The American in Search of Swiss Gold

A conversation with ASSOS CEO Philip Duff. ASSOS has committed to providing uniforms for the USA Olympic team through 2020. We were interested in finding out how this all came about so we put in a call to Lugano, Switzerland to speak with Philip Duff directly – here’s what we found out.

A Conversation With ASSOS CEO Philip Duff and Chris Reynolds

Screen Shot 2016-08-06 at 1.59.11 PMASSOS is a cycling company founded 40 years ago in Switzerland by Tony Maier-Moussa. The company is responsible for many of the advantages we find in our modern era of cycling provisions. Using carbon fiber as a frame material, designing wheel rims with a V profile for aerodynamic considerations, the first anatomical skin-suit – all of those were developed and brought to market by ASSOS, now ubiquitous designs seen throughout the cycling landscape. Above all of this, a comfort revolution in cycling apparel was started by ASSOS through the introduction of Lycra in cycling shorts.

The spandex fiber, known for its elastic and evaporative qualities, had been created by DuPont decades earlier, but Maier-Moussa was the first to utilize the fabric in athletic apparel. The ubiquity of this material, in not just cycling, but sporting garments in other disciplines, speaks to the true benefit of this design innovation. Cotton, wool, and acrylic had been the standard materials for cycling kits at the time, but the supreme benefits of Lycra changed the landscape of athletic apparel virtually overnight.

Facing a global landscape with pressures to ship manufacturing to Asia and lucrative options to license the brand to mass-market producers, the ASSOS founding family was very receptive to the vision that Philip Duff had for growing the company to compete at the global level, while still being able to provide a level of quality fundamental to the trust that customers have placed in the brand.

After trips back and forth between Switzerland and his home in NYC, Duff decided to put up his own money to purchase the company but has done so in partnership with the founding family, retaining the employees who hold the learned advantages that ASSOS has accrued over their 40 years in business. Since news of this change of ownership in the fall of 2015, Duff has been adamant that the level of quality and consistency of the brand will stay intact. So far the most notable change has been the removal of objectifying images of woman that had historically been used to market the brand, a criticism the company ignored until Duff took over. To round it out, ASSOS has committed to providing uniforms for the USA Olympic team through 2020. We were interested in finding out how this all came about so we put in a call to Lugano, Switzerland to speak with Philip Duff directly – here’s what we found out.

ASSOS was one of the title sponsor's of the 2016 Malibu Gran Fondo
ASSOS was one of the title sponsor’s of the 2016 Malibu Gran Fondo

Origin Story

Philip Duff grew up in Minnesota in a household that revolved around ski racing. His involvement in cycling was only as dry-land training for skiing, but that led him to eventually be involved in the competitive side of cycling, a trajectory that would lead him to race against Greg LeMond in the late seventies. Around this same time, Tony Maier-Moussa had developed Lycra cycling shorts for racing that were gaining attention in the European peloton.

In the late seventies, Maier-Moussa had befriended Jonathan Boyer, the first American to ride in the Tour de France, and had set him up as an importer of sorts for ASSOS in the US. During Super Week, a two-week gathering of bike races in the US held in eastern Wisconsin around Milwaukee, Duff and Boyer would meet. Boyer was literally selling ASSOS cycling kit out of the trunk of his car and invariability, as a result, it was at this Super Week, where Duff was one of the earliest ASSOS customers in the US.

In the intervening decades, Duff continuously rode in ASSOS apparel. Over the years, he’d bought and owned virtually every cycling apparel product, but always came back to his thought that, “I know the ASSOS product costs more, but it just works better and lasts a lot longer.”

Even when living in places like New England, Duff had ridden through the winter months. “Until the last 7 or 8 years, virtually all winter cycling apparel may have worked in 30-40F range, but when riding outdoors in the 10-20’s, it was hard to stay out more than an hour or so – it always felt like survival riding.” The ASSOS winter gear is what, longer term, convinced Duff on the product and the company. It was the first time he could ride in 20 degree temperatures, stay out for 3 hours and not feel like an icicle.

Most of Duff’s professional career has been in financial services, but parallel to his years in the securities and investment management world, he’s had a series of investments in outdoor and athletic businesses. The one that most closely parallels ASSOS is Black Diamond Equipment, a climbing and backcountry ski manufacturer. He was instrumental in helping Yvon Chouinard bring his small climbing company out of insolvency, and was involved in the growth of Black Diamond until his departure two years ago when he left to pursue a partnership with ASSOS. This partnership began with meeting Tony’s children, Roche Maier-Moussa and Desireé Bergman-Maier, the individuals charged with continuing the family business.

Location, Location, Location

Panorama of the Gulf of Lugano from Mount Bre above the City
Panorama of the Gulf of Lugano from Mount Bre above the City

The micro-economy found in the lower Ticino region of Switzerland is located directly on the border with Italy and is a historically Italian-speaking part of Switzerland. Centered around Lugano, a city with around 145,000 residents, the region is similar to Silcon Valley in California in terms of being a confluence of overlapping industries that are pushing innovation in their respective product category. Rather than consumer and enterprise technology, this city is centered on companies that are focused on pushing the boundaries of possibility with regard to the design of athletic apparel, technical garments, and luxury goods.

With a relatively small population and unemployment under 3%, the Swiss have agreed with the Italian government to allow Italians living within 20 kilometers of the Swiss border to work in Switzerland and only pay Swiss income tax. And depending upon income level, for most people, that’s a difference between paying a 10% versus 30% income tax. On top of that, the salaries in Switzerland are 30-40% higher than across the border in Italy. Every day approximately 67,000 Italians come across the border to work in the lower Ticino region. Tony Maier-Moussa moved the company to Lugano in 1985, partly because all the technical textile manufacturers in Europe are primarily on the northern side of Milan – essentially a 15-30 minutes bike ride from the ASSOS offices.

Chris R: How did your involvement with ASSOS come about?

Philip Duff: Roche Maier-Moussa, the son of Tony Maier-Moussa, and I started talking about a business partnership, and that kind of morphed into a friendship, he said ‘Jeez Duff, why don’t you come over here and run the business?’ And I must admit, that hadn’t occurred to me at the time. I have three daughters and they have all been out of the house and off to college, and two are now in the working world. It was a little easier for my wife and I to actually think about that. 4 or 5 years ago, it would have been a non-starter.

CR: What specific to ASSOS inspired you to make such a radical change to both your professional and personal life?

PD: When I first was introduced and came to visit Roche and Tony Maier-Moussa, I was particularly keen to figure out how did this company get itself in a position, actually stay there for decades, where its products are head and shoulders above their competitors. It’s pretty rare in any industry. If you take the 18 World Tour professional teams, 13 of those teams are doing their own apparel. But here’s what you may not know – over 70% of the riders have ASSOS chamois inserts in their shorts. The racers have taken their suppliers shorts, have come to Lugano, Switzerland on their own ticket, and pay hard currency to have an ASSOS chamois insert replace whatever insert had been supplied by the sponsoring apparel company.

When I got inside, I wanted to figure out, what was the secret sauce, what is this company doing that other cycling apparel or other athletic apparel companies are doing differently that got them in this position. And you know, the quick conclusion, there is no secret, just this maniacal attention to detail applied to the design, research and development, production, and logistics. Those are all the strengths of ASSOS, the product, and the brand.

When Tony Maier-Moussa first founded ASSOS in the mid 70’s and then through the 80’s, my very favorite photo from the ASSOS archives is the podium of the ’82 World Championships, where Giuseppe Saronni tipped a young Greg LeMond at the finish line. To the podium was Saronni, LeMond and Sean Kelly – interestingly enough – all 3 were riding on ASSOS, only 1 of which was actually sponsored by ASSOS.

CR: You’ve outlined the strengths of ASSOS as a company and brand, and that leads to the contrasting question of weakness. As you came in as an outsider, what were some of the weaknesses of the company that you had to contend with?

PD: This company fit my stereotype of Germanic family-owned businesses, I will submit that those sort of companies are often founded by people who are really good product makers, and many of these businesses evolve to develop world class products in their field. The weakness of those companies typically, and I think this is a cultural thing, is that they avoid customer interaction. Dealing with customers is getting your hands dirty. For ASSOS (even in its home market of Switzerland which is only 7 million people) they utilized an independent third-party distributor. So once they designed and manufactured the product, from that point forward, it was out of sight, out of mind. There is a real strength there, but there is also an inherent weakness.

CR: For the average cyclist who is buying a new kit (bib shorts and jersey), the price of an ASSOS kit can be a shock. After spending money on a bike, shoes and helmet, many have a difficult time justifying the cost of premium cycling apparel. How would you argue that?

PD: Amongst the people at ASSOS, they would argue the bike is simply the contact point for your clothes. While said tongue in cheek, there is an argument to be made that in terms of your enjoyment of being out on a bike ride, whether you’re still competing at a high level or doing it for health reasons or for just pure enjoyment of being in the outdoors, the quality and functionality of your apparel actually has a bigger impact than the bikes does.

Long before I got involved in this company or had any ownership in it, I’d read many product reviews of different ASSOS pieces over the years. They’re always the same, glowing with respect to technical attributes and performance of the product, but invariably there is a comment with something to the effect of, ‘it’s just absurdly expensive.’ I’ve never worried that much about price, I’d rather buy less but get the thing that worked the best – whether in climbing gear, skiing gear, kayaking gear, all the different sports I’ve enjoyed over the years.

Our crew here has a couple of phrases in addressing price, the one I like the best is ‘expensive is what you don’t use.’ I always came back to the ASSOS products, and that motto really resonated with me.

In New England we have a saying called the ‘New Jersey skier.’ It is a reference to a person that drives up to Vermont or New Hampshire, goes through a ski shop, and on an absolute whim, plops down $600 on a new jacket or parka. But then when you see them on the hill, they’re wearing 20+-year-old ski equipment. Cycling is kind of the opposite. You see that around here, particularly in the Italian market. If there is a young person that is developing as a racer, they’ll spend every last euro they’ve saved up on their bike. The next thing is a pair of ASSOS shorts, but at that point, having bought the bike as well, they’re blown out of the water on their budget. So they ride in the cheapest jersey manageable with ASSOS shorts – you see countless riders like that around here.

2011 - Fabian Cancellara in ASSOS (Flickr: Kristian Thøgersen)
2011 – Fabian Cancellara in ASSOS (Flickr: Kristian Thøgersen)

CR: Going forward, will ASSOS be branching out to new markets and opportunities?

PD: We are definitely staying exclusively within what we know – cycling apparel – no hard goods or stretching the brand horizontally and getting into other sports apparel that maybe have overlapping uses. That may happen at some point, but not for the foreseeable future. We are not going to mass market, that’s just not our brand or the legacy that we’ve been built upon.

CR: So within the cycling apparel space, is there a “perfect” that you’re in search of? What does that look like?

PD: Various textiles and fabrics have a varying range of effectiveness. Our definition of product perfection is if we could get to the point of producing a single-walled garment that is comfortable from -4F to +104F. Obviously, I’m not sure we’ll ever achieve perfection as articulated that way. We’re now down to 4 seasons, and we’re concentrating around 2 different fits – a real classic race fit, but then also more of a regular performance fit for the avid cyclist who still needs to go to work at a real job, is riding under 15,000 km per year and is not going to have the pencil race fit. So two fits, but then also two price points. We’re very much trying to work on developing a line that you would never call inexpensive or mass market, but will certainly be more compelling and will create an entry point to the ASSOS world. Our new Mille shorts will be in the $150-160 range, not inexpensive by any means, but not the stratosphere where our Campionissimo bibs are priced.

CR: How do you plan on growing the brand without diluting the quality and standards that the company is most known for?

PD: At ASSOS, we just had a woman retire as a sewer after 27 years. When that generation retires, there are no 20 year-olds waiting to replace them. All of our production is here within Europe and as you can imagine, just like in the US, in Western Europe, there is nobody coming out of school looking to be a seamstress, so we’ve needed to be more creative. For example, all of our shorts are made in a factory by a partner of ours where we are his only customer. Our two companies, though separate legal entities, are very much intertwined with one another. Not from a legal standpoint, but from a people and quality control, workflow and logistics basis.

CR: How are you able to maintain control on quality if the product isn’t being made in-house?

PD: In our production, we deliver our partner all the raw materials. They aren’t going out to buy textiles or zippers or other accessories. We source all of the materials and then we do the cutting of the textiles here in Lugano. What we deliver to our production partners is a kit, a 100 pieces of each of the component parts that make up a jersey for instance, and then their role is to essentially sew the pieces together and assemble the garment.

CR: Is this partner in Europe?

PD: Yes, our partner is based in Bulgaria and pays a 30% premium to any other jobs in that local market. He has set up a sewing university of sorts with all ASSOS products requiring a year of training before being assembled by new employees. One thing you won’t see from ASSOS is any compromising quality standards, either with respect to the functionality of design or the quality of the actual production or construction.

CR: Your professional experience at Black Diamond Equipment was unrelated to cycling, though the two businesses share many similarities. What do you bring from that space that has helped in your leadership of ASSOS?

PD: Obviously, product and brand are very necessary components, but even more important to the success of any business is its people, and people comes down to the right sort of leadership. How do you get a team to produce way more than the sum of the individuals. For me, that’s always been the real trick in business. And then around the people, product and brand, structuring the company to minimize the distractions and hassles that often come in a business.

Stephen Ettinger warming up for the MTB World Championships Team Relay. (Instagram @assosofswitzerland)
Stephen Ettinger warming up for the MTB World Championships Team Relay in the Team USA ASSOS jersey. (Instagram @assosofswitzerland)

You were introduced to Derek Bouchard-Hall, head of USA Cycling, and ASSOS will now be providing kit for the Olympic team through 2020. How did that come about?

PD: It was interesting meeting Derek. He was clearly not your typical national federation guy. He was hired as CEO this past summer after 12-13 years of Steve Johnson being in that role. I would say during that time – not to speak in any way derogatory of Johnson’s tenure – it was an era (for better or worse) of the peak of the doping culture; and frankly, the federation, in terms of servicing the needs of competitive cyclists, really had fallen off. There was very little development going on across the different segments of the sport, particularly outside of road. I very much liked what Bouchard-Hall is trying to do, in terms of changing the culture of USA Cycling, how he’s really trying to build a much broader based development program, and doing that with a fully clean, non-doping ethical standard. All of those things were consistent with ASSOS as a brand, but also my own personal philosophy. So we clicked and I think for him, partnering with ASSOS was a way to put his mark on the federation and a testament to the competitive focus of USA Cycling.

The US market is very important to us, and it is the market with the biggest gap of where ASSOS is today and what it’s future potential could be. Clearly, it’s a commercial part of our interest in USA Cycling, but for me, it’s a way to help promote the growth of competitive cycling in the country, mass participation in the activity of cycling and supporting the development of cycling in the US.

CR: How are things going with the new leadership at USA Cycling in terms of the development of new teams and racers?

PD: They’re making good progress with that. Jim Miller, Athletic Director for USA Cycling is overseeing the athletic part of the federation, and really is a first-rate guy with a lot of experience and a lot of talent. Particularly on the women’s side, the number of quality riders coming up through the junior and the U23 ranks is pretty impressive.

CR: And of ASSOS sponsorship outside the US?

PD: ASSOS has had a really long-lived (more than 30 years now) relationship with Swiss cycling. It is pretty amazing that this little country here, with only a little more than 7 million people, whether it’s on the road or on the track, or out on the trails mountain biking, have an unbelievable number of world class riders; take Fabian Cancellara, and the young man Stefan Küng, who won the world championships in the pursuit. I think he’s now got 2 or 3 of the fastest pursuit times on the track riding for BMC. On the mountain bike side, it’s insane. Not just the fact that you have Nino Schurter and Jolanda Neff, the two best male and female mountain bikers, but you go through the under 23 and junior ranks at the World Championships, 2 of the 3 riders on the podium are Swiss. That relationship with Swiss cycling has been consistent for ASSOS.

When Tony Maier-Moussa first founded ASSOS in the mid 70’s and then through the 80’s, my very favorite photo from the ASSOS archives is the podium of the ’82 World Championships, where Giuseppe Saronni tipped a young Greg LeMond at the finish line. To the podium was Saronni, LeMond and Sean Kelly, and interestingly enough, all 3 were riding on ASSOS, only 1 of which was actually sponsored by ASSOS.

That era right through the 80’s, actually all the top professional cycling teams were not only using ASSOS, but they were buying the goods for cash from ASSOS. In the 90’s, that dynamic changed and all the bike, apparel, components not only supplied goods but also supplied cash. Outside of supporting the Swiss federation, ASSOS kind of dropped out of it. at that point. Now coming back in a broader way than just Swiss cycling, having a relationship in the competitive side of the sport, that’s important to us.

CR: The new ASSOS slogan is “Sponsor Yourself” – Where did that come from and how does it fit in with the company?

PD: This past fall we spent time thinking about our vision and purpose as an enterprise, and collectively we decided that our vision statement is to create and propagate the ‘Sponsor Yourself’ revolution. This company has had, and I’ll give Roche credit for this, a number of really good tag lines, from ‘Have a Good Ride’, ‘Made in Cycling’, ‘Suffer in Comfort’, but there is one phrase that has moved from being a marketing tag line to actually being a way of life, a set of values and that’s ‘Sponsor Yourself’. My shorthand way of characterizing that is, it really means two things, do good in the world and be happy. See how you can positively impact the world and do something good for yourself, and that’s the sponsor yourself aspect of it. Over the long haul, our aspiration is to bring that philosophy to the rest of the world through the sport of the cycling.

CR: In practice, how does that square with sponsoring competitive athletes?

PD: Part of bringing this “Sponsor Yourself” philosophy to people is to bring the absolute most cutting-edge technology which invariably is developed in the most cutting edge part of the world, the competitive racing world, and bringing that to people who enjoy cycling for other reasons, than pure outright competition.

CR: For you personally, are you still involved in outright competition? Or do you fall in the “other reasons” category?

PD: In my case, I bike raced for a good number of years, but I haven’t ridden in a race for more than 30 years. And sure, I love the health benefits of riding and I love the camaraderie of riding with my friends, but frankly what keeps me riding is about putting myself in aesthetically pleasing environments. You can ride in South Central LA or the South Bronx of NYC and get the health benefits and camaraderie of riding with your friends, but it wouldn’t be as much fun as riding the Malibu Hills or the hills above San Diego. When you’re out on that ride, you go ‘Man, life’s good’. For us, we’re about helping facilitate the maximum enjoyment of the sport of cycling.

Philip Duff became the new CEO of ASSOS in September 2015. Him and his wife live in Lugano, Switzerland.

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