shaun neff on new executive team & the brand's renewed snow focus

Sunday Biz: Shaun Neff On New Executive Team & The Brand’s Renewed Snow Focus

The one big thing that many businesses are honing in on right now is not pigeonholing themselves into a certain category or niche. More than ever, companies are recognizing the importance of appealing to a wider audience, and being able to segment their distribution to key regions and demographics.

For Shaun Neff, founder of Neff, that strategy has been a long running one for his brand. Although it started with deep roots in the snowboarding industry, Shaun quickly built Neff to represent a quirky youth culture brand, adding a eclectic roster of athletes from within action sports and beyond, not to mention musicians, rappers, DJs, and other “Icons and Ninjas.”

This week, the brand has added two executive icons to its roster, including former Oakley channel director for action sports Aaron Quigley, and industry veteran, Bonfire Founder, and former VP at Amer Sports Brad Steward. Quigley will serve as Neff’s North American channel director – core / specialty, and Steward has been named president of the brand. The moves indicate that Neff is renewing its focus on core specialty shops and its long-term growth strategy, and now have solid additional leadership in place to develop those plans.

With increased attention to detail in its outerwear and gloves for next season’s lines, the brand has added several in-house positions to strengthen its design, merchandising, and snow marketing teams. In true Neff fashion, the brand is also adding a new “key pillar” to its already extensive product category offering, and has aligned with a well-known athlete to create the business. Read on to hear more from Shaun and his vision for Neff over the next three to five years.

A Neff photo shoot in Montreal featuring Winter 2015/16 outerwear. Photo: Kealan Shilling

Talk about the process of recruiting Aaron and Brad. What’s your specific strategy behind hiring on these two key execs, and how does that align with Neff’s vision for 2015 and beyond?

I think for us now, it’s been a wildly fun roller coaster from me walking around slinging T-shirts out of my backpack and going up to the Grenade RV handing out dollar headbands with my name written on them to all the main snowboarders back in the day. It’s been a rad journey. I think  where we are today in 2015 and where we are headed, and it’s very important to me to continue adding and building a great team.

I think with the hire of Aaron—he has been on board now for about a month—we wanted to refocus and put core as a top priority. For us and how wide the Neff brand has gotten and how entrenched we are in youth culture, the roots of this brand is in snowboarding and  is in those core shops. That’s where we are headed with our outerwear, the success of our glove business, and us having a big focus over the next several years in snow. We felt it was a great time to hire Quigley, who is a fantastic guy who has a ton of experience, and who knows the core shops. He helped build and launch the outerwear program for Oakley, so using similar footprints to make sure we can go out and build key accounts and continue to build that business. So I’m excited for Quigley to come on board because it aligns with one of the key pillars for the brand moving forward, which is definitely snow and focusing on the snow business.

I interviewewed a ton of different presidents. Brad was, to me, the right pick based on the fact that he started his own brand, so he understands the value of branding, he understands marketing, he understands what it takes to keep a brand relevant. That was the number one most important thing to me. Number two, working at a big corporate company over the last ten years, he’s learned about process, strategy, and functionality of how an organization should profitably run. So mixing those two is the perfect storm for Neff. We are still a youth culture, hip-to-trend, youth-driven brand.

shaun neff on new executive team

A look at Neff’s Winter 15/16 outerwear collection.

What does your role look like now that Brad is on board as President? Will you be transitioning out of more of the day to day with the brand? What future endeavors or initiatives are on your plate?

I’m still maintaining the role of CEO, and Brad reports to me. I’m still directing from a branding and creative standpoint, from a marketing standpoint, and from a product standpoint. I’m still doing my daily routine, and I look at it as Brad bringing structure, knowledge, and strategy to wrap around my vision and help to go execute it.

What do each of their specific backgrounds lend themselves to in their new roles with Neff? What will they each be immediately tasked with over the next 6-12 months?

For Aaron Quigley, it’s really get engaged with our core shops, identify that partnership, and go build with them and give them product they feel they can sell. His focus is really getting down to that core mom and pop shop level, and making sure we are making product for them, marketing for them, and giving them everything we can to make them successful.

Brad will be learning the Neff way—  how we run and operate. We are very  nimble and reactionary. I think he is observing for the first couple of months. From there, it’s really creating a three to five year plan for the brand and identifying what are the building blocks that we want to focus on today that are still going to be key priorities in the next three to five years. Then it’s about building plans around those and executing them.

“Everyone today is so niche and I think that is very dangerous for a lot of companies. We’ve seen that in a lot of the big companies, where you stand for one piece of youth culture and if that becomes a little less relevant than so does your brand.”—Shaun Neff, Neff Founder & CEO

You are renewing your focus on the outerwear category and changing your strategy around marketing and distribution – what are some of the broad changes and how specifically do you think that positions the brand for success moving forward?

I think in the end, Neff is a youth culture brand. We are not a snow brand, a skate brand, a street wear brand, a sports brand. Everyone today is so niche and I think that is very dangerous for a lot of companies. We’ve seen that in a lot of the big companies, where you stand for one piece of youth culture and if that becomes a little less relevant than so does your brand. We are pretty wide and that is going to continue to be Neff and promoting “Forever Fun.”

With Snow, that’s where we started and that’s our roots. It’s easy to get caught up in the big picture in so many different facets. For us, we’ve identified Snow—meaning gloves, outerwear, and snow accessories— as one of our key building blocks. That was identified six months ago as one of the areas we want to go out and start taking marketshare. We have a good snow business, good sell through, and some of the best athletes in the world and we are continuing to sign more. I think with Nike getting out of snowboarding, with brands struggling in snow, and everyone shrinking, I see that as a huge opportunity for us to go all in on snow, and go and start taking marketshare. To accomplish that, we are hiring internal teams that include dedicated outerwear designers, glove designers, snow merchandisers, a dedicated snow marketing person to make sure we are putting that through our machine and really targeting that kid. Also, investments in the team. We still have a ton of kids from Sage Kotsenburg, to Dylan Thompson, to Louie Vito, and we just recently signed Kazu on gloves— I don’t even know if that’s been broke— we also signed Scotty Lago on outerwear, and we also have Greg Bretz on outerwear, and we also have Taylor Gold. So, if you take Helgason brothers that we already have and Sage, and Kazu, and Taylor Gold, who is going to win—that’s the strong message: Look, we’re not playing. We’ve gone out and got the internal team to make this successful. Even by hiring Brad—his focus isn’t to come in and be a snow guy by any means, he is pretty well-rounded and he is excited about the wider Neff youth culture opportunity—but his background in snow obviously helps us out a ton. And with all these new athletes, it’s go time.

I travel a ton, and when I’m snowboarding I just see kids rocking Neff. I think our strongest customer is a snow kid, hands down. If I look at what genre we connect with, it’s the snow kid. That’s a huge opportunity for us, with the relevance of our brand in so many different spaces and now making that good quality product, and having the marketing attached to it with these athletes. We are going to make a big effort to make sure we are a heavy player in snow outerwear and gloves three to five  years from now.

When you say that you are improving on the quality of the product, what exactly does that entail? Are you adding more technical pieces?

It’s our second year selling outerwear. When it’s your second year selling a category, you learn a lot. One of the biggest things I am seeing in the collection we are designing now and even in the collection we are showing, is the attention to detail. The trims, the buttons, the YKK zippers. We’ve now added a whole layer of the right small details of the garment, which in my opinion makes all the difference. Year one it was, let’s put a wild print on this jacket and it says Neff,  and we actually did really well and we sold through. The designers working on the current line have 15 to 20 years experience working for brands like Burton and other market leaders. So, the quality is there from a design standpoint, and we are just adding the Neff flavor to it. Shops and kids should know that moving forward Neff is going to be a trusted, quality option for them.

One thing that Chip mentioned to us in Long Beach is that the number of wild colorways and prints are being toned down a bit in this new collection. What’s the strategy behind that?

Yeah, it’s more palatable, more rock-able. Neff in the past was crazy prints and you might have stuck out wild on the hill. We are going to maintain a small piece of our business to be that taste making loud pieces like the Cheeseburger jacket. But the core of our line is cool, rock-able colorways that are on trend. You will see a bit of that in this year’s line, but big in next year’s line. We are making a huge effort there, because kids don’t want to be head to toe outerwear guy. We have a huge focus on that street, snow, lifestyle crossover look.  Johnny can rock it to high school and Johnny can shred in it. Waterproofing on traditional coaches jackets and waterproofing on flannels, that’s a market where we think we can bring that everyday rock-able steeze, so it’s a huge push for us for the future.

You mentioned the high school kid—is that your target demographic?

I would say high school to college. The 14 to 25 year old kid is our bread and butter. But now we have the quality where the 35-year-old who has always rocked the Neff beanie, we are starting to see that guy wearing the gloves and jackets, especially with some of our more mellow offerings.

If you had to pick one initiative that the brand is going to be the most focused on this year, what would that be and why?

Forever Fun, that’s the focus. Making sure that we can create that and we want to make sure that you are having forever fun.

What do you see as the biggest challenge and the biggest opportunities for the brand at the moment?

The biggest strength is that  Neff is positioned in communicating with youth. We are current, we are touching them in their every day lives through social channels. I think a threat over the next year or two, is us aligning where our key focuses are to grow . We make a lot of stuff and we influence a lot of things. We are trying to wrap this around four to five key building blocks that make this company function. So that could be a potential weakness if in the next five years we are still focusing on twenty different types of product.

What are those key pillars, besides snow, that you are honing in on? 

Headwear is our biggest initiative. We’ve owned the beanie game for a lot of years. We have focus teams now, both men’s and women’s, driving that business, and that’s a huge pillar for us to be innovative. Headwear and snow are the two main pillars. With watches, we are trying to refine that strategy, and the apparel piece is still important.

The next big pillar we are excited about is underwear. We are launching Neff Wear, of which Kevin Durant is part owner, so it’s not just a licensing deal. We will be launching  that probably at the end of this year. You take Neff, and you take Kevin Durant—who does close to a billion dollars a year at retail— and you put us together in this category which no one owns yet, and that’s huge.