Billy Smith, CEO, VS Athletics, RBR Interview, by Larry Eder

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Billy Smith, VS Athletics, photo courtesy of VS Athletics

Last Friday night, I was sharing an adult beverage in the Scolas Bar in Boston with Billy Smith, CEO of VS Athletics. Billy and I had been sharing war stories, talking about our families, friends and the sport. 

I had sent Billy some interview questions a few weeks ago, wanting to have him tell the story of how VS Athletics was the merging of two different companies, and how he and his partners had melded the positives to make a better company. There are lessons for all of us in this one. 

I am also fascinated with the making of shoes, and Billy Smith and his team took a huge gamble and made their own throw shoes, which you will see here and which VS is advertising on runblogrun.com and our partners at the RunningNetwork.com.

Biggest lesson: Our sport is still, thank God, about relationships. Companies such as VS Athletics are at clinics, track meets and expos, drumming up business, but most of all, supporting the sport. 

Billy Smith is a southern boy, through and through. A good heart, with a good sense of business, and the knowledge that he has great partners, goes a long way in putting VS Athletics on the road to strong success. 

 

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 VS Centrifugal, Black, Throw Shoe, courtesy of VS Athletics


RBR, # 1.)   Where did the VS Centrifugal come from?

Billy Smith: This is a great question whose answer is a long story.  One of the first big deals Venue Sports came across in '93 was a wealth of Puma shoes from the late Coach Don Riggs (San Jose State legend). 

Among these shoes was the Puma hammer/discus shoe with a textured bottom.  It was a snug fitting shoe with a textured bottom.  At $20, these sold out right away.   Many of the coaches threw in this shoe or the similar Adidas shoe and recommended it for their athletes.  The sole was great for slick wet conditions.  

One example is of a story, confirmed by John Godina, of the UCLA/ Cal dual meet.  It was pouring rain during the meet in Berkeley.  One of the UCLA athletes brought a pair of the Puma shoes to the meet, the only pair at the meet.  While the Cal athletes threw, the Bruin athletes switched shoes; every Bruin thrower wore the one pair of Puma shoes. UCLA throwers swept the meet.  

Over the past 20 years, I have constantly heard coaches' yearning for the hammer/discus shoe that Puma and Adidas made.  One of the coaches I have worked with over the years is Dan Mecca at Manhattan College.  As fate would have it, while visiting the factory making the VS Hybrid XT, I found a sole similar to the hammer/discus shoes.  Meanwhile, Dan found a pristine pair of the Adidas Hammer/Discus shoe made in West Germany.  The sole was very close.  

We made a few prototypes, tweaked the sole a bit and came up with the Centrifugal in its current state.  Instead of kangaroo leather, it is synthetic leather.  Also, we added a mid foot strap to secure the foot.  This late spring, we made some wear test shoes and had some throwers test them.

 Some athletes actually wore the shoes in Eugene at the Olympic Trials.  Along with Dan Mecca, other wear testers included John Powell (wore the Puma and Adidas shoes), Jud Logan, Bob Mackay, and Mac Wilkins.  I gave a few pair to throwers at John Godina's WTC camp at Sacramento state.  

The sole wore well and feedback was positive.  The overwhelming comment from the throwers was that they could "feel the ring".  

Still, being a small company, I have to buy a lot of shoes and this is a big risk.  The final convincing moment was when Notre Dame Sherman Oaks throws coach Nick Garcia tested the shoe.  He stated he took over 1,000 throws and the shoes held up well.  Again, he loved the fact that he could feel the ring.  The impression I got from him was that the shoe was too good not to make.   Hence, a little late, but it is right and worth bringing to market.  The shoes should be available the beginning of February 2013.

 

RBR, # 2) VS Athletic has been around for how long?  It was Springco Athletics and Venue Sports, right?

 

Billy Smith: Correct, VS Athletics is the merged company of Venue Sports and Springco Athletics, hence VS, Venue-Springco.   Brian Springer founded Springco in 1982.  

Brian was an industrial arts teacher, track coach, and track official.  He saw a need to supply track & field implements and equipment to track coaches in Southern California.  Over the years, he tinkered, designed, and manufactured products to help athletes, coaches and officials.  

He supplied a few items for the LA84 Olympics, like the LJ/TJ pit levelers and field indicator boards.  

Billy Smith, Bill Luffee, and Joe Rubio founded Venue Sports in 1992.  Venue specialized in team uniforms and specialty shoes.  

In 2003, the two companies merged to become one of the nation's best full line track & field suppliers, hence the name Venue-Springco, VS Athletics.


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2013 VS Athletics Catalog, courtesy of VS Athletics

 

RBR, # 3) How has your business changed over the past decade?

 

Billy Smith: The past decade has been challenging.  

First and foremost, merging two competing companies with different cultures is a formidable task.  The internal challenges we've overcome has made us that much stronger and smarter.  We've focused our resources on the track & field market.  

Our philosophy is to support and help the sport of track & field grow; we grow the sport, our business grows.  

The second major change is the rise of the Internet.  Today, we print and mail fewer catalogs and use the web more.  

Third, from a product perspective, we break our offerings to shoes, uniforms, and hardgoods.  Shoes, we've focused on specialty shoes, specifically sprint, jump, throw shoes and we've done well with our lifting shoe.  

The uniform business is moving more towards customization, especially sublimation.  

The hardgoods business has been mixed.  Implements such as shots, discusses, and javelins has been steady, while the more expensive landing systems, standards, and hurdles fluctuate with the health of the economy. 

 

While we've experienced the changes over the past decade, our overall philosophy has not changed.  Track & Field is a community sport where relationships are very important. Our desire has been to be the easiest company to work with, including customers, vendors, governing bodies, and events.  With our customers, we strive to be a trustworthy supplier.  We appreciate vendors who help the track market and partner with us.  

The governing bodies run the sport and we have established win-win relationships with USATF, AAU, and USTFCCCA.  Events are the stage where all parties come together and we excel at bringing product and knowledge to meets and clinics.

 

Over the past ten years, I'd say VS Athletics has become a much stronger partner in the track & field market.


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Saucony Unleash, courtesy of Saucony Communications

 

RBR, # 4) How have you changed your product offerings?

 

Billy Smith: The product offering has not changed much, however some brands have ebbed and flowed.  The equipment business is pretty much the same and Gill is our largest supplier, with Stackhouse and Blazer providing excellent product and service. 


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The biggest changes have been in the shoe and uniform suppliers.  Nike has been the most consistent, especially with their sponsorship of USATF.  ASICS business has grown to rival Nike as one of our best vendors.  They have done a great job and been real consistent with uniforms and specialty shoes.  Brooks was strong ten years ago, then ebbed and now they are making another push.  Puma has made another push the last few years with Usain Bolt and their sponsorship of the Mt SAC events.  Also, we are seeing great product come from Saucony and New Balance.  Saucony has a great team lead by Fred Doyle, while New Balance has track and cross-country leadership in the likes of Tom Carleo and Josh Rowe.

 

While we value our relationships with our vendors, we also compete with other retailers, and a growing trend is competition from vendors selling direct.  To be competitive, we have developed our private label VS brand of equipment, specialty shoes, and uniforms.

 

RBR, # 5.) So you have the Centrifugal, but you also carry Saucony, Nike, Adidas, and other throw shoes.  Your thoughts?

 

Billy Smith: Our mission is to be the best most inclusive source for all track & field products.

  This includes throwers and we want to be the source for all throwers needs; implements, discusses, shots, hammers, javelins, training accessories, and especially shoes.  Throwers need shoes and we sell all the best shoes; Nike, Adidas, ASICS, Saucony, and our own VS throw shoe. 

Four concepts come to mind; brand loyalty, channels of distribution, product positioning, and price.  Brand loyalty is major driver of throwing shoes.  Without a doubt Nike and Adidas have the largest following.  Nike does a great job sponsoring athletes and their offering is well targeted with the Zoom Rotational, Zoom SD, and Rival SD.  Adidas has always had a great name with throwers.  Their hammer/discus shoe is world class and the Throwstar allround is very affordable.  Saucony's Unleash is a well-made shoe and I think some throwers will really like it.  Our VS Throw shoes have done well with high school and budget conscious throwers.

  No matter the brand, the biggest challenge for throwers is finding a place to buy them.  One is unlikely to find a throw shoe in their local running or sporting goods store.  Throwers typically have to buy their shoes online.  This works to our favor as we sell all the throws implements, we are a source for all the throw shoes.  

Positioning is the third concept.  This is where the Centrifugal has a unique advantage.  Throw shoes can be plotted on an x/y graph.  The x-axis represents speed and moves from slow to fast.  The y-axis is price and move up from low price to high price.  Elite throwers prefer either the Nike Rotational or the Adidas Hammer/Discus shoes with retail price from $100-$120.  The lower end price is the VS Throw shoe and the ASICS Hyper Throw 2.  Both shoes are on the medium to slow side.  

The new VS Centrifugal is positioned right in the middle.  The retail price is $60 and the sole is of medium speed.  The differentiating factor is the sole and lack of plate.  The textured sole provides enough traction to provide stability yet does not grab too much to slow the turn.

  Also, true to the older throw shoes, there is no plate so the thrower has better proprioception.  

The fourth concept of price is important.  Fifteen to twenty years ago, many beginning high school throwers wore running or cross training shoes.  Parents were reluctant to shell out $75-$100 for a special throwing shoe that their child might not wear that much.  They were willing to pay less than $50 for a closeout throw shoe.  We asked the manufactures if they could make a throw shoe for under $50.  All said it could not be done.  So we did by bringing out the VS Throw shoe, with a retail price at $49.99 and positioned as an entry-level throw shoe with a wider fit for throwers.  It has been a very successful shoe.  Still, we've had request from experienced throwers and coaches for the old Puma or Adidas hammer/discus shoe, specifically the textured sole.

  This is where the Centrifugal was born.  We developed with the similar sole, however, since it is our branded shoe, we can keep the price down, which act translates to a great value for throwers.  The Centrifugal is an exceptional shoe in a sweet spot on the throw shoe grid.  It has features of high-end shoes at a factory direct price.  Also, it comes from a company with ties to the throws community.  It is an excellent shoe for beginners, allowing them proper speed and feel for being in the right positions.  We expect the shoe to be a pair every elite thrower has in his/her bag for when conditions are less than ideal to wear there preferred brand.  After all, it's about throwing far, and far throws start with contact with the ring.

 

 

 

RBR, # 6.) You have focused some product in the youth market, how is that going?

 

Billy Smith: The youth track & field market is a very dynamic market.  USATF and the AAU are doing a great job with events building up to their championship meets, specifically the Junior Olympics.  There are a lot of kids running track and there is not much selection of product at affordable prices.  Like many parents, I am a little reluctant to spend a lot of money on shoes knowing my son will only use them for a few meets.  Hence, we try to find closeout spikes in the smaller sizes for youth. We've done extremely well with Nike spikes in small sizes this past year.  

However, sometimes those deals are not available in youth sizes, hence, we've developed the Alpha line of youth shoes; the Alpha Sprint, Alpha Multi-Event, and the Alpha Trainer.  As the name states, these shoes are designed to be young athletes first training and track shoes and cost parents less.  We've also done well with the youth size implements, 1k discs, 6lb shots, and the 300g turbo javelins.

 

RBR, #7-8 on sports marketing, (watch for those answers from Peanut Harms tomorrow...)

 

RBR, # 9.) You use print catalogs and your website, how have you changed how you market your business and brand?

 

Billy Smith: The main vehicles we use to market VS are catalog, web, email, and events.

  Throughout the year, we run email campaigns pertaining to the current season.  Often times, we will coordinate an email with an event we are participating in.  For example, we will send out email announcing the Super Clinic in February.  We ask the coaches to place orders for equipment and we will delivery for free pickup.  This can save a coach or school a substantial amount of money.  Consider it costs about $1.50 per pound to ship implements.  Shipping shots, discusses, mini hurdles, hip numbers, etc. could cost upwards of $100 in shipping. It's free because we bring the product with us and the coach picks it up at the clinic.  

About 4 times per year, we go through the warehouse and look at what we are overstocked.  We then run a "Crazy Billy" sale to move the product at ridiculously low prices.  When you see a "Crazy Billy" sale, order quick because the product moves fast.  

Events have always been an important marketing mechanism.  They serve two purposes; the primary intent is to develop face-to-face relationships with coaches.  Secondly, we sell product.  

If an event is with a sponsor, we will sell their brand.  For example, Puma has sponsored the Mt SAC Cross Invitational and the Mt SAC Relays.  We work with Puma on site selling Puma product.  

Another special marketing tool we have is Peanut.  Peanut is renown in the track market as the "Unofficial Ambassador of Fun" at the national championships and Olympic Trials.  VS will host a party, or night of parties with a local pub.  As was the case last year in Eugene, we partnered a few nights with New Balance and Saucony.  The lead up to the event is a series of emails announcing the festivities.  It is intended as a relaxing time for friends and track fans to socialize and have a good time.  

All in all, we want to let the track & field market know VS Athletics is a contributing member of the track & field community and ask that they give us a chance to earn their business.  It's symbiotic, the more they buy from us, the more we can give back to our beloved sport.

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VS Centrifugal, photos courtesy of VS Athletics



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