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Taking Forms

Brothers Ryan and Corey Ratner not long ago came up with an idea for making bicycle and skate helmets that look like sculptured animals.

That led to a company, C-Preme Limited LLC in Hawthorne, and in less than two years it is already selling millions of dollars worth of kids’ helmets to big-box stores.

The key, the brothers said, was when they came up with a proprietary material called “exotuff,” a soft rubber they use to add features such as ears, horns, snouts and fins to safety gear, turning helmets into characters. The company dubbed its line of characters Raskullz.

In September 2010, company representatives went to the Interbike International Trade Expo in Las Vegas. They set up a fairly primitive stand – a card table, a poster and four sample helmets – not far from the decked-out booths of manufacturing giants such as Nike.

C-Preme’s president, Brad Blankinship, said being a small vendor actually worked in the company’s favor.

“Our product was so different that it caught people’s attention,” Blankinship said. “People crowded around our table, and buyers for big accounts came up to see what all the hype was about.”

By last March, the company was shipping helmets to stores owned by Wal-Mart Stores Inc., Target Corp., Toys “R” Us and outdoor equipment retailer REI.

Now, after only about 18 months in business, the company has sold hundreds of thousands of helmets, added a line of bicycles, and is about to launch backpacks and luggage. C-Preme has a dozen employees and revenue in the millions.

Getting started

The Ratner brothers grew up hanging out in toy stores because their dad was an inventor who helped create Nintendo software and other toys. They both worked for a shoe company in their 20s, but moved on to helmets when they noticed that existing safety gear for kids was just plain boring.

“Helmets aren’t really perceived as anything fun and exciting for kids,” Ryan said. “I never understood why helmets were in toy stores. I thought, ‘These aren’t fun. These aren’t toys.’ ”

They decided to do something about it. They came up with the idea for C-Preme in summer 2010 with their friend Conan Hayes, a professional surfer who had co-founded an apparel company. The trio then brought in Blankinship and Ben Soto, the company’s art director. Soto had previously worked with Blankinship at Costa Mesa lifestyle company Paul Frank Industries.

Those five worked together over the summer to get samples ready for the trade show that fall. After that event, they followed up with buyers from the chains.

“None of us had dealt with the big guys like that before, so it was kind of intimidating,” Blankinship said. “All we had to go on was what they’re already selling in stores, but we had something different and our price was a little bit higher. It was an issue we had to talk through.”

Crazy orders

C-Preme landed accounts with each one of the big-box retailers it met with, and by March had shipped out its first order to Target.

Pat Hus, managing director for Interbike in San Juan Capistrano, said other unknown companies have made it big after the trade show – then face challenges manufacturing.

“It’s crazy what these kinds of companies order,” Hus said. “You better have capitalization in place; you better have the finances to go to the factories and get these things made.”

C-Preme is entirely self-financed, Blankinship said. The company’s co-founders footed the bill with personal savings. The Ratner brothers had some money saved up from working with shoes in past years, and Hayes had won some money surfing and also used some of the money he made selling his sportswear company. But they’ve had to make sacrifices in their daily lives, too.

“I’ve eaten peanut butter and jelly sandwiches for the last year and a half,” Ryan Ratner said.

When it started, C-Preme was in a space in Van Nuys. But it wasn’t long before the expanding company had to sublet buildings, buy forklifts and hire more employees. In the fall, the company moved to a larger space in Hawthorne. The company manufactures overseas.

C-Preme is already mapping out orders for Christmas and spring 2013.

“With retailers that big, it’s not like we can just hold inventory here and pull from that,” Ratner said.

C-Preme returned to the Interbike trade show in September to show its new Krash helmets for older kids. Chain and specialty stores, including L.A.’s Kitson, have already placed orders.

The company began shipping bicycles that match the Raskullz characters to stores in November, and this spring it expects to launch a line of matching backpacks and luggage.

Competition may become a challenge soon.

Chris Byrne, content director for TimeToPlayMag.com, a website that covers the toy industry, said the helmets are clever enough that they probably won’t be the only ones on the market for long.

“I expect we’ll probably see competition pretty soon,” he said, “with more dimensional helmets coming down the pipeline from other manufacturers.”

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