By Eric Smith
Bjorn Fjellstad, managing director of the apparel and protective gear brand Sweet Protection, is an avid skier and cyclist who spends as much time as possible on slopes and trails whether he’s home in Norway or traveling for business in the U.S.
As dedicated and passionate an athlete as Fjellstad is, however, he admits that working at the Oslo-based company can be humbling given the accomplishments and pedigrees of his colleagues. After all, the brand’s product development team boasts elite Norwegian skiers and cyclists, many of whom are national and even world champions in their respective disciplines.
“It makes me realize that I’m very mediocre in all sports,” he said with a laugh during an interview with SGB Executive at this year’s Outdoor + Snow Show.
But Fjellstad is neither mediocre in his athletic pursuits nor in business, where he has built a distinguished career. Since 2017, he has been leading Sweet Protection, a 20-year-old company that manufactures apparel and protective products such as helmets and now eyewear for skiing, cycling and paddling.
Since 2014, Sweet Protection—or, simply, “Sweet”—has been owned by privately held, Norwegian-based Active Brands AS, the parent of such other outdoor brands as Kari Traa (women’s sportswear) and Daehlie (running and cross country skiwear). Those three brands are sold in the U.S. and managed here from the parent company’s North American operation in Broomfield, CO. (Click here for SGB Executive’s 2019 Q&A with Henrik Lumholdt, general manager of Active Brands NA.)
Active Brands also owns Bula Europe (baselayers), Vossatassar (kids wear), Johaug (women’s sportswear) and Asnes (skis), all of which are only sold overseas. Fjellstad is managing director of Asnes too.
Fjellstad, who has an extensive background in sales and marketing, has prior outdoor industry experience, as well. Before Sweet Protection, he worked as director of sales, e-commerce and customer service at Norrona Sport AS, the Norwegian outdoor clothing and gear brand.
Incorporated in 2000, Sweet’s roots date back to the late 1980s when hardcore river kayakers needed better head protection for their whitewater exploits. And though the company’s founding was inspired by California board culture—including skateboarding, which was banned in Norway at the time—the brand is relatively new to U.S. consumers.
Fjellstad is now charged with elevating the brand’s presence in North America, and part of that mission involves a sharpened focus on messaging. The brand is “overinvesting” in marketing and no longer relying on word of mouth alone to share Sweet’s unique origin story and its commitment to bringing innovative products to athletes of all abilities, he said.
Those efforts are paying off. The brand has gotten into REI, in part because it also recently added eyewear to its offering. In the U.S., Fjellstad said, adding that category was key because many specialty retailers want to offer a helmet and goggle combo.
All of which bodes well for Sweet’s aspirations of taking share in the U.S. market while staying true to its core design philosophy of “stronger, lighter, better.” Sweet Protection is building momentum with no signs of slowing down.
“Things are starting to move in the right way,” Fjellstad said. “It will be very exciting for us moving forward.”
Here is SGB Executive’s conversation with Fjellstad, who dished on the brand’s breakout season, the importance of partnering with world-class athletes, what’s next for the apparel and protective equipment maker, and more.
What’s been the response to Sweet Protection here? We are overwhelmed with the response, especially since we started offering eyewear [for the 2019/20 season], because Sweet Protection now offers the full package—we protect the eyes, not just the brain. The products have been well received in the North American market, and I’m happy with the response we’re getting around the finishing and the quality of our products. All of our helmets are MIPS-compatible. In the U.S., nine out of 10 helmets have MIPS, so that’s been working well for us. I also think we’re getting a lot of good traction and a lot of good feedback from our retailers and our end consumers.
You’ve got some big names on your athlete team, including Pep Fujas, Chris Davenport and Aksel Lund Svindal. What role do these athletes play for Sweet in the U.S. and abroad? For us, having athletes is a two-sided story. One, it’s good to have somebody out there advocating for our products and telling the story about Sweet Protection. As important—and maybe even more important—is getting product feedback from people who know what they’re doing. We have always connected with the No. 1 athletes within the different sports. If you take a look at FIS [International Ski Federation] racing, we are committed with the Norwegian national team. In the last 10 years, they have been dominating the scene and right now we have the current overall leader [Henrik Kristoffersen, slalom] wearing a Sweet helmet. We have a lot of opinions and discussions when it comes to product development, so athletes giving us feedback can push us further and help us spread the word of the brand.
Where is Sweet Protection winning and what are your goals for this market? The American consumer wants more out of the products that they are buying, and I think that we have a special offering. It’s not only about the design of the product, but it’s also the fit and, obviously, the finishing of the product. Moving forward, even though we’re small, it’s very important for us to be ambitious. We always say, if your aim isn’t to be No. 1, you’re never going to go anywhere. We have markets in Europe where we are No. 1. Introducing eyewear has been important for us because all the analysis we have done in this market says that if you also offer goggles, it’s easier to sell them [with helmets] as a package deal.
How do you plan to achieve those ambitions? We need to get people to know what Sweet Protection is and the products that we offer. Upping our marketing game is going to be more important. So, you will see more of Sweet Protection in advertising. You will see more of Sweet Protection with athletes. You will see more of Sweet Protection in the trade press. We have started to get the wheel turning a little bit faster. I think we have opened a lot of doors to consumers in the retail space, but now we need to be top of mind with consumers so that they know what the brand is about.
Is the goal to re-create in the U.S. the brand presence you have in Norway? if you go into a resort in Norway, you will see many, many skiers and snowboarders are wearing Sweet Protection. That’s also something that we’re starting to see in the resorts, especially in Colorado, and we’re doing well in Whistler right now. The U.S. is the most exciting market where we also have our biggest ambitions moving forward. We have grown our retail base quite significantly. I’m not saying that we doubled the number of doors from 2018 to 2019, but we expanded quite a lot [double-digit growth]. Now we’re in the likes of REI. We don’t have exposure all over the place, but we have those selected doors that we’re starting with and that’s obviously important for us progressing in the U.S. market.
As you strive for bigger goals here, how important is it to stay true to the brand’s identity? We will never compromise on our own design philosophy. We will never compromise on safety when we put a product into the market. And at the end of the day, we need to be proud of the products ourselves. I can’t go and say to the product development team, “You have to make a cheap helmet to sell at this retailer.” They’re just going to say, “No, it’s not going to happen.” It is all about being true to our identity. That has taken the brand where it is today. We had a massive growth the last couple of years, so it’s working. Now, it’s up to us. We just need to follow up with the marketing and get the word out.
Photo courtesy Sweet Protection