Tennis Industry magazine

 

Person of the Year: Susan Dibiase

By Peter Francesconi

It’s tough trying to find out information on Susan DiBiase. The director of marketing for Babolat in the U.S. just doesn’t like talking about herself or her accomplishments. In fact, she’s very adept at deflecting the conversation away from her and peppering an interview with words like “team,” “partners” and “family” when talking about business.

But it’s that sense of shared purpose that DiBiase projects — and which permeates the team at Babolat — that may well have been the driving factor in putting the French brand on top in the U.S. tennis market.

“At Babolat, all we do is tennis, and we’ve grown really quickly the last few years,” DiBiase says. “We want to stay relevant to players and give them products to improve their games, and we want to grow the game of tennis, too.”

Babolat has definitely stayed relevant to players; so much so, in fact, that in the U.S., it’s seen a remarkable increase in market share in the last six years. While DiBiase downplays her hand in this, the fact is she has had a major leadership role in orchestrating Babolat’s surge. And for 2012, she is RSI’s Person of the Year.

“Susan knows our brand perfectly — its strategy, its roots, its values,” says Jerome Pin, managing director for Babolat North America. “She is the ‘guardian of the temple’ for our brand in the U.S., always looking for the right balance between actions that favor sales and other activities. She aims to maintain and improve the premium image of the brand.”

According to the most recent data available from Sports Marketing Surveys USA (Q3 2012 Pro/Specialty Audit), Babolat is the dollar leader for racquets at pro and specialty shops, increasing its share from 9% in 2003 to 35% in 2012. It’s had the No. 1-selling racquet at specialty stores every quarter since Q2 of 2007.

Babolat entered the tennis shoe market in 2005, and since then, its dollar share has increased to 14% in 2012 (Q3 2012 Pro/Specialty Audit). For racquets, the company saw a sharp increase in dollar share starting in 2008; shoes took a nice jump-starting at the end of 2010.

In increasing its dollar share in both categories, Babolat benefitted from many factors, including key introductions of new Babolat products, other manufacturers’ product reaching the end of their cycles, holding the line as far as the number of SKUs Babolat offered to retailers, and strong support among junior and college players. Of course, it didn’t hurt to also have some of the most popular players on the pro tour, either, such as Rafael Nadal, Andy Roddick and Kim Clijsters.

DiBiase, who lives in Golden, Colo., joined Babolat in 2007, after working for the Schwinn bicycle company and Nautilus fitness. She grew up in western Pennsylvania playing tennis in the summer and skiing in the winter.

Dibiase taught tennis for many years in Pittsburgh and played two years on the team at Penn State. After she graduated with a degree in marketing, she moved to Colorado, where she made the U.S. Ski Team as a mogul skier. She also was a top mountain biker. “I was top 10 in the world in both freestyle skiing and mountain bike racing,” she says.

DiBiase was on the professional mountain biking circuit for 10 years. In both skiing and biking, “I was never a world champ; I never won the big races,” she says. “My value to the teams was that I did all the festivals, clinics, rides — I’d go anywhere where I could be a brand ambassador. I knew that would help me get a job when I was done.”

As it turned out, DiBiase was right on target in her strategy to boost her experience dealing with the public and getting to know consumer markets.

“I think a lot of people think of Babolat as a high-performance premium brand, only for super-competitive athletes,” DiBiase says. “But that’s changing. We have more exposure now, with all the different programs we’re doing now in the U.S.”

Five years ago, she says, Babolat’s marketing efforts were mainly focused on grassroots sponsorships, junior players and college players. “We have since then really spread our roots out,” DiBiase says. “We didn’t have a teaching pro program before, certainly not to the level it is now. Our communications efforts have expanded broadly, including our social media. We’re doing field marketing with a team of marketing reps, and we’re going to retailers and training the sales force staff.”

“Susan has been doing great things at Babolat,” says Brad Blume of retailer Tennis Express. “She’s behind Babolat’s strong MAP policy that helps retailers maintain margin and profitability.”

Mark Mason, of New York City retailer Mason’s Tennis Mart, agrees. “Susan understands what I’m trying to do as a retailer to promote what’s new and exciting to my clientele,” he says. “She truly understands the commonality of goals that a brand like Babolat has with its key retailers. She’s very consistent in making sure that we retailers have the tools to do our job.”

“With our National Sales Manager Mickey Maule,” adds Pin, “Susan’s been the architect of our selective distribution strategy, building a consistent set of policies in order to protect our brand and our dealers.”

“For me,” says retailer Steve Vorhaus of Rocky Mountain Racquet Specialists in Boulder, Colo., “Babolat has become an increasingly important partner, not just the No. 1 selling racquet in our store. Since Susan joined, Babolat has really grown as a company. I know a number of people who work there [the U.S. headquarters is in Boulder], and they love the job. Susan does a nice job of infusing energy and passion into the corporate subculture.

“The U.S. market is different,” Vorhaus continues. “What I sense is the U.S. distributorship has a better voice, that’s heard more in France. Many other foreign companies have struggled here, but when the parent company understands how the U.S. works, it makes it better for the company.”

And that ends up being a key job that DiBiase fulfills. “One of the biggest parts of my job is being the liaison between the whole team in France and what the U.S. market needs in terms of product, marketing, etc.,” says DiBiase, who makes about a dozen trips a year to Babolat’s headquarters in Lyon, France. “I think the time I spent competing in those other sports in Europe really provided me with a healthy respect for the culture. But I know that often we need to change the message to be more appropriate to the U.S. market.” The U.S. market is about 25 percent of Babolat’s global volume, she adds.

But it all goes back to that team feeling. “It’s a culture that comes down from the top, right from company President Eric Babolat,” DiBiase says. “It’s such a refreshing change being part of a family-run business.”

DiBiase praises the Babolat team in the U.S. — National Sales Manager Mickey Maule, National Key Accounts Manager Rich Francey, Regional Sales Manager Dave Dwelle and Marketing Manager Steve Strecker. “Those guys are like my brothers,” she says. “Everyone has a mutual respect for everyone else.”

“In a lot of companies, sales and marketing tend to be in different silos,” says Maule. “Susan and I are basically on the same page with everything we do — her for marketing, me for sales. Right now, we’re excited about the new Play and Connect, and we’re working together on strategies to maximize this new product.”

“We always want to maintain that challenger spirit,” DiBiase says. “That’s something Eric always says to us. And to have an extremely healthy respect for all of our competitors

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About the Author

Peter Francesconi is editorial director of Tennis Industry magazine.

 

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