CEO finds taking risks is fast track to success

April 29, 2005|By BILL ATKINSON

BRIAN LE GETTE is working up a sweat.

Crouched like a speed skater, he blasts down Pratt Street during the morning rush hour on a pair of in-line skates. Then this CEO - seven months away from turning 40 - launches himself off a curb near the World Trade Center, catching about three feet of air and snapping his knees into a mule kick.

"That," the perfectionist in him says, "was a little sloppy."

Watching all this, you wonder whether the head of 180s is fearless, unrealistic or just nuts. Of course, with the great entrepreneurs, all those things tend to run together.

So it somehow fits that when he's not launching himself over manhole covers, he's preparing to launch his Baltimore-based company beyond the earmuffs it has made hip into sports apparel - in direct competition with Nike, Reebok, North Face, Champion, Russell Athletic and local sensation Under Armour.

This fall, 180s will introduce a jacket, called the Quantum Vent, that will allow runners to regulate their body temperature by pulling cords that open and shut a vent in the back. Also in the hopper is a lightweight running shirt that not only wicks away sweat but is made with fabric designed to eat odor.

An audacious move? No doubt. Risky? You bet. Crazy? Maybe not. At least not as crazy as one of his ideas of old, a self-watering pot for plants.

Le Gette isn't worried. After all, he'll remind you, 180s managed to make earmuffs cool.

"If we were launching a `me too' product, then it would be audacious," he said. "We need to dunk the basketball with every product we come out with."

Even as a kid, Le Gette tried to make stuff better, make it perfect - radios, model plane engines, the tool he used to remove the cleats on his soccer spikes.

"It is probably in my DNA, always just looking at everything, appreciating the good parts and being frustrated with things that were not better," he said.

Tall and trim, Le Gette even designs his own dress shirts. They have a longer cuff, a longer and wider collar, blue buttons instead of white ones.

An electrical engineer by training, Le Gette went to the University of Pennsylvania's Wharton School, and when he graduated, he and his classmates had a raft of ideas for new products: a radio-controlled hang glider for kids, a talking lunchbox and the self-watering pot for plants.

He teamed up with Ron L. Wilson II, and the duo started a business in 1995 with money from Wharton friends who risked their investment banking signing bonuses.

The company became known as Big Bang Products. It built upon Wilson's "ear warmer" idea - unveiling a sleek, bendable earmuff worn from the back of the head, not on top, so that hair didn't get mussed.

The company struggled in 1998 but muddled through and pushed into "performance wear" for athletes. Now, revenue is about $50 million a year and the company, which has 100 employees, has offices in Canada and France.

Yesterday, 180s raised an undisclosed amount of money from Patriarch Partners LLC, an investment group in Charlotte, N.C. Le Gette said it will take the company to the "next level."

Besides the earmuffs, 180s makes lightweight mittens that morph into gloves; gloves with ports that people can blow warm air into to heat their fingers; and sunglasses that have an earpiece that folds across the lens to protect it. They also don't slide down a sweaty nose.

Le Gette demonstrated the snug fit, putting the sunglasses on and whipping his head back and forth and in circles.

"Don't try this at home," he said.

The sunglasses stayed put.

Le Gette says every product 180s comes out with should be designed to solve a specific problem. The jacket, which is to make its debut in running stores this fall for about $100, was designed to keep runners from getting too hot. Runners strip off clothes and tie sweat shirts and jackets around their waists or toss garments into the bushes when they get hot. The Quantum jacket lets the runner pull two cords that lower a flap in back, exposing a mesh vent that draws cooler air in from underarm and side vents.

Le Gette has tested the jacket with runners. He even tested its warmth by renting a refrigerated truck, putting a treadmill in it, cooling the vehicle to about 30 degrees and running while a fan blew air on him.

"They have something that nobody else is doing," said Josh Levinson, co-owner of Charm City Run, who has worn the jacket. "Nobody has had a changeable vent. You are going to be able to disperse not only some of that heat, but a ton of it."

But will the Quantum jacket and the odor-eating shirt, known as the Catalyst, sell?

It is a gamble. Le Gette isn't worried, though. It's like jumping a manhole cover or a curb. Sometimes you wipe out. He has the scars to prove it.

Bill Atkinson's column runs Tuesdays and Fridays. Contact him at 410-332-6961 or by e-mail at bill.atkinson@balt sun.com.

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