But while the prestigious event is partly about supporting sailors and seeing how its latest product innovations perform outside of the lab, it’s also an opportunity to get its name in front of millions of viewers.
“We see the athletes as rock stars. And the hope is that people will look at them and say, ‘Wow, I want to be like him or her,’” Piet Poelmann, Zhik’s CEO, told Inside Retail.
From Sydney garage to Olympic supplier
Former tech founder turned sailing enthusiast Brian Conolly founded Zhik in a Sydney garage in 2003 after being disappointed by the poor fit and function of the gear on the market. He came up with solutions for slippery harnesses by adding Velcro and developed a four times more waterproof and durable fabric than Gore-tex.
Over the years, the brand’s reputation for product innovation and exacting standards have helped it make inroads with professional athletes. Zhik has sponsored top-level international sailors and teams in the America’s Cup, Sydney Hobart Yacht Race, Volvo Ocean Race and more.
The brand’s dedication to the sport is what caught the eye of the Australian Olympic Committee, according to Poelmann.
“It’s not the kind of a process where you do a pitch and say, ‘We’re Brand A, and we’re so much better than Brand B.’ We’re not selling cornflakes; it doesn’t work like that,” Poelmann said. “Being named an official supplier comes from having a very long-standing relationship with Australian Sailing based on mutual respect.”
A cut-proof wetsuit
The kits Zhik is supplying to the four Olympic sailing teams have been designed in conjunction with the athletes for the specific conditions in Tokyo. This is standard practice for the brand, which constantly improves its products based on how they perform on the water.
“We can test stuff in laboratories and in our own offices, but at the end of the day, the biggest lab is out there on the water,” Poelmann said. “That’s why we’re so happy with the alignment with top athletes, and in this case, Olympians, to help test our product.”
One product currently in development is a cut-proof wetsuit that will help protect sailors who fall overboard during a race where boats are using hydrofoils to pick up speed.
“Those foils are often made out of carbon; they are as sharp as a Samurai sword. If they hit somebody, it will cost them an arm or a leg or even worse,” he said.
While standard wetsuits are flexible and meant to keep sailors warm and comfortable, Zhik’s new cut-proof wetsuits are also designed to be impenetrable. The suits are currently in the prototype phase but could be available to professional sailors next year.
“We’ll work on [a product] so long that we nail it, and if we can’t, we don’t release it,” Poelmann said. “At the end of the day, every company needs to make money, but we always assume if we focus on having the best products, the rest will come. And so far, so good.”
For all the time and resources Zhik spends on creating products for professional athletes, one of the biggest opportunities is the rise of amateur and recreational sailing.
According to Grand View Research, the global leisure boat market was valued at US$41.08 billion (approximately AU$55 billion) in 2020 and is expected to expand at a compound annual growth rate (CAGR) of 4.5 per cent from 2021 to 2028.
Pre-Covid, rising discretionary income and coastal tourism were expected to be the main growth drivers. But during the pandemic, people started buying boats in record numbers, perhaps instead of international travel.
Australia’s Boating Industry Association said the number of registered boats was more than 915,000 in 2020 and growing by more than 10,000 a year. The National Marine Manufacturers Association in the US reported a nine per cent increase in boat sales to a 13-year high of US$47 billion last year.
“The whole industry is in a massive development,” Poelmann said. “Certainly this last year, we saw Covid get people to spend lots of their free time in sports and outdoor activities.”
As Zhik figures out how to adjust the price point and quality of its high-performance products for a more casual consumer, it’s hoping the upcoming Olympic Games will create a halo effect around the brand in their eyes.
“We’ll never forget the mantra that we have to be innovative and very much for the top sailor, but we will make a range available for the day sailor — those people who don’t see it as their job, but still want to be very well protected from the elements when they have fun on the weekends,” he said. “That’s who we’re hoping to connect with.”