Linda Hipp loves to golf. But a decade ago she wasn’t so crazy about the golf apparel available for women. Much of the clothing was designed for older conservative golfers and traditionally consisted of baggy shorts with elastic waistbands and pleats. “I’ve always been interested in fashion,” says Hipp, “and the more I golfed, I realized there was a huge void in the marketplace for a more fashion-driven line, rather than necessity-driven.”
So in 1997, Hipp launched her Richmond, B.C.-based company, Lija, to take advantage of the opportunity. Taking her cues from haute couture, Hipp began incorporating the styles and colours from fashion runways into her own line of golf clothing. Eight years later, Hipp’s firm employs 10 and its clothing is available in some 750 retailers across North Americaa. Its apparel is worn by many Ladies Professional Golfers Association tour members. Sales have kept pace, too, reaching $1.8 million in 2004-up 950% in five years, a performance that landed Lija in 56th spot on the 2005 PROFIT 100.
Here Hipp shares her secrets to success:
PROFIT: What’s the basic explanation for your company’s fast growth?
HIPP: “One of the most important things that we kept in check was very conservative growth. My partner and I had the potential to acquire more funding at the start, but I didn’t want to grow quickly. You have to be very conservative and smart in your growth, especially in the manufacturing business, because it’s very cash heavy at the front end. So we started off in Canada. We made sure that, one, we could sell the product. And second, that we could manufacture and provide the goods completely and on time to the customer. You only have one chance at being a successful vendor. So, with that, we acquired a very solid base of customers that have stayed with us for the past seven or eight years.”
“And once we felt we were successful in Canada, we slowly entered the U.S. market-selling in one or two territories to start. Once we felt we could cover those territories, we continued to grow. Conservative growth is very important. Otherwise, you start losing customers, and then money. And whatever your service and quality are, you have to make sure they’re the utmost against other competitors. And watch your expenses. It’s easy to watch your sales increase, but if you forget about the expenses side, you can run your business into the ground that way.”
PROFIT: How do you differentiate Lija from competitors?
HIPP: “In the golf industry, there are probably 185 women’s lines out there, but I would only call a few direct competitors. We’ve been in the marketplace a little bit longer, and have really developed a solid base. Our quality and customer service are impeccable. And our fulfillment record is also a huge, huge bonus. When customers are creating a merchandising program, they want to make sure their shipment is on time and complete. We’ve had a very high rate of success with that. Our product is unique. I think we’ve got a look and a style that’s completely different and what people are looking for to round out their merchandising mix.”
PROFIT: What has been your biggest challenge to growing your business?
HIPP: Our biggest obstacle was to prove ourselves in the marketplace. We are very different from what buyers are used to seeing, A lot of buyers would make a statement like, ‘You’re a year or two ahead of where the market is going,’ so they were very nervous about testing something new. And a lot of businesses wanted to make sure we could prove ourselves. They wanted to see us actually ship into the marketplace and see what type of reputation we could develop. It was just a question of persistence. We had relatively small sales to start. But we stayed with the business, went to trade shows. We were constantly in customers’ spaces. Then the industry started to evolve, and there were more companies, bigger companies, that were starting to dabble in the more fashion-forward apparel. And that started to prove to the marketplace where the direction was going for golf apparel.”
PROFIT: What is the biggest strategic risk your company has taken?
HIPP: “The biggest risk was entering the U.S. market. I had a lot of people tell me that we shouldn’t, that a Canadian company can never make it in the U.S. There’s a huge golf show in the Orlando every January and there are thousands of companies there with their booths, promoting their goods. We decided to test the marketplace down there. We were in a 10-by-10 booth, and trying to make customers stop and look at our products was one of the most difficult things.
“To mitigate the risk, we spent a lot of time researching and finding the right people, and finding the right two or three markets that had the most potential. For example, we stayed away from Arizona from the start, because it’s typically an older golfing market. But we went to California, New York and Florida, all of which are great golf meccas, and had huge populations of people golfing. Today, 70% of our sales are in the U.S.”
PROFIT: How do you sell to and support your foreign customers?
HIPP“We have a very strong sales force in the U.S., so our distribution channels are well laid out. And our customer service is excellent. We have a dedicated U.S. sales person, so our U.S. customers can call specifically for that person. We build in the price of our product to ship FOB (freight on board) from Blaine, Wash., so they don’t have to worry about all the export extras.”
PROFIT: What has been your best marketing tactic?
HIPP: “Creating really strong relationships with various media. We are constantly calling media to find out what kind of product they are looking for, then sending them samples. Or if we are testing a new technical product, for example, we’ll send out jackets, for free, to some of the media, to have them test it. We always want to ensure that we are top of mind for them when they’re looking for products for stories.”
PROFIT: How do you ensure you have a top performing workforce?
“We have hired an HR consultant who helps us do our hiring. This person has done online surveys with all the staff to find out what their opinion is of the workplace, their fellow employees and management. She’s also had a group meeting with them where they can discuss issues and help us understand what we, as the management team, can do to help improve the work environment.”
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