SELLING OUT

Thule's long ride to buy Chariot Carriers

Special to The Globe and Mail

Dan Britton, Chariot Carriers' founder and former president and CEO (EWAN NICHOLSON FOR THE GLOBE AND MAIL)

Launch a health club, convert an old movie theatre into a nightclub or create a bike carrier for kids: Those were the three ideas Dan Britton had for a startup business in the summer of 1990.

Unsure which to pursue at first, the one thing the 24-year-old was certain of, however, was that he didn't want to work for someone else.

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“I never saw myself in any traditional job, and that always frustrated me going through university, thinking of what to do next or how to advance myself in terms of education. Nothing felt right,” he says.

In the end or, you could say, in the beginning, he opted to pursue the venture that serendipitously presented itself as the most obvious of the three – one that has since proven immensely successful.

A triathlete and lifelong lover of sports, Mr. Britton had just completed a degree in economics from the University of Calgary and was working at a friend's bike shop. There, he would often come in contact with customers who were looking for a product that would allow them to bike with their kids in tow.

Although he didn't have children of his own yet, he had grown up in a close-knit family that would often do outdoor activities together. “Of my three or four or five ideas, this one really rang home for me,” Mr. Britton says. “I knew we were on to something and the timing was right to do this business now.”

Mr. Britton put his plans to do a master's in economics on hold and moved into his parents' house. He bought a computer-aided design (CAD) program, asked a friend who was an engineer for help, had another friend who could sew work on the covers, and started to piece together a product.

“We were literally bending aluminum up in the mezzanine in this woodworking shop, getting fabric made somewhere else and trying to put it all together – a bunch of people who were not particularly experienced, but committed,” he says.

It would be two years before he had a finished, saleable prototype. The company, which he dubbed Chariot Carriers, was incorporated in 1992, with the first production run happening the following year. A year and a half after the company was incorporated, Mr. Britton brought in his older brother Chris to help oversee manufacturing. Together, they would build Chariot from the ground up.

Mr. Britton's goal when he started was to sell 10,000 carriers in one year – a target he reached in less than four years. Today, Calgary-based Chariot Carriers Inc. is the market leader in multiuse child transportation system products in North America and in a number of European markets, selling more than 50,000 carriers every year to more than 25 countries.

Although the company refuses to open its books, it's been reported that Chariot's annual revenue is around $25-million. (According to Manta, an online community for promoting and connecting small businesses, Chariot had annual sales of $40,088,440 in 2008.)

A Chariot Carrier is, as the name suggests, a stately looking vehicle designed to chauffeur one's little princes and princesses. The strollers have large side wheels and enclosed private cabins, and come in a variety of colour combinations with dominant hues such as red, green, orange and yellow.

The product line includes several models: the Cheetah, the bestselling Cougar and the CX, which constitute the cross-country line; and the Cabriolet and the Corsaire XL, which are part of the Classic Bicycle Trailer Series.

Each model is also compatible with most of the Child Transport System (CTS) conversion kits, sold separately, which allow parents to cycle, jog, stroll, hike and ski with one or two children in tow. The Sidecarrier is a trailer that attaches to the side of a bicycle. The company also sells numerous accessories including extra storage units, stroller covers, infant slings and bike add-ons.

At 45 and now a father of five, Mr. Britton has guided his company through incredible growth, with the European market alone now representing 40 per cent of Chariot's global sales (the U.S. accounts for roughly 25 per cent, while Canada and some smaller markets like Australia and New Zealand take up the other 35 per cent).

Until very recently, Chariot did everything from its home base of Calgary: design, manufacturing and distribution of its carriers as well as managing patents, trademarks and safety regulations. But as the company has moved into key growth markets, Chariot's resources and capabilities were stretched to capacity, making it difficult to keep up with demand.

And so, when an outdoor-products behemoth came calling, in late 2010, offering to buy his company, Mr. Britton had to think long and hard. Perhaps now was the time to hand over the reins and let somebody else take Chariot Carriers to the next level?

When Chariot launched in the early 1990s, similar products on the market included the Burley d'Lite and the Winchester Originals carriers, both out of the United States and selling for about $300. Initially, Mr. Britton's goal was to create a multifunctional, made-in-Canada child carrier that was more affordable than both competitors' products and offered better folding designs and more convenience.

But manufacturing the product in Canada made it impossible to lower the price point as much as he wanted, so if it wasn't going to be cheaper than the competitors' products – Chariot Carriers retail for between $450 and $950 – Mr. Britton decided to focus on value instead: one product that allows a family to do five different activities.

Chariot's Sport Conversion Kits start at $80 for the strolling and biking kits, and go up to $275 for the cross-country ski model. The product's versatility and longevity (a Chariot can be used for newborns and children up to six years of age) often outweigh the hefty price tag for active parents, especially those with disposable incomes.

In a mountain town like Canmore, Alta. – 100 kilometres from Chariot's headquarters and a mecca for young, active families – Chariot Carriers are as ubiquitous as ski bums.

“There's a real culture of Chariots here,” says Darin Anderson, a 35-year-old electrician who lives in the town with his wife, Jodi, and daughter Reese. “We're an outdoorsy family and love to bike and ski. My brother had a Chariot for his son, and it seemed like a no-brainer for us to get one.”

But even in the city, for a basic activity such as strolling, fans herald Chariot Carriers as the superior option.

Sarah Kennedy, a 39-year-old senior account executive at Calgary's Zentra Computer Technologies, wouldn't have made it to the park in deep snow with any other stroller, she says.

“Those walls close in a little in the dark winter days when you are home with your first infant. The Chariot was my path to the outdoors.”

The bike attachment came in handy once her daughter Samantha was a bit older, and when the family packed up the car for summer vacations, Ms. Kennedy says, they'd put their Chariot kits into another well-known outdoor transportation product, a Thule roof box: “All our friends went from being a young couple with a dog and having a Thule box on their car, to adding the Chariot as the next piece of gear when baby arrives.”

That natural progression didn't go unnoticed by Magnus Welander and his team at Thule Group, the Swedish company known for its assortment of lifestyle outdoor products such as roof racks, roof boxes, and bike and water sport carriers.

“If you look at the consumers that we are targeting…the places they go to buy their product…in those stores, in many cases next to our product, you will find the Chariot,” says Mr. Welander, who was promoted to CEO last year after four years heading the company's vehicle accessories division for Europe and Asia, from Thule's headquarters in Malmö, Sweden.

Thule looked closely at Chariot Carriers in 2007 and liked what it saw: strong management, passion for the outdoor/lifestyle industry and a superior product. After waiting out the financial storm that started in 2008, Mr. Welander and his officials made initial contact with Dan and Chris Britton in September, 2010.

“With family-owned, small companies, it's not so often that they are up for sale because the people that started the company have a true passion for what they are doing and are very focused. They rarely think about what they can do better outside or as part of a bigger group,” says Mr. Welander, who didn't think the Brittons would consider a deal after that first meeting.

Although he insists there was no “courtship,” Mr. Welander and Thule management spent about six months flying between Sweden and Calgary to have “chats” with the Chariot team. Thule is no stranger to acquiring companies, having bought 12 since 2004.

Like Chariot Carriers, the Thule Group comes from humble beginnings. In 1942, Erik Thulin started selling pike traps in Sweden. Then, his company, Metallfabriken Thule, launched its first car-related product, a headlamp grille, in 1955, followed by a rooftop ski rack in 1962. It now has about 3,100 employees at more than 50 production facilities and sales offices worldwide, and sales of 5.7-billion Swedish krona, or $880-million (Canadian).

Another meeting was held in December, 2010, but Dan Britton wasn't ready to commit. Finally, in the spring of 2011, meetings intensified. After working out principles – Thule's vision for Chariot Carriers and plans for the brand; its intention to keep the company in Calgary, with Dan staying on as director of innovation – a deal was signed on May 31, 2011, handing over complete control to the Thule Group. (The parties have agreed not to disclose the sale price.)

For the Brittons, with 20 years of hard work behind them and with assurances that the company they built up would live on, the time had come. “It was really getting to know them [Thule]and hearing their vision of what they could do for our brand and how well they had researched and understood our category, and the alignment with what we wanted the brand to become,” Dan Britton says.

“It's been a grind for me and Chris. We're not old guys yet, but we're on our way – and you bring that in, and [selling]starts getting enticing.”

Getting to the point where the brothers could cash in on Dan's university pipe dream, however, was never a sure thing. After working on the product for two years, in 1993, Chariot Carriers hired sales reps in Alberta and Quebec (a province with a healthy biking market) and sold 400 carriers.

“Sales went really well that first year, but nothing really else did,” says Dan Britton. “We were late, we had delivery problems, quality problems – all sorts of things – so we lost money.”

When breaking even that first year didn't happen, Mr. Britton had to rethink things. And that's when the idea of bringing on his older brother, Chris, an aircraft mechanic at Canadian Airlines, came to mind. Not only did he have a machinery background, Chris was also a people person, says Mr. Britton, who hoped that combination would work well in terms of hiring manufacturing workers and refining the product. It did.

A father of four, Chris asked the airline for a one-year leave and officially joined as Chariot's vice-president of manufacturing in September, 1993. With Chris on board, Chariot took more control over manufacturing by bringing sewing in-house, buying a hydraulic tube bender and working with Apel Extruders, a Calgary company that provided tubes. The focus also shifted to creating a stronger company culture by team-building and involving staff as much as possible in the process.

Later that year, Chariot hired commissioned sales reps in all provinces and leased a new facility in Calgary, where manufacturing could be done on a larger scale; by the end of 1994, about 3,500 Chariot Carriers were being sold annually across Canada. In 1996, Chariot – whose only models to that point had been a bicycle trailer and a jogging carrier with three large wheels – came out with the VersaWing hitch arm attachment, which was a more user-friendly way for a carrier to be utilized for multiple activities.

As the Canadian market expanded rapidly, the brothers looked south for new customers. When Chariot entered the U.S. market in 1996, it wasn't under its own brand name but as the private-label manufacturer for other brands.

Initially, Chariot teamed up with BelSport, but because that organization started to have financial difficulties, Chariot moved on to Trek, selling models with the identical frame and similar design as Chariot's but in different colour schemes.

In 1998, the company developed another product, for Schwinn for its U.S. market. “We were able to learn about the market, our products were able to get volume again so we could still grow in manufacturing and the rest,” Dan Britton says.

Exports to the U.S. market grew quickly, and Mr. Britton began to worry that Chariot had almost no brand recognition of its own. If one of its partner companies decided to pull out, Chariot would lose the market entirely. And so, in 2000, Chariot set up U.S. distribution of its own, launching the Chariot brand stateside two years later.

Around the same time Chariot was first entering the U.S., Mr. Britton began looking to improve some of the product designs, and inquired about a hitch component being sold in Europe. The European market wasn't on Chariot's radar yet, but when Mr. Britton came into contact with Germany's Zwei Plus Zwei (Two Plus Two), a retailer and distributor of cycling products, a new vista opened up in front of them.

Zwei Plus Zwei liked the Chariot product and, in 1997, after the two parties agreed on a distribution agreement, Chariot started shipping to Germany. While Chariot is mostly a recreational product in North America, in Europe – now the company's largest market – the bike culture is more mature. Chariots are used every day to drop off children, to go grocery shopping and to the park.

But with Chariot growing steadily, new challenges arose. Because the company did most of its selling seasonally in a three-month period (late March to June), if sales were above forecast, there wasn't the opportunity to respond quickly with higher production rates.

“It was a challenge to get product into the pipeline,” says Chris Britton. “The Chris and Dan show began to have some cracks in it.”

As all manufacturing was being done in Calgary – half of the labour was sewing and the other half assembly and fabrication – finding experienced industrial seamstresses in the city also started to become a problem. Labour and material costs rose as much as 25 per cent during the economic boom of the mid-2000s, causing profit margins to drop dramatically. In 2008, running full-tilt but dealing with tight cash flow, the company went in search of outside investors.

Their timing was horrible: The credit crisis hit later that year, making additional financing near impossible. Unable to meet demand and needing to cut costs, Chariot decided to move all its manufacturing to the Goodbaby Child Products factory near Shanghai. Approximately 150 of the 180-plus workbforce were laid off between the fall of 2009 and the spring of 2011, with the last CX – Chariot's premium and most expensive carrier – rolling off the Calgary line on April 30, 2011.

“It's something we've known we had to consider and something we probably should have done sooner for the overall health of our business,” says Mr. Britton, reflecting now on the move to manufacture in China.

Although the brothers never saw selling the company as their end goal, they had their fair share of inquiries over the years. The answer was always “no.” But running a fast-growing business through the ups and downs of the market over the course of two decades takes its toll.

Early in 2010, Dan, admitting to feeling burned out, decided to step down as CEO and president of the company to concentrate on product development. Pierre Doyon, who had been hired as a business consultant the previous year, stepped in.

Around the same time, Chris Britton made an announcement: He would be stepping down from the VP manufacturing job by the following summer to spend more time with family, staying on only as a silent partner. The following spring, Chariot was sold to Thule.

One of the common conundrums for founders of privately held small businesses is the question of an exit strategy, because when the time comes, there aren't many options.

“The problem with the old business model is that families would build the business up and then pass it on to their kids,” says Leo Donlevy, senior instructor at the faculty of entrepreneurship and innovation at University of Calgary's Haskayne School of Business. “The options [are increasingly]selling to an employee or to a third party. Chariot is in the fortunate position of having found a buyer.”

That buyer, Thule, has been quick to make a change at the top, replacing Pierre Doyon with Tom Andersen. I met with Mr. Andersen in early July, just days after he had relocated to Calgary. Dressed in shorts and a fleece zip-up, Mr. Andersen is exactly what you'd expect in a guy who has been working in the sporting goods industry since he was 18, most recently as a business manager at Thule Group's North American headquarters in Seymour, Conn.

The 41-year-old Ontario native insists that “it's business as usual” at Chariot. “It wasn't a company that was in dire need of change,” he says. “But obviously, as groups get together, there are efficiencies that need to happen and will happen any time you buy a smaller company that goes into a bigger company.”

Thule will run Chariot Carriers as a separate business unit in a newly created division, Thule Child Transport Systems Ltd. According to Magnus Welander, there will be a push on product development and testing in the Calgary office, and a focus on getting products to the market faster.

Thule, which currently sells products in more than 120 countries, will add Chariot Carriers to its dominant European portfolio, strengthen Chariot's presence in the United States and look at untapped areas, such as South America, Southeast Asia, Australia and New Zealand.

There is talk of moving Chariot's offices in Calgary into smaller quarters. Some employees fear that the sense of fun and personal touch that has always been a large part of Chariot Carriers' culture will disappear inside the maw of Thule, while others say there's a buzz of excitement about big things yet to come.

Although it's early days, Dan Britton says the transition has been surprisingly uneventful and calm. While he expects challenges ahead – “difficult times where it might feel odd” – he says he's looking forward to his new role as director of innovation, and he's no longer losing sleep over the things that keep you up when you own a company.

And for the first time since his days working part-time in his friend's bike shop more than 20 years ago, Britton will be working for someone else. But this time, he says, “it feels good and timely.”

THE THULE EMPIRE

Thule takes over about half of the firms it approaches, says Fred Clark, Thule's president of North American operations. It has acquired 12 companies since 2004, although two of those have since been sold.

König, Sportworks and C & C Distributors Inc.

König, an Italian maker of snow chains, was acquired in March. Thule was able to centralize König's marketing department and launched Thule-branded snow chains for passenger cars. The owners of Sportworks, a Washington-based manufacturer of front- and rear-mounted bike carriers, initiated contact with Thule; Thule acquired Sportworks' small product line and renamed the company Thule TS2. Brought into Thule's North American operations and renamed Thule Trailers Inc., C & C Distributors Inc. - a Maine-based maker of cargo and snowmobile trailers - never fully integrated into Thule and was sold back in 2006.

United Welding Service

The Florida-based maker of lockable aluminum boxes and step bars for pickups became part of Thule's North American operations. Headquarters, brand name and management remained the same.

TracRac

In November, Thule acquired TracRac, a design and manufacturing firm headquartered in Massachusetts, that produces cargo-management systems ducts. Operations remain in the United States under the same name.

Star Trailer and Omnistor

After boat trailers, horse trailers were the next top sellers in Scandinavia's trailer market. Thule was developing its own product but decided to buy market leader Star Trailer. Omnistor, a Belgian producer of awnings and accessories for RVs and campers, was a good fit because camper vacations were growing in popularity in Europe, and demand for accessories was increasing.

Brink International BV , Valley Industries and SportRack Accessories (subsidiaries of Advanced Accessory Systems) and Case Logic

After buying the Netherlands' Brink International BV, Thule changed its name to Thule Towing Systems. Quebec's SportRack Accessories maintained its name and management team. Meanwhile, Michigan-based Valley Industries was sold back to management in 2009. Post-Thule Colorado's Case Logic has maintained its brand and management.

Chariot Carriers Inc.

Chariot Carriers Inc. was Thule's first acquisition since Swedish private-equity company Nordic Capital took over as the dominant shareholder of the Thule Group in December, 2010. Thule promises to keep Chariot based in Calgary.

Special to The Globe and Mail

This article originally appeared in the October issue of Report on Small Business magazine.

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