He founded Sport Import in 1982, so in 2022 the company celebrates its 40th anniversary. It’s also a family success story with Michael’s son, Alexander, becoming managing director in 2017 and owner in 2020. After rapid recent European expansion, Sport Import can now boast a staff compliment of over 80 with 35 brands and counting, available to more than 3,500 specialist dealers across 11 countries.
BMX racing gradually gave way to freestyling and then, of course, the 1980s also saw mountain biking explode onto the scene. Despite the hype, Michael recalls, there was work to do to convince people. Sport Import brought premium MTB brand, Ritchey, to the Cologne bike show in 1986 where there were plenty of doubters based on the price tag. However, subsequent years proved they had the right approach; 1987 saw the company relocating back to Michael’s hometown with the first warehouse following in 1991, and in 1997 the company’s current, much larger premises in Edewecht, Lower Saxony, was constructed. The year 1997 also proved to be a key year in the company’s development, with Ralf Fischer’s appointment to the management board, which meant that the firm was now onboard with digitisation leading to Sport Import webshop becoming the bedrock of the company’s success. Everything from back-office functions such as merchandise management and storage systems to shopfront functions such as customer order tools, come from Sport Import’s own IT department. To keep up with the ever-increasing expectations of internet-based services, 2021 saw a fundamental redesign of the Sport Import B2B webshop, which is now available in eight languages.
This digital foundation has supported impressive European expansion over recent years, initially to the Benelux countries around three years ago. It was also the perfect chance to offer the brands distributed by Sport Import to other markets, such as WTB and CLIF Bar in Belgium and the Netherlands.
Furthermore, it meant that when the Covid-engendered supply chain difficulties arrived, Sport Import was well placed to accept new dealers easily and quickly. Such was the scramble to source accessories, says Michael, that dealers were knocking on Sport Import’s doors in search of supplies. The wake of the crisis also allowed the company to strengthen their sales team in other countries and introduce exciting brands there, including Lezyne and ODI in Denmark, Fist Handwear and CEMA in Poland, and all of SRAM group’s brands in Bulgaria and Romania.
Own brand success
Beside undoubted business success, what about personal satisfaction? Michael stresses a great feeling of achievement in being a key part of producing their own products, most notably the creation of Felt Bicycles in the US in 1998. This approach continues today through Sport Import’s own brands VOXOM and SIBMX, with more to come. Alexander arrived at the company via a very different path. Having studied for his Masters in Dusseldorf he spent time working for European cycling giant Wiggle in the UK. He clearly feels proud of the collaborative approach to management he brings from his time abroad. “For me, a key to success is not only empowering our dealers and their customers though our products and service, but also empowering our own employees,” he comments.
The bike’s political importance
Where does the management board see the firm heading in the future? Alexander identifies how the firm’s initial area of expertise, BMX, has seen peaks and troughs in popularity with other niche areas like gravel bike accessories recently coming to the fore. But for both Michael and Alexander, it’s all about the bigger picture. “The political acceptance of the bike throughout Europe is a very important factor for the future,” says Michael, “and it’s encouraging to see car parking becoming bike parking here in Germany. We may be behind leaders like Denmark but we are catching up. At the same time the leisure aspect of cycling is also clearly a huge driver for our success and that of the industry as a whole.” He also reveals how the recent foundation of their research and development centre in Oberammergau, Bavaria, now allows Sport Import to target a range of own-brand accessories that are sustainable through the extra product life they promise. To date, the new centre has applied for three patents and a design patent, and 2022 will see new products being announced.
For Alexander, their achievements are a platform for future success. The family succession of the business is settled whilst their passionate international team as well as their slick web service for dealers means they are well placed as a truly European distributor of high quality cycling products…hopefully for a further 40 years.
This article is sponsored by Sport Import.