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BEHIND THE SCENES WITH BARI WAALK

 
(7/26/2004)

This week we met up with Mechanix Wear’s Bari Waalk. In between a tour of the Mechanix Wear facility, looking at the many different pairs of gloves that are made, and taking a ride in the company Hummer H2, we nabbed an interview with Bari. Here’s what the man with the silver glove had to say.

The name of the game for Mechanix Wear is gloves, and it seems that you offer a billion different types of gloves. What sports do you cover with your gloves?
Our gloves are really good for any sport in which tools are required. I think anyone who has a toolbox is a potential customer. That could be a motocross, desert, enduro, snowmobile, or ATV guy. All of those people work on machinery and do different types of work that require hand protection, and that’s what our gloves provide. In our eyes those guys have toolboxes and our gloves are like a tool. We have nothing to do with ball sports like baseball, basketball, or football. We’re all about motorsports and we started with motorcycles, so that’s why people know us pretty well.

Can you give us a brief history of Mechanix Wear?
Certainly. The story goes that in 1990 when Damon Bradshaw was an AXO rider, his mechanic Brian Lunnis needed some gloves for changing tires because he kept wrecking his knuckles on the rear sprocket. He took a pair of our AXO trials gloves and found out that they worked pretty well because they didn’t have a lot of padding. We took suggestions from him and modified the glove by changing the knuckle padding and moved some seams around on the fingertips and made that glove work better for the application. After we developed it a little bit and put some design work into it by giving it a mechanical look and changing the glove color from white to black, we gave it a name. It was called the Mechanix Glove. It identified what the glove was for but it also gave us a brand name.
From there Brian had friends in NASCAR and Indy Car Racing at high profile teams. He showed the gloves to his friends and those two teams starting using the product as well. Once the word got out in the pits that there was a glove designed specifically for mechanics, the other teams wanted them and that’s really how our business got started. We began selling gloves to Indy Car and NASCAR teams because these two teams were very high profile. One of the teams was Dale Earnhardt’s team and the other was Roger Penske’s team. That was the beginning of it all.

How did you get into the industry?
I got into the industry really like everyone else. I loved motocross and I grew up as a motocrosser. I always wanted to be pro, but somewhere I must have hit my head hard enough to realize that I wasn’t going to be a racer and that I needed to work somewhere in the industry to be happy. I got a job with AXO Sport in 1987 as an outside sales person selling mountain bike stuff to bicycle dealers in Minnesota. After I got done with college I had a friendship with Bob Rathkamp, who was an AXO employee [now head of Sinisalo/Gaerne America]. We made a connection and I ended up getting a job through him out here in California in 1988. As the company moved, I progressed to sales to managing the sales department. In the early ’90’s we were tremendously successful growing the AXO brand globally. We had a good size sales force, but at the same time we created a glove called the Mechanix glove. We really didn’t understand the potential of it or what the market was for it, but we knew it was a good idea. After a few years I was reassigned from managing the sales of AXO to being the guy that managed Mechanix Wear. From there we built the company around the product.

Many of the employees that are here today are employees that were here when it was AXO. We take great pride in the fact that when we stopped being AXO we retained all of the employees and we found places for them at Mechanix Wear. There are a lot of dirtbikes and pickups in our parking lot because everybody rides. When supercross season comes in January you can’t get enough comp tickets here because everybody wants them! We’re just like any other motorcycle company. While the business has grown, we’ve still remembered where we came from.

How many gloves do you offer?
We’re known primarily for our number one selling product, which is the Original glove. It’s a glove that has a lot of printing on the knuckles and has a nice synthetic machine washable leather palm on the glove. We have also created many other gloves, and as many as 34 specific gloves for different tasks. Many consumers might not ever see some of the gloves we make and they won’t ever use some of the gloves, such as our set of fire retardant gloves that are designed to be worn by mechanics when fueling racecars. We also have all-leather gloves, latex gloves, and a lot of specific gloves for specific tasks. Ironically enough, the Original glove was our first glove and is the number one seller and is the most widely used.

What is the single trickest glove that you offer?
That’s a good question. One of my personal favorites is the 0.5 Original glove. I like it because it doesn’t have anything you don’t need. It’s so thin that if you buy the right size glove you don’t even notice the glove and you can work on anything when wearing it. It’s constructed of thin synthetic leather that is very durable yet lightweight.

You also sell other products that aren’t as popular yet as the gloves, such as t-shirts and umbrellas. Where is the company headed as far as growth and opportunities?
For growth, I’d like to say that I knew in the beginning that there was this much opportunity, but every day we hear from more consumers who are excited about our product and tell us more places that our gloves could go. I don’t think we’re going to try and be everything for everybody, but I do think the growth of the company has been steady since we’ve dedicated all of our employees to it.

As we reach new markets and more people discover our products outside of motorsports, we create new opportunities. Anyone with a toolbox is our customer and we know that plumbers, electricians, and all kinds of people have toolboxes. Most of those people also participate in recreational activities such as riding dirtbikes or jet skis or something else, and while they’re exposed to our brand, they might not know that our products work for their application. As they discover that and as we make them aware of that then our business will continue to grow.

What exactly does your job entail?
I don’t do anything [laughter]. I have a bunch of good people that work with me to do all the hard stuff. My job is to keep my eye on the direction of the brand so consumers are aware of what we do; they understand what we do, and how the product applies to their daily lives. Essentially my job is about creating consumer demand. We might use tools like racing to expose the brand. We might use advertising to connect the products to consumers in niche markets, or we may use the Internet to reach people who are technically savvy.

Some mechanics elect to work on their bike without any gloves for numerous reasons. Now is your time to pitch why these people should wear gloves, but more specifically Mechanix Wear gloves.
From the very beginning we always thought that our biggest competitor was the mechanic that doesn’t wear gloves. It was never easy to convince a mechanic to wear gloves because there’s a certain amount of pride and old-school mentality that if you’re a mechanic then you’re tough. That was one of the things that we needed to address initially. However, through race marketing and showing high profile mechanics working with gloves on, we made a decision to use these influential people when opening the minds of potential customers. When an everyday mechanic saw that a professional mechanic used the gloves then it made it okay to use gloves. Once they experienced the product and wore the gloves, they understood that the gloves protect their hands and are like a second skin. At times the gloves also help the mechanic increase their grip and makes their job easier.

Now people are using Mechanix gloves for so many other things that just auto mechanics, and it’s really because it’s a second layer of skin. There’s nothing else quite like it. We didn’t create a new technology, we just addressed a need that no one else could identify, and we made it okay to use the product. Now you see mechanics using the gloves at all types of professional levels – from a guy at a pit stop to a guy at a local car dealership working on your vehicle or even a road worker wearing gloves holding a stop sign. We made it okay for guys to wear gloves.

Mechanix Wear is one of the few companies that offer products for motocross and NASCAR, so you must have an opinion on this question. Will motocross ever reach the same mega-buck plateau as NASCAR has?
I know that in general motocross guys don’t think much of NASCAR, but I will say that I’ve learned a lot about different types of automobile racing. The one thing I’ve seen that’s the common thread between all types of racing - NASCAR, Indy Car, Drag Racing, and motocross – is that the core group of people involved got involved with the sport not because of the money, but because they love the sport. All these sports are the same way. There are good things about NASCAR and there are good things about motocross. I see motocross and supercross are being exposed more to the masses, which is drawing in more people and sponsors. The sport feeds on itself, but I have a tremendous amount of respect for NASCAR every time I go to a race and see the business aspect of the sport. I am beginning to see that at motocross and more specifically supercross races.

I see outside sponsors, organized teams, the efforts to get the race on television and having it televised on the right time of the day. I also see motocross icons being used in advertisements for companies outside of motocross. I see them in the mall and I wouldn’t expect to see James Stewart or Jeremy McGrath on a poster outside of the sport, but I do. That’s not unlike what NASCAR did and I think that’s good. With the right sponsors you’re going to see more and more of the sport.


Topic: Features

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WARNING: Much of the action de­pict­­ed in this magazine is potentially dan­gerous. Virtually all of the riders seen in our photos are experienced ex­­perts or professionals. Do not at­tempt to duplicate any stunts that are be­­yond your own capabilities. Always wear the appropriate safety gear.
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