Entrepreneur success story: Icebreaker outdoor wear

Raising the baa

Jeremy Moon was once told “wool is dead”, but his Icebreaker outdoor wear business tells another story.

As soon as he saw it, Jeremy Moon knew he was onto something. “I just felt right and I knew that the idea was strong,” he says. “I said to myself, ‘this will work if I don’t screw it up’.”

The “thing” that Moon saw back in 1994 was a soft merino wool T-shirt crafted by a New Zealand farmer. It wasn’t pretty but it was soft, warm and didn’t hold odour, even after a week’s wear. Importantly, it was vastly different to the mainly synthetic adventure wear on the market.

“It just seemed such a rich irony that the whole outdoor industry was about reconnecting people with nature, and then asking them to wrap themselves in plastic bags,” he says. “So we had a really strong idea that we could challenge the outdoor industry with a very high-quality, unique product that hadn’t been done.”

Two decades on, the marketing graduate has built a global business that pulls in annual revenue of NZ$200 million. Moon’s Icebreaker brand of brightly coloured adventure wear competes with the likes of Paddy Pallin, Nike and adidas. And it does so, proudly, from its headquarters in New Zealand.

“It was linked to my vision of being based in New Zealand and being able to fly around the world my whole life.”

Moon believes other entrepreneurs could emulate his business, and make a go of it from smaller countries such as New Zealand and Australia.

From the day he quit his job and fibbed to the bank about needing to re-mortgage his house to put in a new kitchen, Moon had strong ideas for his business. He wanted to develop the world’s first merino fibre layering system for outdoor wear, and take it around the globe.

“The intention was to build an international brand from New Zealand. It was in our first business plan that I wrote from my bedroom in 1995 when I was 24,” says Moon. “It was linked to my vision of being based in New Zealand and being able to fly around the world my whole life.”

But there were detractors. On Moon’s first sales call a buyer told him: “Don’t talk to me about wool. Wool is dead.”

His first exporting foray was to Australia, where he learnt a valuable lesson. “I sent a bunch of Kiwis over to Australia, and the Australian people didn’t really want to do business with us, because they didn’t feel like we understood the local market. So I hired an Australian woman and sales took off.”

Buoyed by the success, he took the brand to the Netherlands, hiring Dutch staff to fit locals’ needs. Again, sales accelerated.

Icebreaker now maintains management services such as supply chain, information technology, human resources and finance in New Zealand. But the sales functions are handled by local teams on the ground.

In recent years, Icebreaker has transitioned from a wholesale-only business to having its own flagship stores in key urban markets and selling online as well. “Our retail stores let us tell a richer story and let us get the data, which lets us understand our consumers better,” says Moon.

After being the minnow targeting the bigger companies’ weak spots, Icebreaker has now grown to a size where it must remain nimble itself.

“We are kind of the big merino guys and we’ve got 200 companies copying us,” says Moon. “That means our focus on our brand and innovation and our product is increased, and we have to earn the right to stay leaders. We can’t rest on our laurels.”

After two decades at the helm, Moon has transitioned into the chairman’s role and brought in as chief executive Rob Fyfe, who is renowned for turning around Air New Zealand. To make it work, he has let go of the CEO reins completely.

“The benefits for an organisation of getting a new CEO with fresh eyes has been immense and he has found a lot of opportunities to simplify things,” says Moon.

Now, just as he did on the mountainside when he met a farmer with the funny-looking T-shirt 20 years ago, Moon is free to dream of the future.

One piece of advice

Jeremy Moon boosted export sales by using the locals’ knowledge. Icebreaker’s head office is in Auckland, but sales around the world are handled by local teams.

“It’s very different to that traditional model of exporting, where you just make as much as you can and send someone overseas to sell it. It’s the only way you can win, is my impression.”

This article is from the August issue of INTHEBLACK

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