Custom skate biz glides to top

Sep 19, 2017

True Temper Sports expands Winnipeg group’s personalized-fit technology — and NHL clients love it
By: Martin Cash

Original Post:
Only three years ago, Scott Van Horne was making premium, one-of-a-kind, custom-fitted hockey skates out of his basement.

As he stepped up in 2015 to 1,700 square feet of space — shared with the skate sharpener/hockey pro shop Cutting Edge in 2015 — it still wasn’t clear just how much demand there would be for his $1,000 skates.

WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS</p><p>Van Horne’s skates are used by the likes of NHLers Ryan Johansen, Mitch Marner and the Jets’ Mathieu Perreault.</p>
WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESS Van Horne’s skates are used by the likes of NHLers Ryan Johansen, Mitch Marner and the Jets’ Mathieu Perreault.
WAYNE GLOWACKI / WINNIPEG FREE PRESSVan Horne’s skates are used by the likes of NHLers Ryan Johansen, Mitch Marner and the Jets’ Mathieu Perreault.

But it didn’t take long for Van Horne and his sales and marketing partner, Garth Smith, to realize they were definitely going to need more space.

Memphis-based True Temper Sports Inc. bought Van Horne’s company, VH Footwear, late last year for an undisclosed sum and quickly built the company a brand-new Winnipeg production space almost 10 times the size.

True Temper Sports officials from Memphis and Ottawa will be on hand today at the official grand opening of the new plant — and in a break from tradition (perhaps an indication of elevated enthusiasm), representatives of Lincolnshire Management, the New York private equity firm that owns True Temper, also will be at the opening.

Unlike so many other instances where a smart young Winnipeg company gets acquired by a larger company from the United States, shut down and moved away, True Temper is doubling down and investing in Winnipeg.

“This is a different story,” Van Horne, 40, said. “That is not what is going to happen with our company.”

Since the purchase — which was preceded by Van Horne’s development of digital scanning technology as opposed to hand-traced foot outlines he had been working with — the Winnipeg production staff has grown to 37 from 22.

True Temper Sports CEO Jeremy Erspamer said keeping Van Horne, Smith and their team in place in Winnipeg was crucial.

“Also,” he said, “We’re big believers in made-in-Canada.”

True Temper — one of the oldest and largest golf club shaft manufacturers — also has been making hockey sticks for many years from a wholly owned plant in China. Up until a few years ago, it was the private-label hockey stick manufacturer for some of the sport’s largest brand names, until it decided to launch its own True Temper brand, along with True Temper hockey gloves and bags.

The company knew it had to have a line of skates to be recognized as a real hockey company. Its history of engineering sports equipment made for a great fit with Van Horne’s former company, VH Footwear.

“Scott’s genius in design and the ability to customize the boot to each player’s foot… combining that with True Temper and True Hockey’s infrastructure, with more than 700 retailers currently selling True product, made for a perfect marriage,” Erspamer said.

The CEO also believes that the superior fit and performance of Van Horne’s skates will create a whole new demand dynamic.

“This is something that’s never been in the market before,” Erspamer said.

“We believe it is a real game-changer in the hockey industry. We have very high hopes and expectations for how that product will continue to grow at the pro level and certainly at the general consumer level.”

There were 117 NHL players lacing up True Hockey skates by Van Horne (his name is stitched into the tongue of each skate) as of the writing of this story, but that number is growing all the time.

And it’s not as if the players are subjected to a hard sell or are enticed with thousands of dollars of incentives to wear their skates, as is the case with the other big names brands.

Smith talks to players if asked.

“We have players on just about every team in the NHL now,” he said on the eve of a trip to visit True Temper clients on the California-based NHL teams. “I make customer-service trips and talk to our clients to make sure everything is going well and see if they need any adjustments. Invariably I’ll come away with one, two, three, four more fittings.”

True Hockey has a stable of so-called “True Pros,” including the likes of Mitch Marner of the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ryan Johansen of the Nashville Predators and Mathieu Perreault of the Jets. They use some, if not all, of True’s hockey gear and are featured on True’s website.

“We have not had to pay people to use our skates to this point,” said Dave McNally, True Hockey’s Ottawa-based marketing and business development manager, “and we don’t intend to change that strategy.”

McNally likes to talk about the business in terms of the premium skate market rather than custom skates.

“The landscape is changing on how consumers view it and what they are prepared to invest in high-end skates,” he said.

At the same time, thanks to Van Horne’s innovations, mass customization will set True’s hockey skate business apart from the pack. In addition to the fit and performance, McNally cites the benefit to retailers, who do not have to carry inventory because each skate must be custom-made.

Van Horne jokingly pretends not to know how many authorized dealers True has signed up since the acquisition last November.

There’s 80 in North America now, compared to 15 last year. The intention is to get to 130 by the end of this year, as well as more than a dozen in Europe.

The betting is that, in the future, it won’t be just elite players wearing skates by Scott Van Horne.