rapha usa's hillary benjamin

hillary benjamin

it's never an easy task filling the shoes (metaphorically speaking) of a successful predecessor. only when peter gabriel left genesis for good did we in fact discover that those falsetto vocals on the lamb lies down on broadway were actually phil collins and not clever overdubbing in the studio. after a lengthy and unproductive set of auditions, the guys in the band realised they'd had the very candidate all along. a poor situational example of which i speak, but surely the exception that proves the rule?

of course, after the 'and then there were three' period and mr collins decided to call it a day, bringing in ray wilson as his replacement for 'calling all stations' never quite hit the mark. there's every likelihood that his lack of finding favour had less to do with wilson's performance, and more to do with his not being phil collins. those of you less endeared to the sounds of so-called progressive rock could probably care less in any case.

in the world of business, not that this excludes rock bands of necessity, things are by definition, slightly different. people are promoted, people leave and people sometimes fail to perform, resulting in the formula created by laurence peter and raymond hull, subsequently known as 'the peter principle'. but when someone who has worked hard to develop a specific part of a successful business moves up the corporate ladder, it's not only a problem to replace them, but places an almost claustrophobic pressure on the new incumbent to live up to previous lofty ideals and performance.

in 2004, rapha occupied one half of one floor in the former piano factory at imperial works in kentish town's perren street. a mere nine years later, those sportwool jerseys with the contrasting hoop on the left sleeve are seemingly everywhere. though perhaps not quite. after my saturday morning club ride in sacramento in march 2012, i mentioned to rapha's slate olson that i had seen barely a single rider clad in rapha. his reply? yes, we've still got work to do.'

and it was mr olson's rise to chief marketing officer and subsequent relocation to london from portland that may conceivably have brought rapha some concern. as many of my friends in portland were keen to bring to the surface; who would they find to replace him? the portland office is already well constituted and staffed with the likes of jeremy dunn and the inestimable chris distefano capably handling day to day communications, but neither seemed inclined to ascend the podium. so on june 17th of this year, rapha announced that the new head of marketing and sales for north america would be hillary benjamin.

hillary had previously held the position of vice president of marketing at cycling sports group, owners of cannondale, gt and mongoose bicycles. hardware as opposed to rapha's software. i am insufficiently educated in the denominational division within cycling's upper echelons to know whether cycling is equally welcoming of both sexes at the executive level (though i can think of no good reason as to why it should be otherwise). what brought hillary to the world of cycling? was it personal desire or fortuity?

"Personally, I started riding again as an adult when I got a road bike as a gift for my 30th birthday. I was hooked right away.
"Professionally, a little bit of both. I had left my job of eight years to pursue something I was really passionate about. I was introduced to Cannondale by a former colleague. Several interviews later, I found myself in the bike industry."

as i mentioned above, hillary's previous position had been that of marketing bicycles to the great unwashed, and though it seems cycles are just as subject to the whims of fashion as any other aspect of modern life, the demands in this direction are surely different than those of the clothing industry. or maybe in marketing terms there is little real difference, for objectively speaking, it's still a matter of shifting units and keeping an eye on the number at the foot of the excel spreadsheet. does hillary consider this position to have brought different challenges, or do they bear a remarkable similarity to her previous objectives?

"There are some challenges that are similar, and some that are different. The cycling industry overall needs to bring in new customers. So, in that way there are similarities. Rapha's business model is very different from where I came from. It is direct to consumer focused vs wholesale. Also, the bike industry is very technology focused. Rapha was created to celebrate road riding and to develop the best performing and most stylish cycling clothes and accessories in the world. Road racing is the toughest and most beautiful sport in the world and everything Rapha does is designed to honor that. Everything Rapha does is informed by its passion for the glory and suffering that lie at the heart of the sport."

personally, i do not consider myself particularly ambitious. i have a day job that satisfies my creative needs, and these black and yellow pixels keep me cheerfully involved with the joys and business aspects of cycling, both nationally and internationally. however, there is no cunning plan to be realised over a carefully selected time-frame. things will always develop in both careers, but they go where they will go, both seemingly having minds and lives of their own. however, many folks have a far better idea of where it is they wish to be in life, and often just exactly how to get there.

does hillary benjamin consider herself pursuing a career as a general marketer of cycling products, or was she just waiting for the rapha gig to happen along? "I am definitely more of a general marketer. One thing I've learned is that even though I've now been in the industry for over four years, I am still a newbie. Most people in this industry start out their career in it.
"But, in some ways, I've been waiting for the Rapha gig my whole life. I love sport and cycling. I love fashion. I love entrepreneurial companies. My entire career has almost led up to this moment. I have brand building, operational, sales, product development and global experience. And, I'm scrappy."

when rapha set up the north american operation, there were three locations under consideration. two of those, i think you'd agree, fulfilled the obvious candidates: new york and san francisco. portland, oregon would almost seem like the outsider, even bordering on the eccentric. for it is positioned on north america's pacific northwest, placing it almost as far from perren street as you could get. and not entirely obviously in the midst of an easy distribution hub.

but portland has a myriad of other features to recommend it, most obviously its being arguably the cycling capital of the usa. if you've ever visited portland, you'd realise just why the other two location candidates were surpassed by stumptown. has hillary now moved to portland, or was she already in situ?

"I moved around six weeks ago. And, I want to know why no one ever talks about Portland summers. They're beautiful!"

as mentioned in my introduction, as recently as last year, an active cycling location such as the california state capital seemed almost bereft of rapha sportwool and trimmings of pink. and though no company can expect necessarily to dominate in every region that it chooses to infiltrate, at the very least, it has to attempt the improbable, unlikely or screaming certainty. strategies have to be formulated that might see it make tentative inroads; such are the vicissitudes of modern commerce whether cycle-related or otherwise. does hillary have a cunning plan to bring rapha to the parts it has so far failed to reach?

"Let's hope so."

rapha commenced its north american life atop a garden centre in north mississippi, visitors often having to step carefully amongst free-range hens before making their way to the outside stairs and up to the first floor office and bike rack. when i visited last year, when everyone turned up for work, they were probably in danger of breaching fire regulations, necessitating a move across the willamette river to larger premises in nw kearney. slate olson enjoyed the loyalty and support of staff who are particularly good at what they do. does hillary feel she has been welcomed to the fold?

"I believe so. They underwent tremendous change with Slate leaving. They have been very welcoming, and we are excited to build our own history together."

hillary benjamin

as hillary mentioned above, rapha was created by simon mottram to celebrate what he regards as the most beautiful sport in the world. rapha have consciously refrained from diluting that message by entering the fray of the offroad world. however, though you'd expect rapha's staff to also espouse such ideals, there's little doubt that cyclists form a fascinating group of individuals, possessed of a mindset that is often as welcoming to alternative branches of the sport, even if it clashes with the daily travail. portland encapsulates just such varied ideals.

in hillary's case, has jeremy dunn converted her to portland's beloved path of cyclocross, or does she find herself more in sympathy with chris distefano's barely concealed fat tyre proclivities? "I just decided that I'm going to 'participate' in cyclocross this season. I'm now trying to decide what bike to get so I can take my first clinic. I'm tiny, so finding a 44cm isn't easy!"

it is, of course, grossly unfair to coerce anyone else to make comment on their new work colleague, but since this is of an unsolicited nature, i can see little that might concern mrs benjamin. north american communications director chris distefano offered this: "New boss is cool. You'll like her.".

'nuff said.


friday 23rd august 2013