Pivoting key for skiers and business

MIKE O'DONNELL
Last updated 05:00 19/07/2014

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OPINION: It's been a couple of years since the O'Donnell family went skiing so we took advantage of the school holidays last week to head into the central North Island to get some time at Turoa skifield.

Part of what makes family holidays special is the people you meet and the service you get. My experience is that quality of service isn't directly related to price.

I've had crappy service in the flashiest Wairarapa lodge, but stunning service in the humblest High Country pub down south.

Last week we enjoyed some of the latter. Mike, who runs the SLR Ohakune ski rental business, has an amazing ability to recognise people the moment they step inside. In our case it had been three years since we last used his services, but he greeted us by name as we entered his shop.

In Taihape we discovered halfway through our meal at Al Centro Italian restaurant that we had left our car keys in the shop next door. Not ideal given the shop had closed by the time we realised it.

In a restaurant chocka with customers, the manager effortlessly managed to track down the shop's owner by phone and asked him to kindly come back into town to open up and give us back our car keys, and did so in a way that the Hilton would be proud of.

Meanwhile, Turoa had done a great job of employing lift operators with big personalities that inject a bit of sunshine into a customer's day. Our French-Canadian operator even did a little song and dance for us.

Ski-lifts are curious places. As in aircraft seats, you strike up candid conversations with strangers while you float over the landscape.

On Friday we found ourselves sharing a lift with Sean Stirling, whose dad Craig formed Stirling Composites in Auckland 20 years ago.

As well as building high-tech carbon fibre componentry for racing cars and aircraft, the firm focused on marine applications. It built specialist masts for grand prix yachts, elegant fittings for luxury sailboats and components for America's Cup campaigns.

However, in the wake of the global financial crisis, the bum dropped out of the luxury yacht marketplace.

After the last America's Cup the marine industry dried up further.

The business needed to think again, and strategically pivot its core skill - sculpting precision carbon fibre componentry - to a new application.

Several of the team were keen skiers and had been making their own carbon fibre skis. They found their "homemade" skis were far superior to anything they could buy.

They had kicked around the idea of building skis commercially while Sean was at university. But now a sudden transition was needed, so they went for it, rebranding the company as C6 (the periodic table location of carbon).

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Today, C6 is an innovative and globally focused skiing business based in Raetihi.

Their autoclave-cured carbon technology produces a torsionally stiff, super light, high performance ski that's handmade in the Central Plateau. Jet black, with a few shocks of lime green, they look pretty cool too.

These days, more than ever, the concept of strategic pivot - as achieved by C6 - is important. At a time when a new global supplier or the frictionless distribution ability of the web can kill businesses in their tracks, companies need to be ready to reorient their core abilities to a different application.

And some of today's most successful companies got where they are as a result of a pivot.

Consider PayPal, eBay's golden goose that today produces over half its earnings. Originally PayPal was set up in 2000 as a mobile-to-mobile money "beaming" platform.

It pivoted to become a secure desktop payment solution and started to take off. So much so that eBay was forced to drop its own payment tool and buy PayPal.

Other examples abound. Twitter started life as a podcasting platform but got smashed by Apple's iTunes. Online daily deals giant Groupon was originally a platform for collective action and community fundraising.

In each of these cases - as with C6 - a sudden and well-executed shift in strategy delivered very tangible commercial success. Successful pivots are characterised by three things.

First, they have great customer intimacy - know what they care about and how your product or core piece of intellectual property scratches their itch. Sometimes this isn't always obvious - consider Caterpillar diversifying into footwear brand licensing because they were associated with traction and grip.

Second, recognise the need to pivot early, and feel empowered to fail fast and often as you seek to distil the secret sauce to scratch that itch. The longer you blindly go down the path of doing more of the same while the market passes you by, the harder it is to pivot.

Thirdly, execute tightly. Great execution of average strategy will always outmanoeuvre poor execution of great strategy.

When you are learning to ski, a key milestone is learning to parallel ski rather than snowplow. The key to this is pivoting at the turns. If you don't pivot successfully, chances are you'll end up off-piste. And as in business, if you don't pivot earlier enough it can be a long and painful walk back to where the customers are.

Mike "MOD" O'Donnell is an eCommerce manager and professional director. His Twitter handle is modsta and he can't ski to save himself.

- BusinessDay.co.nz

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