By Neil Pascale
Bell Powersports’ transformation in its powersports segment was further defined in recent months as the manufacturer ceased selling its motorcycle helmets through big-box retail operations.
The decision to concentrate solely on powersports dealerships was the latest in a series of moves the company’s powersports segment has undergone since 2003 when Bell recquired the license to sell its powersports accessories. Previously, the company had sold the licensing agreements to its powersports and auto racing divisions and concentrated on its budding bicycle segment.
Fast forward to 2009, some five years after all three segments were reunited, and the results of integrating those operations are apparent. The company is now producing its high-end helmet lineup with technology that is derived from its different platforms.
“For the past several years we’ve been really working on coming to market with the latest and the greatest product that is designed and developed here in Santa Cruz, Calif.,” said Randy George, Bell Powersports’ director of sales. “This past season we’ve turned the corner with dealer acceptance and customer acceptance with some key products.”
George, who came to Bell in 2008 from Fox Racing, notes the brand is now in more than 1,000 powersports dealerships nationwide after a tremendous growth year in its dealer network.
“Dealers view us as the original guy when it comes to the helmet business and selling safety and a quality product,” George said, noting much of his first months on the job were spent traveling to different dealerships. “You feel really good because I don’t have to go in and explain who Bell is. It’s probably still the most recognized brand in the business, although we’ve been kind of on the sidelines for awhile.”
Obviously that’s changing as one of George’s early priorities was ensuring adequate inventory for the year ahead as Bell Powersports struggled at times in 2008 to meet demand.
“Our response this year with dealers and consumers was much more than we had anticipated,” George said, noting the company has worked to improve inventory flow by creating multiple sources for some of its more popular product.
Bell Powersports thus far has concentrated mostly on two segments in the powersports industry — the street sport bike market and the off-road market.
The latter only figures to grow in prominence in the coming years as Bell signed one of the industry’s biggest marketing names, national motocross champion James Stewart, in late 2008 to a three-year agreement. Stewart will compete in Bell’s Moto-8 helmet along with a list of other notable racers.
All Bell Powersports’ product is designed and developed in its U.S. facilities but produced in Asia. “We’ve really built a quality control network with the factories that we use,” said Don Palermini, senior brand manager for Bell Powersports. “It’s not just a sketch on a napkin and here build this for us. It’s getting back to Bell’s heritage of being an innovator on the product side.”
Bell Powersports has nine employees dedicated to helmet R&D at its Santa Cruz, Calif., facility plus additional staff in the factories it uses. The company has spent $1.5 million in equipment for prototyping, R&D and testing, Palermini says.
“With the various product lines we have, there’s naturally some cross-pollination and shared resources, so there’s actually quite a few more people who are part of the process,” he said.
That cross-pollination has resulted in shared technology between Bell’s different divisions. Palermini notes the company’s popular off-road helmet, the Moto-8, uses a ventilation system that first was developed in bicycle helmets. Plus, Bell’s on-road helmet, the Star, uses a design adapted from auto racing.
“We have everything back together from a brand perspective but then we’re also starting to leverage all of these assets that we have in intellectual property,” Palermini said.
The sharing of technology also extends to Bell Powersports’ other powersports product, the Easton EXP handlebar line. That product is designed and developed in Bell’s Van Nuys, Calif., office.
Will the company continue to try to develop a broader portfolio beyond handlebars and helmets? Palermini says that’s not the company’s top priority. “To try to get in to things where we’re not the experts, we want to keep away from that,” he said. “The priority would be let’s create great products where there is a market.
“We feel really good about where we are with our helmets and what we have in our pipeline.”