Innovation took merino to world

TIM CRONSHAW
Last updated 13:41 21/06/2013
Icebreaker

ICEBREAKER ORIGINS: Company founders Brian and Fiona Brakenridge with their sons in the Marlborough Sounds.

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Some of the best advice Icebreaker co-founder Brian Brakenridge gives to people with new business ideas is not to be afraid of being a non-conformist.

He and his wife, Fiona, were running merinos at Pohuenui Island in the Marlborough Sounds when they founded the merino outdoor garment business before the entry of "marketing guru" Jeremy Moon.

Brakenridge admits he sometimes feels uncomfortable being called the founder of the business, as Moon took it to its great heights.

"We were involved in the very early stages," he told business owners at a Christchurch event hosted by directory company Yellow this week.

"I feel like a bit of a fraud standing up here, because it's Jeremy who has really driven it.

"He was the inspiration behind the marketing, the imagery and the story of Icebreaker, but it's a neat story, and it's great to look back and see how we had this little idea and chased it through.

"He got some other people involved who have taken our dream and vision through to what it is today - something like $160 million of sales."

To newcomers with great ideas in the business world he recommends they never accept the status quo, get used to critics, challenge themselves and be dogged about seeing their ideas through.

"Look ahead and the only way to do that is by being innovative and creative. One of the big things that happens with us was we were rejected by so many people. So often that rejection comes from being innovative and that's because innovation is disruptive."

The common impression is that the couple instantly identified a gap in the market, but the truth is wide of this mark.

The Brakenridges were motivated by many factors in the mid- 1990s, when they made the step from farming to the outdoor garment industry.

Brakenridge says he was never much of a conformist and financial necessity drove their desire to look for other income.

"There is nothing that focuses the mind quite like the hangman's noose, as the saying goes.

"We were living on an island in the outer Pelorus Sounds, a privately owned island, and were farming merino. We had undertaken to the owners that if they committed a lot of money to developing the property, we would guarantee them to get it at a break-even point, if not better.

"So this undertaking was the hangman's noose and we were working hard to think outside the square to make a very marginal operation productive and financially viable."

Leaving a sour taste in their mouth were the inconsistent prices offered for their fine wool - from $6 to $11 a kilogram.

Against this background was their frustration that about 90 per cent of merino wool was being blended by the Australians to improve their wool. Merino was being used as an additive - worse than being treated as a commodity.

Another motivator was that they had always felt New Zealand had underperformed in the way it leveraged its natural capital and intellectual property.

Critical to their business entry was a visit to an outdoor trading company in the United States. The stores were dressed out in old, wooden facades with handmade birchbark canoes hanging from the ceiling. In the corner, Brakenridge saw Swanndri outdoor clothing and old coarse black bushmen's singlets from New Zealand.

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"I got talking to the owner and [noticed] there was no polypropylene because that was the garment of the day and a real rage in business in 1992. As quick as a wink, he said: 'I wouldn't have any of that plastic s... in my shop'.

"One thing led to another and we got talking about how we were farming merinos. He had seen some merino garments years earlier in an expo in France and had always wanted to get hold of some of the stuff.

"We said, 'No problem, we will find some for you'.

"We came back to New Zealand and we looked and looked, but we couldn't find anyone who was making New Zealand-grown outdoor apparel."

A "very frilly"' lingerie line was ill-suited for the outdoor market, but they did find a Christchurch manufacturer making baby garments, smocks and blankets, who agreed to make adult prototype garments.

"I trialled them when we were mustering in the hills and working on the island and fell in love with them immediately. We got him to make some more and we shipped them to various people to trial - friends on farms and overseas.

"One of the defining moments was when we shipped them to Sir Peter Blake."

Brakenridge gave Blake a merino top and longjohns to try during a trial on the yacht Enza in the Southern Ocean before the Jules Verne Trophy around-the-world race in the mid-1990s.

A big problem for the yachtsman was that polypropylene smelt after a few days and didn't remove water like wool in moist boat conditions.

Blake also "fell in love" with the merino wear and, when he came back, wanted all his crew outfitted for the trip.

"That was an amazing, defining moment for us and motivated us to take the product further.

"A lot of startup companies try to do it part time. The big step you have to take is giving up your day job and running with the concept. It's a huge step to take, but so satisfying when you do it."

Personal endorsements vouching for the products' many qualities started to come in from Blake, mountaineer Graham Dingle and outdoors men such as helicopter pilots flying in Alaska.

Brakenridge says they set out in the beginning to build technical credibility backed by research and the endorsements before starting to build a good balance sheet.

"By the time Jeremy Moon got involved in the company, we had about $4000 of sales, so sales weren't the big driving factor.

"The big driver for us was building credibility around the idea."

They had registered the brand Ice Breaker - two words initially - in 1994 and soon afterwards they met Moon, who applied his marketing and business savviness to propel the company to where it is today.

Moon deserves much of the credit for transitioning Icebreaker into a big business, Brakenridge says.

A young Moon bought half of the company from the Brakenridges in 1995 and began to look for investors.

Seeking funding of several hundred thousand dollars, they were oversubscribed, with Noel Todd and Peter Travis among the investors.

"When we went to the investors, it almost meant more to them that we had the endorsements of Blake and Dingle than a good balance sheet," says Brakenridge.

The first product launch was under the new Icebreaker brand.

The Brakenridges sold the last of their shares last year to buy some land they will eventually live on in their retirement.

Icebreaker, though, remains close to their heart, says Brakenridge, a specialist with real estate company Sotheby's at the Clearwater development.

He and Fiona had always wanted farmers to have more control of their wool when they set out to form a business.

While they were never able to see their vision of merinos from Pohuenui Island supplying wool because the farm's development suited crossbreds better, they "got a buzz" seeing merino farmers linking directly to Icebreaker and other companies by contracts.

Scan codes can now tell customers which farms supply wool for their garment.

Lately, Brakenridge has helped mentor Christchurch's post- earthquake Ministry of Awesome group and was a judge at a young entrepreneur competition run by the University of Canterbury.

He says entrepreneurs should always challenge themselves if they are successful or struggling and never be satisfied with their accomplishments.

"If you are successful, other people will be catching you up, you can bet your bottom dollar on it.

"Likewise, if you are really struggling, you have to think constantly about how it could be done better.

"To those of you who get rejected and turned down, be resilient and don't give up."

His other advice is not to be intimidated by the big guys.

Innovators will always come up with ideas before big businesses.

- The Press

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