As Climbing Posts, we interviewed with EB Climbing; 9A Climbing’s senior manager export Olivier Jordano. We talked about EB Climbing’s story, current situtation climbing industry, Seb Bouin’s Vintage Rock Tour and many things. Thank you very much to EB Climbing and Mr. Jordano for the interview.
Could you introduce yourself to us?
Hi, I’m Olivier Jordano, Export Manager for the company 9A Climbing which manufactures and distribute all EB climbing shoes.
Have you had interest in sport climbing in the past?
I was interested in sport climbing especially in the mountain, first mountaineer, mountain climber and alpinist more than a climber and I worked more than 30 years in the outdoor industry, specifically the ski industry, I also worked in the distribution side.
How did your path cross with EB Climbing Mr. Jordano?
The brand’s target was to grow internationally and throughout the meetings we realized my experience and expertise in international outdoor industry would meet well. On top of that, both the company and myself were located at Grenoble.
Throughout your career, you have worked in marketing, export and management side of different sports and brands such as Amer Sports. How did your past experiences contribute to your current position at 9A – Climbing?
First, it comes my knowledge of the market and understanding the distribution in different markets worldwide. Additionally, my ability to negotiate with people globally and my expertise in understanding consumers and product development as well as marketing helped greatly. I would say that the global aspects of my past experiences were the most useful of them all. I would say its global things.
Could you tell us EB Climbing’s story?
It’s a long story as you may know. EB celebrated its 70th birthday last year. It was born in 1950 and it’s the first brand that produced a climbing shoe for the Fountainbleau forest, the famous bouldering area in Paris. Of course 70 years is a long time and EB had good and bad times. In 2009, EB brand was purchased by Frederic Tuscan the CEO and of 9A Climbing and since then EB is experiencing a big growth; it’s growing %30 every year.
Mr. Jordano when we look at the EB’s story, the brand was purchased by someone a few times and it has experienced ups and downs as you mentioned but the brand protected its original side. How EB succeeded?
First of all, the brand is old, I would say, any climber has at least once used an EB product. Back in 1950, for so many years you had only EB climbing shoes. All climbers above 50 years old used these shoes when they started climbing around 15 or 20 years of age. They would recognize these shoes and say, “Oh, it’s my first pair of climbing shoes. It was EB.”
This was the original climbing shoe and even the brand was bought by other companies and had industrial and financial problems like every other company, it always managed to protect its own value, I would say regarding to the facts of the French market. As a French brand; it faced some obstacles but it always stayed in France. EB could have disappeared but it survived and now it is growing fast.
Under the 9A Climbing company, there is another brand called “6A” I believe the climbing gyms, schools and clubs are target markets for this brand. Could you tell us your operations on that side?
6A was developed to catch this new market about 11 years ago, back in 2009 which was when the climbing market was growing especially in climbing schools, climbing gyms and so on. Many high schools, in France now have climbing walls. In some cases, they are very small but students can still go and climb. Also climbing associations and climbing clubs are growing a market for cheap bouldering shoes and rental market. 6A targets the consumer who needs convenient, quite cheap, easy to wear products and it is student friendly. EB is a noble brand and 6A is still the brand for group associations, clubs and schools. This is a common thing friends, because in the foreign market we sell many EB branded products because it is the brand that is known.
We are going through difficult days due to the pandemic. How would you evaluate the current situation of EB Climbing and also climbing industry?
Regarding to the pandemic of course we suffered just like many other company. In 2020 we experienced growth, only problem was that the growth was not as big as it could be.
We experienced around %15 which is quite positive comparing to other businesses, like automobile industry which has lost around 20, 25%. If we look from the positive side, we are happy since growth means business is going but on the negative side it’s a pity since we could have done much more. So far, it’s okay because our production facility could run normally more or less, let’s say. Of course we suffer lack of sales especially in France and in the rest of Europe, sinceclimbing gyms were closed for several months and are still closed, also outdoor stores were closed for two months in spring and September in France. In the end everything re – opened in spring and in summer; business was good.
For 2021, this year, January and February were very bad, because everywhere were closed again. Open outdoor stores are not enough because now it’s the winter season and it’s cold, there is snow and rain everywhere, and people don’t go outside. So the beginning of the year was not good but we are very confident, places might re-open, possibly in March or April, depending on the country. Hopefully we crossed fingers that climbing gyms will re- open. Trends are very positive, after all Covid stories and so on we will have to and want to enjoy, fresh, sports activities.
Did the French government help you economically during this pandemic?
Yes, in France the system is quite complicated, some companies are forced to close, like climbing gyms, bars and restaurants etc. They had received compensation based on turnover they had achieved but companies like 9A, we are not forced to close hence we didn’t not receive direct help even though our main customers were closed in France or in Germany. Only help which we got was during the lockdowns was that the company put some employees under temporary unemployment with an allowance covering part of the salary. It was my case for instance in March, April and May and during 2 months lockdowns I basically worked %10 of my time and the company didn’t have to pay my full salary but only the partly and government did pay the rest.
After sport climbing became an Olympic sport, have you observed some significant changes in the industry?
The fact the climbing is now Olympic sport is great. It will bring worldwide attention to the sport. We hope that the Tokyo Olympics can take place this summer because, for sure more people will see climbing as a sport and more people will want to climb. We will see the effects of the Olympic format (combined format) with only one medal.
But it will change in 2024 Paris Olympics…
Yes exactly, and then it (the sport) will boom. Climbing is relatively a new sport and it’s very new in the Olympics history. So it’s a good way to introduce the sport. Personally lead is more difficult than bouldering or speed climbing but I can understand for the people outside the sport, speed climbing could be more attractive on TV. 2 athletes climbing fast, easy to follow , more spectacular to watch on television. This is common in many sports such as skiing, you have slalom and downhill. Downhill is much faster and slalom is more technical. I believe it will help everyone in this sport, especially to the country that the gold medalist is from. Suddenly the media will start talking about this French or Turkish person who won a gold medal which will motivate people to climb, and bring new people to the sport.
The location of any climbing world cup is also very important here, a city that has never hosted it before, like Istanbul. It may interest many people.
Yes, let say a world cup is held in Istanbul, it will be something relatively new and it will attract people, especially young guys and girls. I believe in France and in many other countries in the world, the development of the sport is based on the new comers, not long term enthusiasts. More traditional climbers like the ones in the 70’s or 80’s with long hair and with “climbing only on the rock” mentality is the old climbing style.
New climbing style involves more people that comes from cities and urban areas. People with higher education are going to the climbing gyms and gyms get the full services; nice locker rooms, nice showers, bars, cozy and friendly atmosphere, with social events and more and more people go climbing instead of going to a fitness club because climbing is cooler. Your friend will ask “What do you do?” and you say “climbing!” All of sudden “Oh climbing, it smells adventure, danger.” It’s more exciting than just going to fitness gym. It’s more or less why climbing is trendy at the moment and I think it has a very good future ahead of us thanks to the Olympics.
Seb Bouin’s Vintage Rock Tour has been highly admired in the climbing world. What’s the story behind this idea?
Idea behind this was to pay a tribute to the history of climbing. So that’s why Seb Bouin re-visited some specific and historical for instance the first 7a and the first 8a were climbed different spots which are part of the climbing history. As you have maybe seen in some of the videos, some of the routes’ first ascents are 20 or 40 years old. It makes you ask ‘how were they at that time?’ It’s really bringing back the spirit and this was done partially with the 70th anniversary of EB brand. So it was the re – visiting the history of climbing and showing the differences in the performance of the climbers in different decades.
Are you going to have similar events with other members of the EB team?
We have team meetings with customers every year some are small meetings and some are international. Based on that, our main project is the one with Seb Bouin as he’s really one of the best climbers in the world. In 2019, he was the best performing climber in the world. He was the only guy sending a 9b. This year, as we recover from Covid, we are discussing about what different thing we can do with Seb Bouin. Of course we will have some sort of Vintage Rock Tour and we will try to do the next events with other, less known climbers. Some climbers we consider may not be as good as Seb Bouin but they may have really good connections and social networks.
This is useful for us to promote our products. We also like to support young climbers. A young climber in France is in our radar as soon as they are in the climbing community, association, and active on social networks. But if you really want to hear more on our social media work, you should talk to our marketing guys. They are working hard 24/7.
Sometimes people think communication on the social networks is more important than anything else. You would know this better than me, I guess.
Mr. Jordano, how do you decide to sponsor an athlete?
As I said before, first thing nowadays we take the climbing level into consideration, which is the logical thing to do. We may take social networks into consideration as well. These days, we mainly go with young people whom will become the future of climbing because I would say at EB, we have already many confirmed climbers. The candidate’s nationality sometimes play a role I must say, for example, in France we can take a young local person and sponsor him/her and charge only one pair of shoes for the year. For most of them it is like this. Only athlete we have got a bit of money from is Seb Bouin. The olders just get accessories, shoes and so on, depending on the level.
So, you can distinguish the international level, our international team, whereas in Seb Bouin’s case, you need the international level and second level national level. National level is only related to the local importer or distributor. Through this, we will also have business within the country. Of course, if you take Turkey for instance, at the moment we don’t have any business in Turkey. So it won’t make sense to sponsor an athlete there.
You’re right Mr. Jordano. Last months, we talked about it and also I talked to the Turkish managers, possible distributors but Turkey is a really hard market to enter, because of the economic side and 2 brands. Maybe, in the future, EB will sponsor our young athletes and it will help to break into the Turkish market.
There are particular issues, we could consider sponsoring a particular young climber but the problem is it would be hard to follow him or her. We can give them a pair of shoes but without a local distributor, it’s complicated. The distributor follows the athlete for us.
I receive emails very often from South Africa, one I got was from this guy, saying “I’m a good climber and at a good level.” but we have no distributor in South Africa. For me, just sending him the right shoe is very difficult. He might say he climbed with this model and size but it’s not that straight forward. I sent one pair of shoes, to South Africa, freight cost me more than the shoe which in the end, didn’t fit the climber. It’s very complicated. If an athlete is at a very good level, half size difference in the shoe will matter. As my job is to develop international sales, as soon as possible,
I would like to open say, one shop in Istanbul so that we can send one or two pairs to climbers and shipment issue will be solved as well. The athlete will have the chance to try different models and sizes too. Because here, in France we are located in Grenoble, we are next to the national training center of the French Climbing Team. Almost every day, some people just stop by and ask us for some chalk, shoes and they can get a new pair.
Could you tell us about 9A Climbing’s future plans?
Firstly, we focus on development of the EB brand and developments such as bringing new products on the market which we do every year. New products doesn’t only mean climbing shoes, it means whatever is needed by the climbers or new accessories. For instance, this is (model name is: Strange) one shoe which we released last year but couldn’t really introduce to the market due to the pandemic, but it is here. We also have a new one, coming this year in 2021.
I saw the friction on the Eb’s Youtube Channel…
We bring the top of the line. Balboa, which is full of rubber everywhere, very soft and this is will be the new model in 2021. This is a delayed product. Because we could not climb outside so it’s just a prototype. We could not go to the factory to see the progress and so, the development process was unfortunately delayed but now we are almost at the end and just a few more details are left to manage.
We also have new accessories as we want to think of the well-being and comfort of the climber. That’s why we brought smart accessories like the FRESH, an odor stop spray for the shoe, made of %99 natural essential oils, made in France and it kills bacteria and prevents bad smells. It’s a good way to maintain your shoes. Also we have another system for the shoes In the same idea, we have a stick, made from “cedar” woods %100 natural, small pieces of wood, you put it in your shoes, it takes all bad smells.
“This is why we want to have all these new items, for comfort.”
This is our idea because we think the new climbing population will be more wealthy, they are not like old climbers. They want to take showers, they want to be clean, they want to eat nice; be trendy and fashionable. This is why we want to have all these new items, for comfort. We have climbing socks as well, which increase foot comfort and also Gel Protect, silicone protection that you can put them on your toes, in case you’re injured to reduce the pain.
If you compare this with running for instance, 30 years ago when people were running, they had only shorts, running shoes and a t-shirt. Nowadays when people in the run they have likra sweats, cardio meter, likra t-shirt, bright colors etc. everything is coordinated and very fashionable. Smartwatches, small backpacks and so on. More growth in the sport, more wealthy people will start doing it and demand for accessories will increase.
As you mentioned, companies, especially in sports world should change their tactics day by day. Have you thought about using renewable materials in the products you produce?
For the accessories, we try as much as possible to be environmental. This one (fresh spray) %99 natural oil, pure and natural also the bottle is made by recyclable materials. Similarly on the cedar wood blocks, their box is carton. Our main concern is climbing shoes, where we have one problem, not only in our brand EB but in all. Which is the rubber. It originates from the petro-chemical industry. Of course we don’t like it but on the other side we have no other solution because rubber creates friction we need it while climbing and it lasts long. At the moment, there is no other miracle material that can replace rubber. We are working on it but it’s no easy task.
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We would like to thanks a lot to Olivier Jordano. He is one of the experienced professional in sport industry. I learned new and latest information about climbing industry from him. I hope, I can get the opportunity to work with him in the future.
Another huge thanks for my friends: Arman Zonuzi and Esma Eser Şerifoglu. Thank you guys for reviewing the interview and making some modify on text.