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Race Face rises again in New West

A unique opportunity for staff in bringing back local biking biz from the dead

Three months after hearing the news that their company was in receivership and their jobs were gone, staff at local mountain bike parts and apparel manufacturer Race Face Performance Products are breathing new life into the company.

Despite booming sales projections for 2011, the company's lenders found some overstated assets in Race Face's financials and pulled the plug in March, cutting 50 local engineering, design, manufacturing, sales and administrative jobs as well as 20 jobs from Race Face's shop in Taiwan.

Two former employees, Derek Wills and Chris Tutton, and two silent investors, beat out about nine other bids to buy Race Face out of hock and restarted production in May. Wills won't say how much the bid was for, but said it was "into the seven figures."

Walking through Race Face's once again busy shop, Wills shouts over the hum of machines.

"I love that sound," he said. "You should have heard it after we went into receivership. Totally silent. It was the most depressing thing I've heard...Employees took a hell of a pounding, emotionally and financially, with one day's notice that you're losing your job."

Of the original 50 employees at Race Face, Wills and Tutton have been able to bring back about 17 as the company tries to rebuild.

Wills said he and Tutton saw huge potential in the Race Face brand, something the two have invested a combined 28 years of their lives in building. Unlike the old owners and directors of the company, Wills said the company is now owned and run by people dedicated to its long-term success.

"They were just tired and they weren't committed to the company; they were committed to themselves," he said. "There's not a lot of good, strong Canadian brands, period, in any business. Being an economics junkie, I like being part of one. I like being a part of a company that exports to 40 or 50 countries and brings wealth into the country and city. It was just an opportunity that had arrived."

The new, leaner Race Face must now run with more of an "entrepreneurial spirit," Wills said, which means staff from management down have to take on more roles in the company.

"We have to wear more hats with less resources and less expenses until we get back on our feet," he said. "Right now, we're just trying to keep the lights on and we have some amazing employees. (Tutton) came in and did all the janitorial work himself."

Wills said the timing of the company's seizure has left them at a steep disadvantage, having missed the chance to get their products onto store shelves in time for the spring launch when riders tend to buy their gear for the season.

"If this would have happened in December or January, the new company probably could have picked up and done OK. As it stands, we've lost a lot of business. We have a shot at getting that business back but for this season, it's disabled, for sure," he said.

Despite the missed opportunities, Wills said the company's order book has been growing faster than he or Tutton expected and it bodes well for increasing production and staffing by the end of the year.

"When we first sat down, we thought 'we're going to need six to eight employees and this is the cash flow we hope to get,' but that's why we have 17 people. Orders have come in extremely strong. We've had a large outpouring from consumers. It's been pretty good so far," he said.

Also on the very long "to do" list is cleaning up the mess left behind when the old Race Face went into bankruptcy. Wills said it's still not clear if employees, including himself, will be able to recoup any of their unpaid wages, vacation pay or expenses.

News of Race Face's demise in March reverberated around the mountain bike community where the brand is considered a giant in the high-end components market. Fans posted condolence messages on Race Face's Facebook page and Twitter. Wills said he's seen another surge in Internet chatter about Race Face's return and "unbelievable good will" from customers, retailers and suppliers.

"Ninety-five per cent has been extremely positive. People who identified with the brand, liked our products and had been buying them for years are really excited they'll continue to be able to buy Race Face," he said.

Looking back on a tumultuous three months for Race Face, the allusion to a phoenix rising from the ashes can't be avoided, but Wills said it's the image of a zombie returning to life that has resonated with Race Face's fans.

Perhaps, Wills said, next year's apparel line will feature some back-from-thedead-inspired imagery.