Monday, August 4, 2014

Technically Cool: Interview with Rudy Project

Like most triathletes, our team isn't exactly new to the Rudy Project brand. That said, we learned a ton from this interview with Rudy Project North America CEO Paul Craig. In summary, very impressive... thanks for the time, Paul!

What is the history of the Rudy Project brand?

Rudy Project was founded in Italy by Rudy Barbazza in 1985, in part thanks to a bet. A friend basically said “I’ll pick a product, and I bet you can’t sell it.” Let’s just say Rudy won. As a bonus for the brand, that first year Bernard Hinault won his 5th Tour de France wearing Rudy Project.

I co-founded Rudy Project North America in 1998 after several years at Ray Ban and Bolle (where Paul was the VP of Marketing). At different junctures in my career I came across Rudy Project, beginning in 1993, and realized here was a family business, Italian made, with really cool designs, that basically had Oakley’s number in terms of unique materials and design. We tried to acquire them when I was at Bolle, and when negotiations broke down I said to myself, "this company is so good, let me approach Rudy with some US based business partners about becoming his partner in crime." The rest is history, and since 1998 I’ve worked with Rudy Project as a “super distributor” based in Denver, CO (and with a CA office in San Clemente) supporting the US, Canada, and the Caribbean.

Since the early days Rudy has been something new & different, offering features such as adjustability in the temple and nose, the ability to eliminate gaps (eg. preventing debris in the eye), and other innovations. The brand has just exploded, and we’ve worked hard to establish Rudy Project in the US as a serious competitor to Oakley and the dominant Italian brand for cycling, XC Ski & triathlon, among other sports.

In 2000 we released our first helmet for the US market, the “T-Rex,” and we’ve really come a long way since then. We’ve created a helmet line that most now recognize as holding its own or superior to the usual big companies on the market. Rudy Project was the #1 helmet brand worn at the Ironman World Championships, the holy grail of triathlon, for the past three years, and we’re also the official helmet brand of Ironman for North America. The fact that more Kona athletes have chosen Rudy over any other company is really flattering, and is a complete validation of the aerodynamics, comfort, and ventilation that the Wingspan, Wing57 and other helmets in our line provide.

How would you describe your role within the company?

From a legal perspective, I’m the Co-Founder & -CEO of RACE (Running and Cycling Enterprises), which owns Rudy Project North America. My role is to set the strategy & culture of the brand in North America. We also work very closely with Rudy Project SpA, the parent company based in Italy. We will hopefully approach half of all Rudy Project sales (coming from the US and Canada), and we take our responsibility as a partner very seriously.

One of the things I promised myself was that I would always be accessible and have a flat organization, without a lot of bureaucracy. We have a total of 25 employees between our Denver and San Clemente offices. It’s pretty impressive what we can accomplish between PR, advertising, athlete sponsorship, operations, service, logistics, etc. We have very committed employees who work very hard, and are the lifeblood of what makes the brand what it is. We bend over backwards to address every concern… if you have an issue, we’re going to solve it.

What differentiates Rudy Project from the competition?

Several things differentiate us from the litany of eyewear companies out there. Specifically with Rudy Project, we use unique materials that are light-weight, highly adjustable and customizable. For example, as a triathlete, you come into T1 and put your glasses on, but once in a good, aero position, you often can see the top of the frame (editor’s note: I can relate). With Rudy Project, you can squeeze the nose on the fly, which raises the frame so you see nothing but lens. Then, coming into T2 you can open them up with your thumbs to adjust back for running.

Rudy Project is a family company operating in a land of large, corporate-backed brands such as Oakley, Smiths, Maui Jim, etc, who operate as big companies. We operate to be very quick, flat, create the best products, and treat people the best way. This creates great brand loyalty. Rudy himself is in his 70’s and is a man of the people, very approachable, and the figurehead of the company. He can still be found working with the guys in the warehouse. In addition, quality is core to us. We will always manufacture our eyewear products in Italy. We have 2nd generation families working in our factories who are so good at what they do. The quality is amazing, and a key differentiator. On top of that, our warranty and service sets us apart as well. Rudy Project sunglasses have a 3-year frame warranty and a lifetime lens warranty, no questions asked.

What are your top sellers?

On the helmet side, clearly our top aero, triathlon/time trial seller is the Wingspan. The Wingspan was co-developed with John Cobb, and a ton of wind tunnel, aerodynamics, and ergonomic thought (eg. how do people naturally ride when they get tired?) went into it. To be honest it is one of the most comfortable, light-weight, ventilated helmets on the market. Even wearing the black model on the Queen K in Kona, you won’t overheat. The Wing57 is next generation. If you want to save time on mid to long distance races, the best bang for your buck is the helmet. On the road helmet side, the Sterling is our top seller – it offers a lot of ventilation and is super comfortable. It is also offered in fluorescent colors so you can be seen to ride another day.

the new Wing57

For sunglasses, top sellers are the Rydon, Noyz, and ProFlow models. We don’t typically promote the Rudy casual line as much, although we do currently have a deal of buy a helmet or sport shades, get a casual pair for free.

Lastly, a new transition bag will be available in a couple weeks. Honestly it’s the best transition bag I’ve ever laid my eyes on… it has everything you can imagine and more, and is built like a tank. It will put up with tons of transition abuse and last forever.

What awards has Rudy Project won?

We’ve been recognized by many big publications who have street cred and the responsibility to not give some bs product an award! It’s been really nice for our design team to receive several accolades.

Rudy Project is the only company to receive Outside magazine’s “Gear of the Year” award on two occasions: once for our Maskeryna frames, the perfect blend of performance and casual sunglasses, and once for a lens called ImpactX, which contains cutting edge polarized technology.

In addition, Men’s Journal has recognized our helmet with its “Timeless Design” award, and Bicycling and Triathlete Magazines have both honored us with awards. We’ve also been featured in Wired magazine, among other publications.

Andy Potts and Matty Reed
What athletes do you sponsor?

Rudy Project sponsors over 100,000 athletes worldwide and over 80 pro triathletes, such as Andy Potts, Pete Jacobs, Sarah Haskins, and Matty Reed to name a few. On the cycling side, we sponsor several professional teams and riders, including Team Cannondale and Peter Sagan in the Tour de France (Sagan just clinched his third consecutive Green Sprinters Jersey). Athletes are at the core of what we do, and we rely on their testing and feedback.

What are you most proud of with the company?

I’m proud of many things we’ve accomplished over the years: the fact that more gold medals were won at the Winter Olympics in Torino by Rudy Project athletes than any competitor. That, as mentioned previously, for three years in a row Rudy helmets have dominated the Kona Count. In addition, last year we were the 2nd most prolific eyewear company at Kona, after Oakley. I’m proud of our commitment to how we treat people, and being accessible to deal with things personally. It makes for long days, but I enjoy working with our people and interacting with our customers. I’m proud of how we’ve been on the cutting edge of technology in our manufacturing processes. I’m proud of our individual athlete and team successes, including Hinault, Miguel Indurain, Jan Ullrich, Erik Zabel, the US Postal Team and Peter Sagan at the Tour de France. Overall it’s been wonderful to watch the Rudy Project brand come into its own.

Check out the full arsenal of Rudy Project sunglasses, helmets, and other products at

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