Hugo Sport comes out swinging
Company cuts corners supplying martial arts uniforms, equipment

Each fall, thousands of Quebecers who registered for martial arts classes receive a training uniform and white belt, as part of their registration fee. That is, as long as they fit into standard sizes. Those who don't, wait, because a good chunk of the karate, judo and tae kwon do uniforms sold in Canada come in by boat from the far East and delivery on out-of-stock or specialty items can take months.

"It can be problem, especially for obese students and those in the larger sizes," said Claude Croisetière, president of Hugo Sport. "When you import, not only does it take a long time, but you have to place large orders to make it worth the trouble. You also have limited control over product quality because returns take forever."

But like many entrepreneurs, when Coisetière hears the word "problem," his brain registers "opportunity." So while many Montreal textile manufactures have been downsizing or shutting operations, Croisetière has made domestic production a key competitive advantage.

"Martial arts is a great way to stay in shape and costs next to nothing compared to other sports like skiing and hockey," said Croisetière. "That means many practitioners don't mind paying a little extra for a premium uniform."

Although Montreal-based Hugo Sports supplies martial arts schools across Canada with a wide range of protective gloves and equipment, weapons and accessories, its primary selling point is its ability to supply high-quality, custom-made uniforms.

The company's manufacturing facility, located behind its Park Avenue store front, includes cutting, silk-screening and embroidery equipment, so each uniform can be tailored to the school, martial arts style and the students' fashion preferences.

Croisetière founded the company with two partners during the late 1970s while working a day job selling textiles. He noticed that many of the martial arts schools that he was selling to were making their own uniforms, so he offered to handle production himself.

For the next 12 years continued in his day job and ran the manufacturing facility at night. However in 1990 he felt confident enough in the new business to buy out his partners and join the company full-time. It turns out to have been a good move. Hugo Sport, which he named after his oldest son, now employs between 20 and 25 people depending on the season and ships close to $3 million of martial arts equipment a year.

The sector has seen a significant upsurge in popularity during the past twenty years according to one well-known practitioner.

"Karate had a bad reputation for a long time. It was viewed as a sport mostly for rough people," said Ginette Arsenault, an instructor and buyer with Karate Auto Défense André Gilbert. "Today people realize that martial arts meets many needs. They do it for self-defense, to lose weight, relieve stress and to improve their general health."

Arsenault, who holds a third degree black belt in the Kyokushinkai style, has seen a significant increase in interest, with the number of student training at the school jumping from 200 per day five years ago to about 300 today. Membership recently reached 800 students.

Much of the increase has been among children, many of whom are also studying the sport at school and from women who now comprise more than half the students in Arsenault's classes. Hugo Sport has been one of the big beneficiaries from this trend.

"Their merchandize and service are very good," said Arsenault, who has been buying Hugo Sport uniforms on behalf of her students for almost ten years. "Almost anything we order is shipped either the same day or the following morning."

During his first few years in business, Croisetière ran the company the way most entrepreneurs do: out of instinct. He had a finger in every pie and got involved in all areas from sales to choosing which stapler to buy. But in recent years his sons, Patrice who is 27 and Hugo, 30, joined the business, enabling the father to step back and delegate more.

Hugo is a graphic designer by trade, a skill that provides a significant advantage in running the silk screening and embroidery departments. He also oversees the catalogue production and the design of the company Web-site's "look and feel." Patrice runs operations. But don't bother asking what his title is.

"Title? How should I know what my title is?" Patrice Croisetière said. "Call me operations manager, vice-president, call me anything you want. You know what it's like in small business? You do one thing one day and another the next."

One of Patrice Croisetière's biggest challenges has been to increase operational efficiency so the company can handle a larger variety of SKUs (stock keeper units) and can make money selling the smaller quantity orders.

One small example: the shipping department now keeps a highly precise scale and all parcels are weighed before going out. That means customer claims about short-shipments, a common occurrence, can be checked by reconstituting and re-weighing the order.

"I had the problem recently," Patrice Croisetière said. "A customer said that he had been short-shipped several sets of pads. We checked our weights against those of the carrier and when we told the client this, he mysteriously found the missing pads at the bottom of the box."

Claude Croisetière, now 57, is proud of the role his sons are taking and as they become more confident he is giving them more rope. Recently he started coming in just three days a week, to see how they handled the pressure and he has been pleasantly surprised.

"They work hard and if they don't need me here why should I hang around?" said Croisetière. "I spent enough weekends driving to a Karate shows in Ottawa on Saturdays and others in Quebec City on Sundays. I don't need to do that anymore. Let the younger guys take care of it," he said with a wink.



Photo caption: According to Claude Croisetière, (shown here with his sons Hugo and Patrice), Hugo Sport's competitive advantage comes from the fact that the company manufacturers rather than imports the uniforms that it sells. This gives the customers faster turnaround times and greater flexibility.


Getting There:

o Claude Croisetière, then a textile salesman founded Hugo Sport with two partners in 1978 when he noticed that many of the karate schools that he was selling fabric to were using it to make uniforms.
o In 1990 Croisetière bought out his partners and quit his day job to run the company full time. Today he runs Hugo Sport with the help of his two kids, Hugo, whom the company is names after, and Patrice.
o Long a niche sport, martial arts has seen a significant upswing in interest during the past two decades, particularly among women and children who practice for a variety of reasons, including to lose weight, relieve stress, improve self-confidence and to learn self-defense.
o The company's main products are uniforms which account for 70 per cent of revenues, as well as protective equipment, gloves and weapons, which comprise the balance.



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