2009 Person of the Year: Eric Babolat
What’s the oldest tennis company in the world? For some, the answer may be surprising, since it was only in the last 10 years that the French company Babolat became much more visible in the U.S. when it introduced racquets here.
But Babolat is the oldest tennis company in the world — it’s been making tennis strings for 135 years. In fact, Babolat invented tennis strings, pretty much at the same time the game of tennis itself was born.
In 1875, Pierre Babolat, who lived in Lyon (where the company is still based, and still uses its original building), was making natural gut strings for musical instruments. Major Walter Clopton Wingfield visited Babolat to talk about strings for wooden racquets for a new game Wingfield called “sphairistike” (a Greek word meaning “ball game”), which he had patented a year earlier. (Thankfully, the game caught on, but not Wingfield’s original name for it.)
From that point on, Babolat and his company became dedicated to tennis.
Now, Pierre’s great-great-grandson, Eric Babolat, heads the company and his vision has been changing the fortunes of the family-run firm, bringing innovative products to market in the U.S. and around the world, establishing and maintaining key relationships with pro and specialty retailers, and adding excitement for both recreational and pro players.
His vision, products, growth and approach to business in the U.S. is what makes Eric Babolat our choice for Racquet Sports Industry’s 2009 Person of the Year.
Eric was thrust into the lead role at Babolat in 1998 when he was 28 years old. In September of that year, his father, Pierre, was returning to France from the US Open when he was killed in the crash of Swissair Flight 111 off Nova Scotia.
But Eric, now the fifth generation to run the company, had been well-schooled in the family business. Under his leadership, the company has been focused on, and is successfully executing, a strategic plan of expansion worldwide.
In 1994, the company launched its first line of tennis racquets, in Europe. In 2000, two years after Eric took the helm as president and CEO, Babolat racquets were brought to the U.S. market and quickly established a foothold that today gives them nearly 25 percent dollar-market-share in pro shops and specialty stores, as of June 2009, according to research by Sports Marketing Surveys. Also in 2000, Babolat established its U.S. headquarters in Boulder, Colo.
The company’s biggest selling racquets, the Pure Drive (used by Andy Roddick) and the Aeropro Drive (used by Rafael Nadal), are consistently at the top of the charts. In terms of dollar sales at pro shops/specialty stores for the first three quarters of 2009, Babolat has the top three best-selling frames: the Aeropro Drive Cortex Midplus, Pure Drive Cortex Midplus and Pure Drive GT Midplus, according to TIA/SMS research.
Babolat partnered with another iconic French company, tire-maker Michelin, and in 2005 brought tennis shoes with Michelin soles to the U.S. market. (Roddick wears the popular Propulse shoe.) The company has a tenniswear line in Europe and, if history is any guide, Babolat tennis apparel will soon find its way into the U.S. market. And there’s talk of possibly bringing Babolat tennis balls to market.
Strings, of course, have been the company staple throughout its history (the popular VS string was launched in 1925, and the company pioneered electric, then electronic, stringing machines in the 1970s). Babolat, which had worldwide revenues of $120 million in 2008, also makes tennis grips and accessories.
Outside of its unprecedented growth in the U.S. market since 2000, what’s truly unique about the company is that for 135 years, it has been solely focused on tennis. The slogan “tennis runs in our blood” is often repeated by Eric Babolat and taken to heart by the nearly 300 employees worldwide.
Long-Term, Patient Growth
“Our roots are deep in tennis, and we are completely dedicated to the sport,” says Babolat. “But this industry is not so easy [today], the market is not really growing. So being specialized is a challenge.”
But, he adds, the company has always been oriented toward the long-term. “When we start or launch something, we want to establish our brand as a leader.” Babolat’s strategy of introducing products in a limited, controlled way in their home area, then patiently expanding to other locations, seems to be working well. And importantly, it’s led to retailer and player loyalty that helps to grow the brand.
Also contributing to the company’s growth and success in the U.S. is Babolat’s management team. Eric Babolat didn’t created a bloated infrastructure, so particularly during this time of downsizing and cutting back, the company was well-positioned with a streamlined team of proven professionals.
Another key in the way Babolat does business is its presence at the grassroots, with sponsorships of teaching pros and promising young players. When the company’s racquets debuted in the U.S., it didn’t take long for highly visible pros and top juniors to put the brand in the spotlight. Among the top players who are longtime users of the brand are Roddick, Nadal and Kim Clijsters, a credit to Eric Babolat’s eye for talent.
“Roddick using the Pure Drive racquet was a huge factor in the company’s growth in the U.S.,” says CD Bodam, the president of Rocky Mountain Sports, who has dealt with Babolat for 30 years. “Babolat’s success is a combination of a good business plan, good resources, and some good luck.”
That business plan includes a distribution strategy that has garnered the loyalty of retailers in the U.S. and helped the brand to grow even more.
“Babolat has not gone to places that don’t want to be partners,” says Bodam. “Since its beginning in the U.S., the brand was really picky, and that paid off and kind of kept a little cult going.” In the U.S., the company has nearly 50 employees and about 1,500 tennis retail accounts.
Protecting the Brand
“Babolat has been really conscious of protecting their brand,” says Brad Blume of Tennis Express in Houston, which Babolat named its 2009 Retailer of the Year. “It’s done an amazing job in maintaining price and brand integrity and not going after the discount market.”
“Babolat has become the premier brand in tennis retail,” adds Mark Mason of Mason’s Tennis Mart in New York City. “They’ve taken a huge percentage away from other brands, and they don’t sell to big-box stores. You never hear of Babolat flooding the market with off-price racquets, as we know other companies do. Ask any specialist focused on margins; your best margins are with Babolat. Rarely do people come into my store saying they can get a Pure Drive for less, and asking me to match that price. It’s a winning combination for specialty retail.”
The reason for this, adds Mason, is the leadership provided by Eric Babolat, along with the way the company is structured. “Eric’s greatest advantage is he’s not part of a larger company with a corporate structure, so there’s not that pull for just growth,” Mason says, “because then it’s growth no matter how you do it.
“Dealers know that if anybody sells below MAP, Eric will act quickly on it. Bottom line, they’re the best partner we have because if you have a franchise with them, they really are behind you.”
“A lot of retailers have a long relationship with our company,” says Babolat. “That’s important — we’re confident in their knowledge and passion for the game and their understanding of the product. Their professional advice is really the key for the support they can bring to the brand, and we want to provide them with product that is easy to sell with good marketing points.”
“Right now, Babolat is the clear industry leader in terms of policy and responsibility,” says Tony Taverna, who owns two Perfect Racquet retail stores in Connecticut.
“They’ve been able to do what no other company has been able to do: Have at least a two-year life cycle on all new racquets; when introducing a new technology, they manage inventory so older models sell through with minimal discounting; they keep the racquet line streamlined so they don’t over-saturate the market; and they successfully govern distribution channels so that being an authorized dealer has very real benefits.
“As racquet, string, and grip SKUs keep multiplying in this industry,” adds Taverna, “I’m hoping Babolat won’t compromise and will continue to stick with its tennis-specialty-friendly policies.”
A ‘Family’ Atmosphere
Babolat’s relationship with dealers speaks well to the “family” atmosphere that Eric fosters. “You can see it throughout the company,” says Susan DiBiase, the U.S. marketing director who joined Babolat in 2006. “It starts from the top down. We want to be successful, but we’re not an in-your-face kind of brand. The whole company wants to make sure we never lose that.
“And it’s the same with our players,” she adds. “You see it with Nadal and Clijsters — they’re total winners, yet very humble and approachable and nice. That’s a value that Eric tries to instill in everybody, it’s a huge part of the way everything’s organized.”
Recently, DiBiase says, Nadal came by the office in Lyon and spent four hours going around with Eric and talking to every employee. “The employees love working for Eric.”
And employees know it’s all about the family — which is the brand. “It all goes back to Eric’s philosophy and how that has trickled down to everyone,” says Mickey Maule, Babolat’s U.S. national sales manager, who’s been with the company just over two years. “Our brand is first, and every decision goes around that.”
Important in the longevity of the brand, say both DiBiase and Maule, is having “long-sellers.”
“We don’t introduce a product, then six months later yank it and flood the market with closeouts,” says DiBiase. “It’s important for our brand and for our dealers to know that we’re there for them.”
“It’s something dealers always bring up to us,” adds Maule. “We give the consumers a chance to really buy into something. Our dealers know our programs and philosophies are easy to work with.”
Innovation and Vision
Dealers also know the innovative products and technologies that Babolat brings to market. “Eric is a visionary in this industry,” says Mason. “I always look to Babolat for the most innovative products.”
“Product innovation is a big key for success and quality,” says Babolat. “We have technologies and products that are great for every kind of player, at every level.”
Adds DiBiase, “The U.S. is the biggest market for Babolat, and Eric understands that the U.S. is a different market than the rest of the world, and he always listens to our point of view. For instance, we have the whole oversized racquet market here that they don’t have in Europe. Eric is just great, though, and really approachable. He’s personal, and personable.”
And Eric Babolat is looking to help the overall U.S. tennis market; he recently joined the board of directors of the Tennis Industry Association. “Eric’s perspective on the U.S. tennis retail market will provide valuable insight as we move forward with ways we can help the industry overall,” says Jolyn de Boer, the executive director of the TIA. “We’re happy that he’s involved as a member of our board.”
“To me, Eric is the most important leader in the industry,” concludes Mason. “He wants to improve the experience of players on every level, and to make the game even easier. I wish other companies would market more like Babolat.”
“We are a mix of innovation and heritage,” says Babolat. “Very few companies in the world have that, and I’m very proud of that, of those tennis roots. The more that players feel Babolat is their brand — this is what makes us strong and helps us build. We want to take the time to grow our history in the market.”
Tips for success
- Keep your eyes focused on where you want to be. “Tennis runs in our blood,” says Eric Babolat, and that theme sets the tone for the company’s strategy.
- Create strong partnerships with customers and accounts, and work together.
- Internally, make it a team effort across the board. Rather than people out for themselves, they should be looking out for the best interest of the brand.
- Be personable, open, honest and genuine. Eric Babolat’s approach to others draws them in, rather than alienates them.
See all articles by Peter Francesconi
About the Author
Peter Francesconi is editorial director of RSI magazine.