The Demise of Graf Canada
When I heard that iconic skate company Graf Canada was going bankrupt and proceeding to sell their assets, I can honestly say that I wasn’t too surprised. Back in the heyday, they were most definitely a dominant skate company in both Canada and the US. It didn’t matter what type of Bauer Supremes or CCM Tacks you had, if you had a pair of Graf skates your reputation was instantly bolstered.
Michael J. Hill, the former President and CEO of Graf, had a good concept in establishing distribution and supply channels for the company’s products. I remember going to Calgary for a seminar meeting with Graf’s technical product developers educating us as to why their skates outpace those of their competitors.
I’ve met with many other retailers across North America that carried the brand; it was a united front to say the least and almost felt like a spiritual experience. As warriors, not only did we learn about the skate and the manufacturing behind it, we also learned to go back to our stores and sell nothing but Graf. They managed to win the allegiance of a multitude of retailers in terms of delivering profit margins, product reliability, and product satisfaction.
Graf also stressed the importance of the servicing business, using techniques such as repeat business, skate repairs, and skate modifications to suit the individual needs of the player. They were the first company to come out with moldable foot-beds, which became a large source of revenue for our store by establishing conformability and satisfaction among our customers.
The beauty of selling a Graf skate was the amount of time retailers spent interacting with their customers. The connection between the buyer and seller fostered a relationship that valued the right fit, even if it took time to achieve. Selling hockey equipment of other brands took far less time and failed to forge the same loyal ties that Graf provided. When selling major equipment brands, retailers relied solely on the brand’s identification through advertising, social media, and different channeling aspects.
Graf built an army of retail sales agents who were knowledgeable, young, enthusiastic, and capable of articulating the brand by word of mouth: perhaps the best sales reps in the country. These reps were motivated to come to retailers and make sure their skates received premium display and shelf space. The reps were interactive with the owners, the sales staff, and even the high school co-op kids in the storage room.
One year I approached the management team of the Toronto Airport Marriott Hotel and asked if I could sell Graf skates to the hockey teams that would stay at the hotel for tournaments. The Marriott Hotel agreed to do it at no charge and we soon delivered advertisement flyers to the hotel and its competitors in the area. When I notified my Graf sales rep of this move he excitedly asked, “How many skates do you need?”
I told him, “200 pairs.” That day we sold over 150 pairs of Graf skates to primarily American hockey players eager to see what the fuss was all about. We were very successful because the company was willing to brand their name with the hotel. The hotel was happy because the bar was full of cheery visitors. On top of that, by interacting with hotel management and myself, the visitors got more familiar with the Marriott Hotel brand. It was an all-around winning situation for the Marriott Hotel, Graf Canada, and myself.
However, things changed after Michael J. Hill, a new President and CEO, took over the reins of Graf Canada. He was so fascinated with the composite hockey stick market that he began to fall behind in the innovation behind the core products that gave Graf their impenetrable reputation. Other companies were beginning to catch up and quietly steal Graf's market share.
When Toronto sales rep Don Caley passed away, it took over a year for the company to find a replacement in the largest and strategically most important hockey hub in the world. Don Caley and I had orchestrated new hockey market niches that catered to the development and advancement of hockey schools. We had the biggest hockey schools and instructors subscribed to Graf using their products free of charge. The hockey school and instructor programs had become our largest sales force and revenue generator.
But this was all gone when sales rep Don Caley passed away. Even when I pleaded to the new President that this type of program should continue, he wouldn’t listen and only babbled on about hockey sticks. Two weeks before he got fired, he came over to my store and begged for me to place a $100,000 order for Graf skates. I looked at him and said, “With what?” He knew what my answer implied.
The new President was replaced by Gayle Estabrooks. When she visited my store we had a good discussion about where Graf needed to be. I agreed with her assessment that Graf had too many repetitive products in their item mix. We agreed to revive the sales force with respect to hockey schools, but unfortunately this move came too late.
What happened with Graf is that support from retailers simply vanished; the retailers chose to give Graf's competitors their business. The real advantage for Graf’s business had been the strong relationships they possessed with their customers and their army of sales reps.
In Calgary, at the Graf Canada seminar, they showed us footage from a football clip. Even when the team was losing there was the ability and determination to come back and emerge victorious, providing that the army held the line and moved forward. That’s what successful companies do, they move forward and never look back.
Vaughn Hockey has bought the majority of Graf Canada’s assets. Now only time will tell what will happen with the once-iconic brand name.