Sportif USA began as a small business in Southern California in 1965 headed by John Gregory Kirsch. He sold tennis shorts from the back of the family’s station wagon, gradually building a reputation for quality and comfort. Tennis shorts led to hiking, which led to fishing and nautical apparel as the Sportif brand took shape.
In 1968, Kirsch and Sportif pioneered the first commercially available corespun stretch fabric called Espa-twill, known to be more durable and longer lasting than other mechanical stretch fabrics available at the time.
Kirsch’s twin-engine Beechcraft plane crashed in the snow-covered San Bernardino Mountains in March 1991, leaving wife Suzanne Kirsch and eldest son John to continue building the company. They are now celebrating 50 years as a family-owned and operated business.
Why is entrepreneurship vital for the outdoor industry? The outdoor industry is an invention machine; once a product is thoroughly tested and finally commercialized, the mass market swoops in to rip-off and duplicate with intent to sell cheap and deep. If entrepreneurs don’t continue pushing the envelope on design to tantalize the enthusiast, product will homogenize and specialty retailers will have nothing remarkable to sell against the ferociously competitive commoditized mass market.
What are the biggest changes you have had a hand in making at Sportif USA? Our 50-year-old legacy brand Sportif USA primarily caters to a mature male customer. In the last decade this has turned into an extremely competitive market with limited growth opportunities. The much larger market segment is the 30-to-50 year old female customer who frequently changes her fashion/style and ultimately replaces a significant portion of her wardrobe seasonally and annually. Aventura was started as its own stand-alone brand in 2005, as a women’s-only eco/green brand that uses primarily eco-friendly, low impact fabrics. Then in 2014, we started Ecōths. (To date, the family owns and operates Sportif, Aventura and Ecōths.)
There were lots of internal and sibling conflict when we finally decided to change creative direction and create Adventura. It was our late father’s legacy and brand; many asked why and questioned the soundness of our judgement. Ten years later, this is all water under the bridge.
Who do you look up to? Hands down my late father John Gregory Kirsch, our founder and entrepreneur extraordinaire. He largely followed in the footsteps of his late father John Arthur Kirsch, who with Johnny Addleman formed one of the earliest sales rep agencies, Addleman-Kirsch, in 1945. This agency continues today, run by my uncle Mike Kirsch. They were literally in the pioneer days of the outdoor industry, both at a product, manufacturing and importing level.
What are your first memories of falling in love with the outdoors? We were introduced to the outdoors when my father moved us out of Southern California in the early 70s to the foothills of Lake Tahoe. Our backyard was pine trees and hills filled with small streams and lakes with native trout that we very quickly mastered catching. Including my two sisters, the six of us, all in an eight year span, picked up just about every activity the region offered from alpine skiing, mountain biking, sailing, windsurfing, as well as hiking and backpacking all over the Sierras.
In my 30s I got into marathons, mountaineering, road triathlons and my favorite – mountain triathlons. In 2004 at age 37, I was in an off-road motocross accident resulting in a broken back, damaged spinal cord and paralysis below the chest. I picked up adaptive sports immediately upon returning from the rehab hospital: alpine skiing, Nordic skiing, flat water kayaking, and just recently back out sailing on a Hobie trimaran. But my favorite sport is biking, well, we call it hand cycling. I train year round and commute to work from March through November, weather permitting. I also race competitively on the west coast and am currently ranked number four in the USA in my class.
What are some challenges of a family-run business? I have been president since my father’s passing in 1991, but I have worked with my siblings for almost 25 years. My brother Michael handles sourcing and private label manufacturing, my sister Kathleen is head merchandiser, working closely with her husband Tom Williamson, the company’s Vice President of Sales and Marketing. We have largely succeeded where other family businesses fail based on our common respect for each other. At the end of the day, we are still family. Reserving judgment is key to avoiding sibling squabbling. We all carry our own weight and we all want to see the business succeed.
How can small retailers grow their customer base and imprint on the industry? Differentiate. Don’t copy the mass market. Create more than just a shopping venue. Engage with your customers and create an experience that they won’t forget, and continue to bring them back for more.