Sportswear company takes new approach

July 03, 1994|By Mark Guidera | Mark Guidera,Sun Staff Writer

As Jack Dougherty, the youthful new chief of Columbia-based Head Sports Wear Inc., walked through Chicago's O'Hare Airport last winter, he paused for a moment to admire a Gap jeans advertisement featuring the lean and muscular $100 million man, Evander Holyfield.

"This," mused Mr. Dougherty about the two-time world heavyweight boxing champion, "is what Head should be about."

Athletic. Young. Hip.

By March, Mr. Dougherty had signed the boxer to a two-year promotional contract as part of his plan to jump-start the flagging athletic apparel and footwear company and broaden its name recognition through its sister company's reputation for tennis rackets and skis.

The deal, worth an estimated $300,000 to $500,000, could be risky, say sports marketing experts: Mr. Holyfield competes in a sport for which Head doesn't make any equipment or clothing, and the boxer's appeal is considered limited to those who follow the sport.

"It's a surprising target profile for such a company. Demographics in this business is everything," said David Burns, founder of Burns Sports Celebrity Service in Chicago.

Mr. Dougherty doesn't see the Holyfield deal as a risk. Adventurous maybe. But to the enthusiastic executive, the company needs to move in new directions to rebound from the millions in sales revenues it's lost over the past five years.

"Evander's character supersedes any sport, so even though Head is not into boxing, it didn't make any difference," said Mr. Dougherty, 41, a former Gore-Tex executive who is Head's international president and chief executive officer. "We are trying to make Head more athletic and younger."

To achieve that end, the company is targeting the booming athletic apparel and shoe market among 20- to 40- year-olds. Industry statistics show they are the key buyers of athletic shoes, apparel and equipment. The company also has its sights on a share of the exploding cross-training and outdoor markets and is launching lines of apparel and footwear designed specifically for those pursuits.

The effort will be aided by the recent reunion of Head Sports Wear and its sister company, Head Sports Inc., which produces and markets skis, tennis rackets and golf clubs under the Head name, under a new corporate parent. The companies, which had been split apart in the 1970s, will now be able to bring their products together for marketing and streamlined distribution -- an element that could be very advantageous, say industry experts.

The sportswear company also has been fortified by an infusion of $150 million in capital from its new parent, Austria Tabak Werk A.G., a state-owned tobacco manufacturer and distributor of tobacco products, which bought Head in March.

Head's adventurous game plan:

* Getting Head's new lines of mass market apparel and footwear, which are not designed for any specific sport, into some of the nation's biggest and well-known "category killer" sporting goods stores, such as Sports Authority and Sports Mart.

* Setting up Head "concept shop" areas or "boutiques" in those stores and in some of the nation's well-known department stores, such as Bloomingdale's and Nordstrom.

* Launching geographically and demographically targeted advertising to build brand label awareness among youths and developing a new image for Head that appeals to a broader market (hence the Holyfield contract).

* Unifying marketing and distribution of Head "hardware" -- tennis rackets and the like -- with Head apparel and footwear.

"You cannot stand still in this industry and expect to survive. In a lot of ways that's exactly what happened to Head. Nothing new happened with the brand," said Mr. Dougherty, an affable man whose ebullient enthusiasm is considered infectious inside the company.

"Our biggest market is right here in the United States, and let's face it, Americans always are looking for something new."

The sports apparel and footwear company he joined in 1993 had become something of a wall flower. Its clothing and shoes, while of high quality and design, had little marketing pizzazz behind them. Athletes signed for endorsements were unknown outside the tennis and ski racing worlds. And the company was losing money. A lot of money.

Mr. Holyfield, thought Mr. Dougherty, would make "the perfect athlete" to represent the Head label and help rocket-launch the company's planned bid for a larger piece of the global athletic apparel and footwear markets and renewed profits.

Concept shops on the way

Head's biggest venture, say executives, is the rollout of Head "concept shops" or "boutiques" in some of the nation's largest sports-oriented retailers. Initially, 20 boutiques are planned. Head has opened a concept shop in Paragon, a high-end sports outfitter in New York. Shops are planned to open in August in the Ski Market, a regional chain in New England.

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