From The Top with Gavin Vos - Pinkbike
First things first...
I'm Gavin Michael Vos, President of Spank Industries and Fratelli Industries. I'm from South Africa, and have been living in Taichung for 20 years.
PB: How did you first become involved with the MTB industry?
Actually, I started BMX racing as a kid. I got out of that at about the age of ten when I got heavily into surfing. Surfing led me to retail sales work in the watersports and outdoor pursuits arena. One thing led to another and we had the windsurfing industry crash in the early 80's, mainly due to the rigs becoming too expensive. Following this, a lot of the windsurfers went over from sailing to triathlon, that was when triathlon had just started budding. At the time I was working for a lifestyle sports store called Beachbreak and we started up a bicycle division that was selling triathlon wetsuits and time-trial bikes. This led to building a bike workshop in order to service the products. Then, in 1987, I bought an 18-speed ‘fat tire’ off-road bicycle that was on display at a booth at a surf retail show in USA. I thought, "Hey, cool, a big BMX bike with gears!"
"A lot of the guys that were surfing began riding mountain bikes when there was no surf - and that's how it all started."
Gavin and staff at Beachbreak
I brought it back to South Africa with me and I was riding it to work and back every day to our surf shop. There was so much interest from people that we started importing Wheeler and Cats mountain bikes. A lot of the guys that were surfing began riding mountain bikes when there was no surf – and that's how it all started.
From there, it led to the first South African mountain bike company being started, where together with my partners Neil Dorward and Steven Adshade, we grew what was a surf shop into Beachbreak Pro MTB. We also started up the first MTB club called Fat Tracks, which is still going today! Together with fellow bikers Robbie Powell and Brandon Els, we started the 'Beachbreak Summer Series' MTB events which then led to the first national event called the Sedgefield Fat Tire Festival.
After a little break from surfing and biking, brought on by my two years of conscription in the Marines, we affiliated with NORBA and the South African Cycling Federation and eventually began staging the four-leg annual South African National Mountain Bike Championships.
The sport of MTB quickly began developing to the point where we took a team to the 1993 World Championships in Métabief, France. We competed there under the South African flag that was highly illegal at that time.
That initiative spurred on the formation of SAMBA, the South African Mountain Biking Association, which I started with Brandon Else, Robbie Powell and Angela Stockley. All of this was basically run out the back of the surf and bike shop.
Gavin M. Vos – TIMELINE
1975 - 1978: Raced BMX as a kid
1979: Switched to surfing
1986 - 1997: Extreme sports pioneer in South Africa (first South African bungee jumping operation called KingSwing, paragliding, power kiting, MTB racing, and in-between death defying pursuits, buyer and marketer for outdoor and adventure importer, distributor and retail chain called AST / Beachbreak)
1988: Pioneered first import and distribution of mountain bikes and components into S. Africa
1988-1990: Two years conscripted national service in the S. African Marines
1990 – 1995: Established and pioneered first SA mountain bike club (Fat Tracks), SAMBA (South African Mountain Bike Association), SA Mountain Bike Champs, management team for first SA MTB Team to participate in World Champs (France, 1993)
1997: Moved to Taiwan to pursue his interests in design and manufacturing with Zokes Suspension (Marzocchi), Wheeler, Hayes
1998: Established FUNN Components and VOG Designs
2000: Initiated iXS Sports Division with Intercycle Switzerland, leading design/development/production team
2001: Established Spank Industries with Sven Mack
2011: Established Fratelli Industries and Anvil Industries
2012: Established The Gravity Cartel (Sales/Service/Promotion for Spank and iXS) in Washington, USA
2015: Still Stoked
After being rapped on the knuckles quite hard for unsanctioned use of the new South African national flag, we set our sights on a bid to stage a leg of the Grundig DH World Cup in South Africa – a dream we realized in 1997 in Stellenbosch, South Africa. Man, what a buzz to see the likes of Shaun Palmer, Missy Giove and even Hans ‘No Way’ Rey descend upon the slopes of our home country.
South African bike culture was thriving at this point and I turned my focus toward the design and manufacture of the products we had been selling. Next step was heading out to Taiwan, where it was all happening.
PB: You competed at the World Championships?
I was a team manager at the time, so… I mean I was still racing, but I was way more involved with the administration, mostly taking care of the guys actually. For a long time I was into the racing aspect, walked the path as commissar, event organizer and everything that goes with it you know. Running that World Champs team also marked the beginning of a relationship with Greg Minnaar. At the time, Greg was a youngster. We were sponsoring the entire Two Wheels Inn race team at the time (a bike shop in Pietermaritzburg, owned by Greg’s mother who was one of our dealers). We heard that this kid had just jumped a ridiculous line of cars on an 80cc motorbike. So that's how I got to meet him and make him the youngest sponsored rider in South Africa at the time, bringing him on board with full sponsorship on our team. Greg has of course made his own incredible history since, and it’s really nice to know that his parents passed the baton on and today Greg owns the bike store where it all began for him.
"Man, what a buzz to see the likes of Shaun Palmer, Missy Giove and even Hans 'No Way' Rey descend upon the slopes of our home country.
Gavin Michael Vos - early days before Spank"
PB: When did you start Spank?
Spank was started about 13 years ago now. We were developing during 2001 and we launched in 2002.
PB: What were you doing in Taiwan before Spank?
I started to travel to Taiwan with Wheeler as a distributor, and when I became involved with the product and marketing side of the business I got drawn into design and development with Zokes Suspension. Interestingly, while working with Zokes the inspiration for the first cartridge suspension system came to me while sitting in my adjustable office chair. I ripped the chair apart, and fitted the cartridge to a set of fork legs and the first working (albeit poorly) prototype was born! Supply chain challenges, or rather opportunities, in the mid-90’s prompted me to start my first component company, FUNN, in 1997, where we brought such innovations as shorty stems and the oversized (31.8m) handlebar standard. Around that same period, I established VOG – a marketing and design firm, and moved to Taiwan full time. I eventually sold my shares of FUNN to my silent partners at that time and turned the page in my development in the industry. Through an involvement with shared distribution brands (Wheeler, Marzocchi, Schwinn), a relationship was fostered with Peter Hostettler and later Pascal Haf, when we teamed up to develop iXS Sports Division, where I still participate within the management team.
"Interestingly, while working with Zokes, the inspiration for the first cartridge suspension system came to me while sitting in my adjustable office chair. I ripped the chair apart, and fitted the cartridge to a set of fork legs."
Besides working with iXS, VOG was doing some design projects for Hayes Brakes and FSA, actually the brand logo still comes from me. We did a lot of product design, graphics, packaging and marketing with companies such as SRAM, Trigon, Token and Giant. Those were the pioneering days! I was also involved in those early days with Atomlab where I sort of helped to bring it from a backyard machine shop in the USA, to Taiwan. I guess my surf and bungee background led to a natural progression to the gravity-style brands I’ve been developing from the beginning, you know.
PB: Where did you start out with Spank?
We started off Spank in Germany, together with my partner at that time, Sven Mack, who still is our German distributor at SportsNut GmbH. I did the design, development and production and Sven handled marketing and sales in Germany. We later expanded into regional territories - France, Austria - and then broadened globally from there. As Sven’s focus turned to the demands of distribution, I became sole proprietor of Spank.
PB: You mentioned earlier that the UK and Australia were particularly difficult markets to get into?
That's right. I think... probably the primary reason was that our exposure in the States was low back then, and a lot of the UK and Australian companies at the time were highly influenced by the American market. Add the cheekiness of the name 'Spank', combined with a misconception that we were focused on the struggling dirt jump market, together with the challenges of working with weak, early day distribution in new English-speaking territories, and you have a tough market to crack. Admittedly, we were so involved at such an early stage, I think we were part of starting the dirt movement in most territories. It was a tough sell. It didn’t take us long to realize that DJ wasn’t the future for us and we moved focus to DH, trail, freeride and enduro.
Over 25 percent of the production staff are dedicated to quality control inspection.
PB: Can we talk about the Fratelli Factory?
Yeah, the Fratelli factory was born mainly due to frustration after going through the five big rim makers in Taiwan and realizing that we couldn't create what we were looking for – wide, lightweight, tubeless rims that can stand up to the requirements of the gravity genre.
Despite the sense of what we put on the table, we always ended up having development issues with the factories. The final straw that broke the camel's back was working with quite a well-known rim factory where we ended up having a lot of products cracking. We discovered that the material that they were selling us was different to what we had been paying for. This, and a lot of other issues eventually pushed me into starting Fratelli Industries.
PB: So, Fratelli produces Spank wheelsets. Does it make products for other brands?
Yes, we produce all of our Spank wheelsets, from scratch. I won't say our customers’ names, just because I don't think that they would like you to know. There's no secrecy, but we're making a lot of things for some of the world's leading mountain bike and road brands. We handle the high-end alloy production and we help to design, develop, and engineer products specifically to their needs.
PB: Why do you think those brands like to come to Fratelli?
We consider ourselves very different from the other factories. At Fratelli, we pride ourselves in hand-crafted rim production with industry leading tolerances and controls. We understand the market and the competitiveness, we try to be selective and exclusive with whom we work, and strive to deliver a unique quality product to our partners. We are a manufacturing partner, not just a supplier. This is evident in our encouragement for other brands to utilize and benefit from our facility in order to produce rims that are unique and different. We limit who we work with so we don't compete against ourselves. We make sure that we don't work with too many players, or offer too many similar products. That's why our open-model product offering is very limited. It’s designed to give people a taste of what we're capable of. We end up putting a lot more energy into original design and manufactured goods for customers than we do into our open models. The same commitment to authentic and innovative world-class quality is evident at Anvil Industries, our in-house handlebar facility.
PB: So, Anvil is a separate manufacturing facility?
It's a similar setup to what you saw at Fratelli, just very different machinery. Anvil Industries is noted for innovations in manufacturing processes, specifically CNC bending and Dual XGT (extreme gradual tapering). To explain briefly, it may surprise some to hear that where most high-end alloy handlebars are butted around three to four times, at Anvil we’ve developed a process mechanically refining the grain structure of the base material. Despite the extended production lead times and added investment this approach results in, we don’t rush. Our commitment is to a precision process that delivers the best result.
Anvil Industries is another in-house manufacturing facility started by Gavin, and it produces Spank's top-tier Vibrocore handlebars.
PB: Was there a point where you felt the Spank brand starting to take off? Did it snowball, or was it slow and steady?
I would say in the last three seasons it's begun to take off. I think a big reason for that is growth outside of our traditional territories, growing in the English speaking territories like the USA, UK, Australia and so forth. Product innovations, a lot of time and energy and investment into the North American markets, these things all have paid off in notable growth. We established our own office in Washington, USA, which in itself was a four-year process. We geared up quite significantly about a year ago with warehousing and infrastructure and an ERP system. I also really upped our marketing budget and rider sponsorship, which has helped to open more new territories as brand awareness has grown. The growth and evolution of our in-house manufacturing facilities has allowed us to offer lightweight, World Cup level products at even more affordable prices. I think that also gave us a boost. All these factors are straightforward evidence of the returns being directly related to the inputs.
After butting and swaging, Spank bars will move onto the CNC bending process.
PB: Let's talk about Spank products. After visiting the factory today, I was amazed by the quality and craftsmanship taking place compared to my previous vision of the brand. Do you often get bundled together with lower quality, off the shelf companies that just buy, brand and market?
Yes, I think we do get incorrectly bundled there, and there are a few reasons, hinged on stereotyping, that have led to that misconception. Maybe an ‘old school’ perception that shiny and colorful equals cheap and low quality. Due to the mass-market power of the big brands, there is also a misconception that your product is not ‘up to scratch’ if it’s not spec’d on complete bicycles. Then there’s also the age-old misconception that excellence must be expensive. Spank breaks all those ‘norms.’
The audaciousness of our brand name, and the choice of our color ranges reflect our energy and passion. Our products are also uniquely affordable for technology of this standard. We’ve invested hugely over the years in being able to deliver in-house design, production and quality control of, literally, the highest standards for exactly that reason – so that we can deliver World Cup level product at affordable pricing structures.
"Then there's also the age-old misconception that excellence must be expensive. Spank breaks all those 'norms'"
Checking a rim during the manufacturing process.
Spank has strategically stayed away from OEM (Original Equipment Manufacturer) for industry customers. Our goal is to retain the authenticity and innovation of product for our consumers, for the riders out there. OEM leads to all manner of risks including reduced control of design and production integrity, loss of brand authenticity, and various other factors that come into play in a high volume, mass-market environment. And, that’s not even getting into the potential damages of grey market concerns. It’s just not for us. It’s not what Spank is about. We do, however, do some very selective OEM business, and with that we try to do special bike models with brands that we feel are a good fit.
PB: What's your most popular product to date, and are there any products you regret making?
Our early fame came from our wide rims, such as Spike and Oozy, although it was our first flat pedal, the Spike, which I think opened the eyes of the world to what Spank is doing. Most recently, our Vibrocore handlebar-damping technology has made waves as an innovation that seems to be setting a new standard in what a handlebar should be.
Hooping an Oohbah profile Spank rim
Rims are periodically inspected at multiple points throughout production.
PB: You seem reluctant to make the change towards carbon products. What's the reason for that?
Well, I've been in and out of factories in Asia since carbon really took off about 15 years ago. I've seen the level of production capability, and I feel that carbon as a product is under spec’d in the bicycle industry. There is a place for carbon, but I think it's on the elite two to five percent of professional-use products.
"It's not that I'm anti-carbon, but I'm 'anti-the-way-that-it's-being-used.'"
I think the problems are in the way it's used now, it's become a work horse material, it's become cheaply produced and in unsustainable ways. I feel that you can get a better cost-to-performance ratio out of alloy than you can get out of carbon today, and with a readily recyclable material. The environmental and ethical concerns raise a major red flag. It's not that I'm anti-carbon, but I'm 'anti-the-way-that-it's-being-used.' It's become a low-cost material and not an exclusive material.
I also feel that the industry is being irresponsible in the way that it's promoted and pushed carbon for mass-appeal. For an industry like the bicycle industry, which is considered to be relatively 'green,' I believe it's time to start educating consumers about the consequences of their purchases, and address the relevance of high volume carbon manufacturing in light of ethical and environmental impacts.
PB: Very interesting...
Yeah, I mean there's a second part to that, and that's the cost implication. As I said before, I feel that carbon played a detrimental role in the windsurfing industry because the product became too expensive. I feel that we are potentially losing new and young consumers because they might not be in a position to afford carbon, therefore they may choose not to participate in biking because they can't get what's perceived to be a cool product. I think that's a secondary concern, that we might be alienating ourselves from new consumers.
PB: You said that happened in windsurfing?
That's my personal opinion, and I share that stance with quite a few other opinion leaders in that area, but it definitely had a massive negative effect on the board sailing scene.
PB: It'll be interesting to see if the same happens in the mountain biking industry.
I think it's already happening to some extent and that is why we have had an agenda at Spank for some time now to ensure that we can deliver responsibly manufactured, safe, affordable alternatives in alloy.
PB: You reinvest a lot into sponsorship programs, does this help with development and building the brand image?
It helps with building brand image, yes. But even more so, the relationships with our sponsored riders and events allow us to develop product responsibly and innovatively. We sponsor World Cup teams, FMB athletes, enduro racers and ambassadors globally. This affords us the opportunity to engage and to get direct feedback on where the market is going, and what demands are placed on the products.
We try to learn as much as we can from that. I'm personally visiting a lot of events now: Crankworx, iXS Cups, iXS Dirt Masters, Sea Otter and so on. We work closely with our riders to isolate what problems they have with components, what desires they have for product development and we get them directly involved with that development. We see it as a very essential part of our brand’s requirement to stay ahead. But even more so, to give back by ensuring that we're growing the sport.
PB: It's good to see some companies putting the money back at different levels, rather than supporting few of the elite.
Yes, aside from our impressive World Cup teams such as United Ride, legends of the sport like Darren Berrecloth, and FMB rising stars like Nicholi Rogatkin, we also have quite a substantial grassroots program, where we provide affordable product to young, aspiring riders that we feel have got potential but maybe need a little bit of support to get off the ground. Actually, a lot of our grassroots riders have evolved into professional competitors and we've been supporting some of these guys for ten to twelve years. It's actually helped to foster new talents. We maintain relationships with these guys specifically to help grow our industry. We see that a big part of what we do is involvement and participation.
"We encourage any brands to get involved and participate in growing the scene and nurturing new talent into our sport."
But equally as important as rider support, is event development. The Spank sponsorship profile today includes being the presenting sponsor of the Official Whip-Off Worlds, Oceania and European Championships at Crankworx Whistler, Rotorua and Les Deux Alpes, (or now Les Gets as it will be in 2016). As a premier sponsor of the iXS Downhill Cup, we’ve also seen over the last 14 years of this event how it's evolved, and we see that as a fantastic vehicle that’s brought European downhill racing back to the top. Most of the World Cup riders are coming directly out of this series. Without these kinds of activities, there wouldn't be that market segment, which in turn wouldn't have led to the new enduro segment either. So we encourage any brands to get involved and participate in growing the scene and nurturing new talent into our sport.
Pedal production on a custom-made, 4.5 axis CNC machine.
PB: Let's talk about moving to Taiwan and building the whole business from here. What's the biggest challenge you faced so far?
The biggest challenge I would say is learning to live in a very different culture, to find a compromise on what my expectations were as opposed to trying to adapt. How can I put it? ...Trying to change a culture rather than to adapt to it. I think it took me a long time to realize that I'm not going to change Taiwan, nor should I try, but I needed to learn how to work with it. Once I changed my attitude in that way, things became easier. I think it's like any relocation; it takes some time, especially in a completely foreign language and in a very traditional culture. Yeah, it takes a while to adapt.
PB: Any thoughts on moving elsewhere as economics change?
No. I think that Taiwan is going to always be the major role player in bicycle production.
PB: It seems like everything you need is here.
It's incredibly established and it's improving and always getting better. I see potential for smaller machine-shop manufacturing coming back to Western markets like in the UK and USA. I'd like to see that happening over time. But, I don't think that they're going to be able to compete with the mass production to the extent, quality and competitive pricing that the Far East does. I don't think that’s going to change in the short term. I think that if high-end bicycles stay carbon, it's certainly not going to move away from Asia – just to be able to do the volume at the pricing that's required. In actual fact, a lot of production seems to be coming back from China to Taiwan purely for quality reasons. The Taiwanese have proven over time that they make a better product at a more cost-effective price than any other market. And that's been the trend for 30 years.
PB: Why do think that is? Is this supported by their culture and work ethic?
I think a large part of it is culture and work ethic. I have massive respect for the focus my colleagues and business associates here in Taiwan put on work as a priority and lifestyle as a benefit. This is very different to the perceived lifestyle focus of the West in general. Which is right or wrong, is another question. I think somewhere between what Taiwan is today, and what the Europeans and Americans do, there's an answer that will satisfy everybody.
I also feel the work ethic here is collaborative in nature in contrast to where Westerners seem to be more closely guarded with what they do and how they do it. I think it's sometimes to their detriment, but I don't see it changing in the short term.
Final finishing is done with diamond-faced CNC tools from Germany.
Swiss-made CNC cutting tools, custom-profiled for pedal production.
PB: Have you got any favorite business books or courses that helped you along the way? Anything that you'd recommend?
Actually, you know earlier today I mentioned Richard Branson, and one of the few non-technical books I've read is a book he wrote called 'Losing My Virginity.' I actually read that book cover to cover during the 1999 earthquake in Taiwan; I was stuck in a car for two to three weeks because everybody was advised not to go into their apartment.
"You know where Spank comes from? It's basically when you're born and get your first slap on the butt which kick-starts your vitals and gets your heart and lungs going; that's the first sort of adrenaline rush that you get!"
The 7.3 earthquake basically shut the island down. I happened to pick up a copy of that book on the way into Taiwan just before that incident. I found the book highly motivating, inspired that the music that he had produced was music I had grown up listening to. The attitude that he had, that you can take on anything and do anything that you put your mind to, really inspired me to get deeply involved with manufacturing. If I had not read that book, I probably would never have entered into this…let’s call it 'risk.'
His branding of the business 'Virgin' somehow even inspired me to some degree to the brand name Spank. You know where Spank comes from? It's basically when you're born and get your first slap on the butt which kick-starts your vitals and gets your heart and lungs going; that's the first sort of adrenaline rush that you get! Considering the fact that we've all won the biggest race we're ever going to race – you against billions of fellow sperms and we cracked the egg, and therefore - we are. You know, I think…[laughing]...it doesn’t get any bigger than that, yes, therefore, Spank. I think Branson was quite inspirational.
PB: Looking back, is there anything you'd have done differently?
Well, I think in retrospect you can always say you could've done a lot of things better. I try to use that in going forwards and I think the important thing for me at this stage is to develop a management team that can take on some of the philosophy we have. In the last few years, I've gathered a group of young guys that are motivated and enthusiastic, to try and give these guys an opportunity to make the company a part of their own to some degree, and to be able to take it forwards. I think that's an important thing, sharing in successes and also in failures, trying to bring a strong team of people together because at the end of the day I think everything requires people with passion. You can't buy passion, you have to reward passion.
That's just something that I'm trying to do now, trying to think about when I was a young and aspiring businessman. What made the difference to me? I think it was an opportunity. Somebody needs to open a door for you, you need to go in yourself, but there needs to be a door. I'm trying to facilitate door access.
With Spank specifically, it is to get more deeply involved with manufacturing and to find more cost effective ways to produce a wide range of quality products, at an affordable price. That's a big part of what we are and what we stand for, to keep on pushing the envelope with what we can do, you know, whether it's design, engineering or production. To grow the business at a steady pace and to maintain a level of exclusivity that we've managed up to this point and to go forward step by step.
We need to cover manufacturing costs and the cost of investment in machinery, and we're trying to share our capabilities with people that we think are like-minded, brands where we like what they are doing, and who are not necessarily direct competitors. I see a big part of our future is that we don't particularly have to own and do everything ourselves, there's a lot of other people doing good things and you know everybody likes a slightly different flavor. With Spank we want to maintain our love-hate relationship. Some people are going to love us, and some people are going to hate us, and that's the way we want to stay.
Every Spank pedal is hand inspected to ensure the highest standards of precision machining have been met.
PB: What trends do you see coming in the future?
I think the way that the bicycle market is going, customization is becoming more and more important – bar lengths, rises and sweeps for example. Stem lengths, rim widths, pedal platform sizes, we've got something new in the pipeline which is going to be quite exciting along that line. We're trying to become a true aftermarket brand where you can get the right size product for your height, your geometry, or your discipline.
More choice makes it inherently more difficult as a brand, because it means that you're producing less volume and more options, which is opposite to the direction you want to go with manufacturing. We are trying to gear up everything we do in our manufacturing process to allow us the flexibility going forwards to be able to deliver multiple specifications and smaller volumes. This is a challenge that we're working on now to try to find cost-effective solutions for smaller volume, more specification, manufacturing techniques. That's kind of where we see our future with the brand, getting away from the mass produced model and focusing on boutique, exclusive, manufacturing.
I think Spank has come out of its most difficult years as a developing product and brand. But I think that the industry itself is heading for a few difficult years now, as I believe the industry is way overtraded. I think that's a little bit of a concern at the moment, that there's too many players that possibly aren't putting enough back into it to sustain their involvement. That's what we're trying to communicate at Spank now - that we've been a player for many years and the people behind Spank have been for here for a long time and are really trying to be a long term participant in our industry, for the benefit of our industry and the consumers that support it.
Hopefully with the investments that we're making now, at design, manufacturing, rider and event development levels, that's going to give us a certain strength to sustain through what I think is possibly going to be the doldrums of the bicycle industry in the next three to five years.
"At Spank we're blessed in the partnerships and friendships that define our business environment."
PB: Anything else you would like to talk about?
Well really, the health and strength of this entire eclectic industry, and Spank’s place in it, is rooted in relationships and collaborations. At Spank we’re blessed in the partnerships and friendships that define our business environment. We have great respect for iXS Sports Division and their ethos that resonates soundly with ours. Likewise, synergies with Pinkbike is an excellent example of how it takes many diverse, but like-minded players to keep the growth of MTB an upward curve. We see Pinkbike, for example, as a media partner doing a very, very similar thing to what we've done. What we're continually striving for to modernize platforms in the design and manufacturing sector, you guys are doing with media and internet technology.
One of the biggest benefits of our industry is that it's filled with a bunch of enthusiastic individuals, which is fantastic. The negative side of enthusiastic individuals is that there's not necessarily the top-level professionalism that an industry demands. That is why we champion authentic and innovative product, independence, and non-corporate rider-owned companies in our industry.
So yeah, we encourage competitors and people that are willing to be around for a long time to get more involved and make stuff. Don't just brand and market stuff, you know, get your hands dirty and make something, because that's the future.