Max Commencal joined Canyon and YT just over two years ago, when he made the decision to sell directly to his customers, rather than using traditional retail bike shops. Launching a new internet-based bike brand is a risky endeavor for sure, but converting a dealer-based brand into an on-line business is an entirely different proposition - one that was considered by many industry insiders to be financial suicide. Max is no stranger to danger. He built up Commencal from scratch after being ejected from his position as CEO of Sunn bikes by a hostile takeover - a business that he co-founded. Against all odds, Commencal's on-line direct sales in Europe have now eclipsed its best numbers as a dealer-based wholesaler. Sales were strong enough, in fact, to encourage Max to open an operation in the coastal town of Carlsbad, California, to better serve its customers in the US. We caught up with Max while he was sealing the deal on the warehouse and office space that will soon become Commencal USA.
|I don't want to follow, only to follow.|
Tell us about the aftermath of Commencal's decision to go consumer direct with an on-line store.
For a small bicycle brand like us, it was very dangerous a few years ago. Bigger brands like Trek, Giant and Specialized were pushing us out of the stores and the larger store chains were getting too strong. Chain stores were asking for discounts and charging us for their advertising. All of us purchase our bicycles from the same suppliers in Asia, but when we buy ten, Trek is buying one thousand, so Commencal's prices are naturally higher. Eventually, our margins were almost gone. Because we are small, we had to do something to compete - and this is what we did. By removing the intermediary, we can recapture some of that margin. Not all, of course, because we must have people in place who can speak to every customer, and we also must advertise, and these things take away some of that margin, but we are competitive again. When we started with our on-line store, we immediately lost 99-percent of our dealers - gone - but today we have more sales than we had two years ago. This is how we are able to start Commencal here in the US. Service is everything when it comes to on-line retailing. Now that you will be on two continents, will Commencal be able to handle customer questions 24 hours, every day?.
Actually, we do. With the time difference, there is always someone at Commencal to take care of our American customers. I have told everyone, even the engineers, that they must be able to answer questions, and do you know what? They love it. If you think of it this way, bike shops are filters. They do not always translate our message the way we would wish, because they have each, their own likes and dislikes and, of course, there is always pressure to sell the major brand that the shop has most of its money tied up with. We don't have filters anymore. We speak with our customers directly and we can give them exactly what they need. We now have an "a-la-carte" program where you can order any parts and special colors. We assemble these bikes in France. Of course, this is not something new, but what is new that nobody else offers, is that you can leave off any parts that you want, so if you have something from your other bike, you don't have to buy it again. You have at least ten different kid's models. Why is Commencal so dedicated to the youth market?
We always did kids' bikes. I have five children. Many of us at Commencal in sales and administration have children - and we want good bikes. There are not many good kids' bikes made, and if you go to a ski resort, you see all the kids there on anything they can ride. At Les Gets, all of the bike schools are filled, every day. It is a virgin market. Same in the USA. We have three national youth champions on Commencal bikes.
You can't make small frames to make money, because the numbers are less, so a child's frame costs 30-percent more than a Meta. And parts are hard to get. To find forks, and a good variety of tires - normal things - is difficult, but it is the future. We like to believe that if they knew Commencal when they were kids, they will always be on Commencal. You have taken a stand against Carbon frames. A few bike makers have succeeded in making reliable aluminum frames that can compete with carbon - Liteville comes to mind. Do you have a plan in place to produce an aluminum Commencal chassis with similar strength and weight as your carbon competitors?
Carbon has improved. Aluminum has also improved. Aluminum is stable. If the thicknesses are the same and the alloy is the same, the frames will be all the same. Carbon is made by hand, and there are so many levels of construction. We can now buy a carbon frame for less than we can make an aluminum frame, so the question is: which carbon frame are we talking about?
Weight, of course, is important, and we are not the lightest. We never have been the lightest. I want our frames to be strong first, because we have to be sure that a big person can ride our bikes as hard as a small person. We cannot control who will be riding them. Nevertheless, our Meta V4 has all its tubes triple butted and its weight is quite competitive, while being extremely reliable for agressive riders. There is something about strength versus weight that most overlook. When you know that you are riding a bike that is strong enough, you never think about the bike. You only have to think about riding. When you are riding a light bike, you always must be thinking about how you will ride it through this and that, because always, there is the possibility that some component or the frame may not be strong enough. Our DH frame is three years old and the team has not broken one. Each year, they can sell them after the season. Enduro has both shaken up and reshaped the landscape of the mountain bike market. Where do you envision that enduro racing is headed?
Did you know that next year is 20 years of the Megavalanche? I am not a strong supporter of the EWS. I prefer the Megavalanche, where 2000 people start at the top of a mountain. There is one winner and 20 pros are competing for the win, and everyone else is having an adventure. It's real mountain biking. The EWS has eight races around the globe, and to race it, you can't have a job. It costs a minimum of 40 thousand US dollars for a racer to compete in all eight races, and if you are not in the top five places, nobody will speak of you. And, you can't film it. I think that soon the EWS will be pro only.
There are more opportunities for downhillers to be sponsored. There is more exposure and if you can break into the top 20, you are almost assured to be picked up by a team. Now, you need at least two good riders to win DH - to follow each other down and to compare different lines. You can see this happening in all the good teams and it means even more spots will be available.