Interview with Jeffrey Neal, VP Sales and Marketing Ergon USA.
As those who have been following the interview series here may have been able to discern, my modus operandi is to submit interview questions via email. Sometimes the subjects are very prompt and forthcoming (which really makes my job easier!) Sometimes they don’t answer at all. (Maybe they’re too busy? Maybe I didn’t ask the right questions?) When I contacted Jeffrey Neal, VP of Sales and Marketing for Ergon USA, he suggested an in-person interview at Sea Otter. Bina would be there, so she brought my Q’s and recorded Jeff’s A’s on her phone. (Any mistakes are mine- it was noisy where the interview was conducted- I did my best to make an accurate transcription.)
PBE How many people in your company?
JN Ergon in the United States is only 5 people. But in Germany, say, 40 people. It’s an international corporation and we sell all over the world. Our headquarters is in Koblenz, Germany. And our United states headquarters in in Los Angeles and in Eagle CO. We distribute through QBP and in Canada LivetoPlay/Norco, BTI, KHS and Olympic. REI is a big partner also.
PBE Is everything designed and made in Germany?
JN Everything is designed in Germany. Some of it is produced in Germany. A lot of it is actually made in Taiwan. We have a really good relationship with a factory there. Almost all the material in our grips is made in Germany. It’s compounded in Germany.. That’s why it’s really sophisticated in execution for what it’s supposed to do for a grip. Then we ship it in bulk to Taiwan for molding, packaging. The packaging is really sophisticated, too.
PBE When did you start working at Ergon?
JN I’d say about 8 to 9 years ago.
PBE Who’s the company founder and can you give some brief history?
JN Franc Arnold . He and his brother started Radsport Arnold in Koblenz, Germany. His brother went on to do Canyon. We’re located in Koblenz. Ergon is on one side of the Mosel River and Canyon is on the other side. So we have a really strong relationship with them in terms of them using our products on their bikes. Their race team uses it. Franc has a passion for design. We thoroughly engineer the ergonomics of everything in a way that costs a lot of money. Our stuff is really well thought out. And our saddles in particular- we have 3-D modeling – we can actually make prototype saddles that are fairly rideable for 2 or three rides – and then shave it and look at what we’re doing and work with some of the pro riders that we work with, like the Canyon Rapha women’s team. We had a lot of feedback from Pauline (Ferrand-Prevot.) Franc has been in the bike industry a long time. Our parent company is RTI Sports- a large distributor of bike parts. First Topeak distributor in the world. And then Ergon came out of that relationship.
PBE How was the niche of grips and saddles chosen?
JN Franc did a survey of a bunch of customers. “What would you like to improve about your bike the most?” And people would say they had numb hands. And so he thought that’s a direction that nobody’s really looked at. So we started developing- Franc is really good at gathering the best scientists, engineers, anything- physiologists… so what we did was we started doing prototypes and getting feedback and we’re like, “we’re on the right track here” and then we went to a Swedish ergonomic specialist who makes customized tools for people- purely ergonomic stuff- and he’s the one who – working with our guys- they discovered that this is the thing and thats the two elements of our grips we had patented. And so as soon as they came out, they just took off and exploded right away and that kind of led to where we were grips for a long time and we, like, planted our flag that the thing we really do well is ergonomics- and using them to study and interface with our products – so obviously saddles would be the next thing because part of the original survey was people would say, “my ass is numb”, and so we started doing saddles, and started doing really well. This year we’re really excited about our new women’s project. It’s a project that we started from scratch and Janina Haas, she’s the head physiologist. She did a survey for her Master’s study asking all these women in Germany what they like and don’t like about their saddles. However many women it was, it really has nothing to do with the back. It has to do with the front. She found that women- especially the fast, road-type woman- she’s almost not ever touching (the back of the saddle) but she’s fully engaged with the front. So we started doing prototypes and going out and riding with people and getting feedback and we realized we were on to something. Women really need relief up here. So what we did that’s really different – we moved the pressure relief poles more forward but we beveled the two sides (like this) so you’re always in contact. It’s a gradual transition. We also put gel here- so, we pad this- it’s a little wider- because women are wider through here. We offer two sizes- that’s a really important part of saddle measurement. Also a little shorter nose. It’s our best selling product right now.
PBE Is this the most exciting thing at Ergon?
JN Our gravity grips are doing really well- that was last year, but that took off. But then what’s exciting about (the women’s project) is we’ve got (pro mountain biker) Karen Jarchow on board. We have women. Women are way more comfortable talking to a woman. It’s a delicate thing- and it’s a real issue. And we were hearing over and over- really hard core riders say “I just deal with it- I thought it was supposed to hurt and I’ve gotten used to it.” When we started prototyping we connected with the Canyon women’s team really early in the process. They’re in the saddle 150 miles at a time. It has to work. We saw the Katusha men’s team at Canyon once and they all had these saddles that were like this thick and we asked them and they said, “As much as we ride, we want to be comfortable and we’ll sacrifice that amount of weight. “ If it makes it better, then we’re there. So it’s a natural transition in terms of our ergonomics story.
PBE What did you do before Ergon?
JN Worked in a bike shop. I managed one of the largest bike shops in America in Los Angeles. Before that, I was in film production for a long time. Sort of drifted into that and said, “I’ve sort of been in the bike business for a few years, I better get my life together!” and suddenly it was like there becomes things that are effortless – you just kind of go – you’re swept into the current of that river… I always think that anyone in the bike industry- one of the most important things is they have to work in a bike shop. Because then you understand. It’s like war- it’s where the battles are fought, really. A lot of people (in the industry) they’re really into product but there is no replacement for working in a bike shop,. Did you ever sell someone a $5,000 bike and have them come back the next day and say they didn’t like it because they get a buyer’s remorse attack in the night and you have to deal with that and 30 other people in the store and the phone is ringing off the hook?