Heiner Oberrauch Q&A: Head of Europe’s Salewa and Dynafit talks U.S. push

U.S. specialty retailers appreciate Europe’s more-focused niche brands with designs that are of increasing interest to Americans.
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Europe’s best outdoor brands are doing good business in North America.

Stateside sales are rising at a time when most of Europe is still struggling through recession. As it turns out, U.S. specialty retailers appreciate Europe’s more-focused niche brands with designs that are of increasing interest to Americans.

Sister brands Salewa and Dynafit are two of Europe’s success stories, enough to attract the president of their parent company Oberalp Group to pay a visit to Outdoor Retailer Winter Market for the first time in 2015.

We get Oberrauch’s perspective from the other side of the pond, plus his thoughts on running a large, family-owned collection of brands.

What made you decide to personally attend the Outdoor Retailer for first this year? What do you look to accomplish at the show?
Of the companies in Europe designing, producing and selling outdoor and mountaineering footwear, Salewa is growing the fastest. The most experienced designers and product developers for technical footwear are still coming from Italy, and that helps us ensure that the North American Market has a desire for our products. Of course, a trade show like Outdoor Retailer provides a good opportunity to show not only our products, but also the philosophy and the people behind the Salewa brand. Our aim is to excite people at the show.

From your viewpoint, how do you see the European economy faring over the next year? How has it affected the European outdoor industry overall?
Europe — as the USA — is an “old” continent. We’re experiencing the aging of the population, but health and especially hiking and alpinism are still alive and well as a societal trend. Although the outdoor market in Europe is currently experiencing only modest growth on a year over year basis, young and technical brands prioritizing innovation have a great opportunity to succeed.

A lot of European brands are expanding their business in the United States. Why do you think that is?
We’ve seen in recent years that a lot of products are very similar, so the market has a thirst for innovative technical features and progressive design. I think European outdoor products will succeed if they are authentic and have a clear and differentiated design language. Our company was originally a German company and is now situated in South Tyrol in the northern part of Italy. We combine advanced German technology with Italian design language in our products. European products will prove to be popular as long as retailers and consumers experience confidence and enjoy an authentic mountain experience when they use them.

Where do you see European outdoor brands ahead of U.S. brands and vise versa?
With the market becoming more and more global in nature, this distinction is becoming less and less important. American brands are ahead of European brands with their marketing strategies, in their brand storytelling initiatives, and in the way they clearly define their target audience. But, in my mind, European brands are still leading in the way of technology innovation and fashion.

Family-owned businesses — particularly those that reach a certain size (you employ more than 500 people) are a rarer sight today in today’s world. What’s your philosophy and advice to others on how family-owned brands can successfully grow and remain independent?
We want our company to be a management- driven company because we rely on talented and visionary managers to carry us forward. The result is we have a close-knit family (our family and our team, together) that is responsible for the culture, the philosophy and the long-term vision of the company. Our business strategies are proposed, discussed and shared by both parts. A family business thinks in terms of generations and not short-terms goals; in terms of brand building and not quarterly profits. Family-owned brands can remain independent if they focus their business strongly but give freedom to the management in the operative business and allow them to do what their talents make them well-suited to do.

Do you plan to keep the Oberlap Group business in the family for the foreseeable future?
I have never thought about selling the company because I think if I did I would disappoint the employees who have faith in the company and deep passion for what we do. They understand the company culture and share it with each other, and with people outside the company. I enjoy seeing this process firsthand. Plus, two of my children are already working in the company.

--David Clucas

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