Peter Spence talks about the powerlifting business with SBD Apparel’s Ben Banks
If you've ever come across the extreme world of strength sports, you’ll probably have got your first introduction stumbling through the TV channels on a Boxing Day morning. Last year, more than a million of us tuned in to watch the competitors of World’s Strongest Man (WSM) in action.
But you can spot these larger than life characters elsewhere. The 6 foot 9 inch strongman Hafthor Bjornsson now plays the role of “The Mountain” in Game of Thrones, while two-times WSM victor Jouko Ahola found work in Ridley Scott’s 2005 epic Kingdom of Heaven.
Ben Banks, founder of SBD Apparel, spotted an opportunity. By making and selling premium sportswear for the world’s growing strength sport community, he knew he could make these men even more powerful – and help them avoid the injuries that can end an athlete’s career.
STICKING TO WHAT YOU KNOW
Equipping strength athletes wasn’t Banks’s first career move. But after a stint working for Bear Stearns on a fund derivatives desk, followed by a spell at Belgian bank KBC and time at a hedge fund, he decided it was the right moment to create something of his own.
Banks saw the similarities between working in finance and running his own business: you’re always ploughing effort into something new and uncertain. “It’s hard to keep picking yourself up,” he says. He felt he could put that energy into something that was his.
Thankfully, Banks was nurturing another passion during his time in banking. Since the age of 14, he’s been handling weights – apparent from his frame. It’s hard to imagine him fitting under a trading desk.
And that sporting career has seen him take the number four spot as a junior at the International Powerlifting Federation (IPF) World Championships, before taking a number eight spot in the open category in 2009. But the sport does have its downsides. During long training winter sessions, Banks’s knees would suffer.
Knee sleeves of the type available from your local pharmacy would provide warmth, and alleviate some of the pain. But they didn’t meet his demands. “I didn’t feel that they’d really been designed specifically for the sport,” he told me.
Banks realised there was a market for a premium and sport-specific product. Four to five prototypes and a lot of research later, Banks had something he was happy with, and a company to go with it. SBD Apparel, named after the three lifts performed in powerlifting – the squat, bench, and deadlift – was incorporated in March 2013.
DEALING WITH SETBACKS
SBD’s products have been well received. The vast majority of athletes were using his knee sleeves at the IPF World Championships in South Africa this June. The firm has now started selling similar products for the elbow, and are worn by nine times WSM top 10 finisher Terry Hollands.
But building the company hasn’t been problem free. The first production batch suffered from defective stitching. While the issue was cosmetic, Banks was concerned that, if used, customers might worry about the quality of his products. “I literally had to sit there and cut them all up. It was painful”.
Banks says that the experience taught him the value of testing and re-testing. Everyone else may be telling you to start selling, “but you’ve just constantly got to be testing everything.” Now every sleeve SBD ships is quality checked.
FINDING YOUR MARKET
One of the first people Banks wanted to see his finished product was the head coach of the Russian powerlifting team. Russia was an obvious market. “No-one seems to fully know how many people powerlift there,” says Banks. “Some say 100,000, but I’ve heard others say that it’s a couple of million.” After getting in contact, Banks showed his products off at a European competition. Now the entire Russian team is an SBD partner.
The Great Britain Powerlifting Federation, however, has only 1,292 members. While that solely captures active competitors, it’s representative of a smaller UK target audience for what SBD sells. For Banks, that’s meant that trying to tap into a global network of consumers has been vital.
He decided that partnering with distributors would allow him to grow as quickly as he needed. The upside of this has been that distributors have proven willing to market SBD’s products aggressively in their own territories, knowing that sales will come back to them.
SBD now has distributors in 14 countries, including on the Micronesian island of Nauru. It’s one of the world’s smallest nations, with a population of under 9,500, but Banks has managed to ship 100 pairs of his sleeves there.
Choosing who to partner with can be tricky, but knowing elite athletes in each country helps. They recommend potential distributors to SBD, helping the firm to grow quickly. Banks is currently in discussions to expand into another 10-20 nations.
Does Banks have any advice for other budding entrepreneurs? Cash flow is “key to business management,” he says. “Every time you want to bring out a new product, you have to tie up a lot of cash.” Knowing when to take risks and when to play it safe is key.
CV BEN BANKS
Company name: SBD Apparel
Turnover: £500,000 (2014-15 projected)
Number of staff: 5
Job title: Director
Studied: Mathematics, Oxford University
Drinking: Water and fruit juice
Eating: My wife’s cooking
Currently reading: No time
Favourite business book: House of Cards: A Tale of Hubris and Wretched Excess on Wall Street, by William D Cohan
Talents: Problem solving
Heroes: No one specifically, but I always admired the calmness of my superiors under pressure
Awards: 17 GB caps (powerlifting)
Motto: “To only release products that are a significant improvement”
Most likely to say: Let’s make sure
Least likely to say: Let’s keep our fingers crossed