sharapova, other top Prince players include No. 3 Jelena Jankovic, No. 10 Daniela Hantuchova, No. 12 Marion Bartoli and No. 16 Shahar Peer. On the men’s side, Prince claims No. 4 Nikolay Davydenko and No. 8 David Ferrer, along with up-and-comers Sam Querrey and John Isner. Prince recently lost pro James Blake to the company he formerly endorsed, but Prince picked up sponsorship of the world’s top men’s doubles team, Bob and Mike Bryan.)

In its footwear line in 2006, Prince came out with its M Series, which introduced “Precision Tube Technology” for cushioning, stability and ventilation. In string, Prince’s Synthetic Gut with Duraflex has been a consistent top seller. The company recently introduced Synthetic Gut Multifilament string.

In the coming months, though, the big storyline from Prince may be the launch of its new apparel. “We basically re-looked at apparel,” says Napier. “We took back our apparel license and decided to apply our own thinking to it. We’re bringing what we know about tennis to the apparel world, which is the need for comfort, ventilation, protection against the elements, antibacterial and UV protection, moisture management, and more.

“So we created a concept we call Aerotech,” Napier continues. “It’s stuff that other people are doing, but we’re bringing our own twist to it. It’s how we put it all together, to provide performance for players who are discerning and can compete.”

“Our roots are primarily in hard goods,” says Linda Glassel, the vice president of marketing for Prince Sports. “But over the last several years, George has challenged the team to expand their thinking and build a strong soft-goods business anchored by innovative technology and cutting-edge design.”

With the new apparel line, as with racquets, string, footwear and tennis balls, Napier is keenly aware of the role retailers play in Prince’s success. “I’m not a big believer that what we do is sell stuff to retailers,” he says. “I think what we try to do is partner with them, selling things that will sell through their stores, not just selling into their stores so we can get it out of our warehouse.

“So understanding who they are and what they do, then bringing them products that make sense for them and their consumers, which may change from region to region … I think we do that well and understand their needs, and make it a pleasure for them to do business with Prince.”

Retailers agree. “Prince seems to have a great understanding of the tennis consumer, as well as the dealers,” says Queen of Your Serve Tennis, who has been in the business for more than 31 years. “For instance, George has made a commitment to raise the bar for the average selling price of a racquet and tried to maintain profitability of racquets. He’s very straightforward in his approach to the business, as well as the Prince brand.”

“I think Prince has done a good job coming out with product that is unique,” says John Swetka, owner of Swetka’s Tennis Shop in Mountain View, Calif. “They pass on good programs to retailers throughout their lines to grow the brand to help us make it profitable to sell Prince. I think George has been instrumental in all of that.”

“George understands the industry,” says Glassel. “He has great relationships with our dealers and really understands the challenges of their day-to-day business.”

Beyond retailing, though, Prince also is involved in both high-performance training along with recreational and entry-level programs. A few years ago, the company established the “Prince Plugged In” program, which ties together an exclusive group of about 40 high-level training centers across the U.S., including the Nick Bollettieri Tennis Academy and Saddlebrook Tennis Academy.

Prince says the PPI training centers offer cutting-edge teaching, coaching and training initiatives — attracting top coaches and players within their communities — but also serve as product development laboratories for Prince. The PPI program offers a series of Challenge Cups multiple times per year where students come together to train and play competitively and are also offered workshops on topics such as playing college tennis, earning a scholarship, what the pro tours are like, nutrition, and mental and physical conditioning.

The company also has committed to the USTA Schools Program, as one of three approved vendors. “They are making a huge commitment to entry-level tennis for school-aged children,” says Kirk Anderson, the USTA’s director of Recreational Coaches and Programs. “This is an especially important year because of the success and popularity of scaled-down equipment and slower balls we are using for both the Schools Program and QuickStart Tennis. Prince is one of the industry leaders with this equipment. I’m grateful to their commitment to recreational tennis and our entry-level programs.”

In the end, though, success comes down from the top, and that’s where Napier may well have the biggest and most lasting impact — first in his leadership and vision in turning around a company and a tennis brand that had been neglected by its previous handlers, and now in leading the charge into the marketplace with new products that are exciting retailers and consumers.

“My view is to get comfortable with what you’ve got, understand the situation you’re in, plot a direction based on the environment internal and external, the opportunities, company strengths and the resources you have available, then get people to connect with that,” says Napier. “So my rule is really to understand that, frame it out, communicate it, and connect people to it and get them inspired. I don’t do it on my own, but I lead that process.”

“There is a strong sense of teamwork, fostered by George’s sense of leadership and vision for the long-term growth of the organization,” says Prince’s Glassel. “We all share in the wins and the losses.

“It’s not often that you have the opportunity, or the privilege, to work with someone who has the type of vision and dedication as George,” continues Glassel. “His management style and leadership is inspiring and has created an environment here at Prince where the people are truly dedicated to the growth of this brand.”

Adds Fonte: “It takes vision and courage to make the decisions, sometimes nontraditional, that cause a break out and a breakthrough.”

Through it all, though, Napier remains the friendly, understated chief executive who is passionate about the sport and about the team he works with. “You hope the enthusiasm is natural and the energy is real, because if you have that, you can really build a lot,” he says.

“I’m a common-sense guy who believes that if you’re open and honest and hard-working, you’re going to achieve something. That’s kind of what I like to bring to a business.”


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About the Author

Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.

 

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