As the managing director of The Bike Boutique, Alex Bok currently has a busy schedule with a very successful team, store openings in various locations around the world and a new partnership with the World Triathlon Corporation.
Slowtwitch: Alex it appears that you really have your hands full now. Is it possible that you are too busy?
Alex: Haha… too busy... good question Herbert! I guess when you are really passionate about something you don’t really think too much about how many hours you work or how little you sleep, it’s something that keeps you excited 24 hours a day! I love what I do and I enjoy it when I see more people jump on their bike and ride to work leaving their car at home for 1 or 2 days a week. I also believe that the sport of triathlon still has so many massive opportunities to further grow and further professionalize. This keeps me going for many hours each day.
ST: The Team has really done well and continues to rock the podium. Is that somewhat beyond your expectations?
Alex: I think we can be proud of what teamTBB has achieved in a short period of time. The 3 World Champions, the 27 Ironman wins, the 15 70.3 Champions, 4x Challenge wins and many more are great, but what excites me just as much is the age group athletes and social development athletes that see their dream being fulfilled by becoming a pro athlete. This team is unique in that it not only focuses on winning races, but by training 9 months of the year together and integrating in the local communities where we train, we provide hope and opportunity to those in need.
ST: Which 3 World Champions are you referring to?
Alex: Haha, this has now become 4 World Champions for team TBB...
2007 IM World Champion – Chrissie Wellington.
2008 ITU Long Distance World Champion – Chrissie Wellington.
2008 IM World Champion – Chrissie Wellington.
2010 ITU Long Distance World Champion – Caroline Steffen.
ST: When you first started the Team, how tough was it to find partners and sponsors then?
Alex: We had a rough start and possibly started at the wrong time looking at development stage of the team’s supporting business; The Bike Boutique.
Normally you start a sports team with the backing of some big sponsors with strong financial support from day one. The Bike Boutique was still in its infancy stages and we only had one retail store at the time in Singapore. Many people wondered how could such a small company start team with so many stars in it? It’s been the partnership between Brett and me that had the vision and will power to make it work from that very first moment and to not wait till we had reached the stage we are now in. I have injected quite some of my personal and company cash into the team and some called me crazy and just a dreamer that would hit the wall rather sooner than later. We slowly over the years managed to convince sponsors that our concept was really unique and that their involvement would not just ‘buy’ them race wins, but also showed their commitment to the development of this squad, its pro athletes and the social program. I think after 4 years of teamTBB we owe our sponsors a big thank you for their support to keep our dream alive!
ST: Is it still difficult with the Team being so successful?
Alex: Success breeds success and we don’t have to be shy, teamTBB has been a great success for everyone involved. So Yes, once you have passed the two years of the team’s existence the media starts to cover the team a bit more actively and the race results speak for it itself, then sponsors become more interested. We have shown to not be a fly by night and our current sponsors are not just sponsors, they have become true business partners. The Bike Boutique promotes and sells the products we use in the team across all the TBB stores, we represent and distribute these same products and services across Asia Pacific and most important, a percentage of what we sell is then reinvested back into the team. That is an amazing concept, as the more we sell of our sponsors products, the more funds become available for the team and our social program and just as important I don’t have to go begging for more money with the sponsors every year.
This is what I call a true win-win partnership! We have now entered the stage where we work closely together with the product designers and developers of our sponsors and we joint develop new products that get tested and launched first among the team athletes. That in my mind is an entire new partnership model between manufacturing partners, a team of athletes and subsequently distribution channels around the world.
ST: You also expanded the number of stores. Where can we find The Bike Boutique now?
Alex: We started in 2006 with our first store in Singapore, which is still wildly successful and we managed to take a leading position in our home market in just 4 years time.
We then opened a new lifestyle store in Kuala Lumpur (Malaysia) followed by a small kiosk store in Subic Bay (The Philippines) in 2008. We made a major step forward outside Asia with the opening of TBB Melbourne in Australia in 2009. Just in the first 6 months of this year we made an even more aggressive move by opening new TBB stores in Bad Tölz (Germany) and just last month we opened our very first store in Wilmington (Delaware) in the USA. We have been busy, but it is so super exciting to see this network of retail stores expand around the world as it this has simply not been done till date. As a result of this retail expansion the amount of requests we receive at the moment for new store openings ranges from Chile to Tokyo and from Johannesburg to Vancouver.
Other than these retail stores, we now also have appointed some 15 – 20 dealers (i.e. bike shops) in Asia that we distribute our products to. So this is not a business to customer relationship, but a business to business.
In the end the best way to help our sponsors and business partners is to open up as many sales channels as possible in Asia and beyond as this part of the world is not that easy to penetrate.
ST: Which locations are next?
Alex: We are currently in discussion in places such as Italy, Canada, China and Japan, but we need more progress before we can make firm announcements. What’s important for us is to first and foremost work with the right partners that share our vision, secondly we love busy urban areas or business districts where many people work so we can launch and promote our unique bikeLodging™ services. S o we are very selective and will remain to do so. The quantity of the stores itself is not the objective, but the customer experience, working with the right people together building a true global brand, that is the aim.
ST: Most recently you partnered with WTC to be the official Ironman retail shop for Asia and Australia. Did we understand that correctly?
Alex: Yes this is correct, but it’s so much more than ‘just’ running the official Ironman store. We have jointly rebranded what is known as the Ironman Expo into the Triathlon Trade Show, which straight away states our vision very clearly. This is a very exciting area during the event week where manufacturers and distributors can directly reach out to their end consumers, it will indeed consist of the ironman store, but bigger and better than ever before as seen in this part of the world. The Tri Trade Show will contain an open retail area called the TBB retail area where any manufacturer, distributor or WTC sponsor can showcase and sell their products without any exclusivity to any party. We call this the ‘Inter Bike’ or ‘Euro Bike’ zone of the Tri Trade Show, which basically will form an in-country triathlon trade show.
Last but not least is the fact the entire registration and athletes services are all integrated into the Tri Trade Show and the Event Social Center where food & beverage, music, seating areas and…. a real catwalk / product showcase will be available for companies to show their next year’s product line.
This is an Ironman store and so much more, it’s our dream to turn this Tri Trade Show concept to become the ultimate retail experience and will further enhance the race experience itself!
ST: How did this partnership come about?
Alex: As a branding and marketing guy, I have always admired WTC and its Ironman brand. I know of only two brands in the world that its customers are willing to tattoo the company logo on their bodies, permanently! Harley Davidson and the M-Dot are the only two seen in large quantities of tattoos around world.
I don’t see people tattoo Nike or MacDonald’s on their body. So why these 2 brands?
In my mind the Ironman brand is truly authentic, it is inspirational, stands for personal achievement, is debated and carries a bit of mystic.
At the same time I also saw over the past few years how the IM retail expo’s in Asia where truly underdeveloped and not operated well at all. As a retailer I then start to go back to ‘my quiet corner’ and think… what can be changed? Can this be done better? Would there be an opportunity for manufacturers and distributors in the USA and Europe who could benefit if we take upgrade this retail experience at the Ironman events to a whole new level?
The answer was a big Yes, so my good friend Murphy Reinschreiber from WTC and I started to brainstorm some 12 months ago about how we could go about making something happening. Murphy has a great vision for the Ironman brand and race development in Asia Pacific and just over the past 12 months, the region is starting to sense a major wave of changes coming its way. This part of the world is developing in a faster speed than many can imagine in Europe or the USA. This is no longer an area in the world where you cheaply produce your goods and then quickly pull it back into your home market to sell it.
This part of the world now has much more disposable income then ever before and the people in China, India and other parts of Asia want a healthy lifestyle as well and they are willing to spend money on this healthy lifestyle. I believe WTC and its ownership could see some of its biggest potential growth come from this Asia in the coming 5 years, but there are drawbacks. Asia remains a difficult area to penetrate for trading and retail businesses of high quality sports goods as barriers such as language, culture, lack of free trade zones and political unrest at times still makes it a difficult area to understand. Many manufacturers come and many go having lost heaps of money…
I have lived in this part of the world since 1991 and worked in the management consultancy and retail banking for over 17 years. I started new retail businesses in Thailand, India, Hong Kong, Singapore and Indonesia and have learned the ropes to deal with these challenges. TBB has operated and excelled in this part of the world and we want are ready to leverage on our current retail and distribution channels we have carefully build up over the past 4 years to WTC and the Ironman events.
ST: Can we expect that to extend beyond Asia and Australia?
Alex: The first two events that will have the Tri Trade Show concept implemented will be IM WA and 70.3 Asian Championship in Phuket. From 2011 onwards all WTC events in Asia will see the implementation of the Tri Trade Show concept except Singapore and New Zealand. This will become an evolution instead of a revolution. The logistics are very complex in Asia and so we need to learn how it’s all going to work but at least we have a head start with our existing warehouse infrastructure and experienced staff located in Singapore and Melbourne. I believe we need to focus all our efforts for 100% in getting it right in Asia-Pacific for the next 12 to 24 months.
ST: Will we see you again in Kona?
Alex: I have raced triathlons since 1991 but always the Olympic distance races. So in the world of Ironman I’m still a total baby. Since I missed Chrissie’s win in Kona in 2007 as Brett and I really did not see that coming (well the inside joke is Brett did see it coming but thought better for me not to be there yet), I have visited Kona since 2008 and will do so every year from here onwards. I love the atmosphere and the culture of this island and while I live in a similar beautiful environment in Krabi (Thailand), Kona is and will remain the holy grail of triathlon. I walk around the IM Hawaii Expo there and my fingers start to get itchy as there too I believe there are still so many untapped opportunities, but hey I better focus on this part of the world! I’m looking forward to meet our team’s sponsors and TTS exhibitors in Kona again this year!
ST: Who will win Kona this year?
Alex: You ask the wrong guy Herbert!
I’m the business guy and Brett is the coach. I’m amazed how Brett can see things coming from mile away, he is a true genius in the coaching world. His vision and clarity of our sport and top performing athletes is unparallel.
Our partnership is based on a lot of mutual respect for each other and each other’s capabilities, but we made one very clear agreement, the athlete and coaching department is Brett’s and the business is mine. When we cross share each other’s world, we do it behind closed doors. The most interesting learning for me has been to learn how close the fabric of success is for a top athletes and a well performing business.
So I stay away from predictions as it would be a wild guess and maybe you should ask this question to Brett…
ST: We know you are not the coach, but as a passionate person you surely must have an opinion.
Alex: As a passionate person I think Chrissie will be the favorite for this year and likewise for Craig Alexander at the men. But the first girl that is able to start the run with Chrissie together this year could put on some real pressure on her as she has not been given this type of pressure by anyone till date yet.
ST: Thanks for your time.
Alex: Thanks for your time too Herbert and I will report to you in 12 months time where we are and what we have achieved from our ambitious plans together with WTC. In the mean time I hope our athletes will continue to perform their best, our staff will can continue to excite our customers in the TBB retails stores.