Created by Nature

Icebreaker

In 1994, Jeremy Moon stumbled across New Zealand-grown merino wool for the first time when a merino farmer threw a prototype merino t-shirt across the table at him. The material’s surprising softness and remarkable durability instantly convinced Mr Moon that merino wool was the wave of the future.

It was a life changing realisation. The determined twenty-four-year-old mortgaged his house and set out peddling a suitcase full of prototype garments. A new business – and a new concept in outdoor clothing – had been born.

Icebreaker has come a long way since the young entrepreneur put everything on the line for a product he believed in. Today, the global brand is sold in more than 3,000 stores across 44 countries and employs a network of 350 people. “Globally we’ve got millions of customers,” Mr Moon reports. “We sell millions of garments across 44 countries each year.”

The secret to this success is simple. “Our customers connect with the fact that we have a deep passion for a natural technical fibre,” Mr Moon insists. Indeed, Icebreaker holds a distinctive place in the industry for its commitment to fashioning every garment out of merino wool. “It is an all-natural clothing system which is totally unique in the world,” Mr Moon explains. Merino’s unusual properties make Icebreaker’s wool garments as soft and smooth as silk – and more sustainable than synthetics. “It doesn’t hold odour, it’s machine washable, it regulates temperature, and it doesn’t itch,” Mr Moon points out. Most importantly, “it’s all created by nature.”

This all-natural focus is foundational to the brand. “Really the brand is about reconnecting people with nature,” Mr Moon explains. “Most outdoor brands are about connecting people with nature, but they will use synthetics and plastics.” This absurd contradiction was a key motivation for launching Icebreaker. “It was the irony of the outdoor industry being about helping people to connect with nature and to be more healthy, yet it was all about plastic at the same time. It seemed crazy.”

The industry had turned to synthetics for years because of a lack of reasonable alternatives, Mr Moon explains. “There were no natural technical fabrics. Cotton gets smelly and as soon as it gets wet you freeze. Traditional wool has always been heavy and itchy.” When Mr Moon introduced merino to the market, the extraordinary all-natural fibre was exactly what consumers had been seeking. “We just nailed this niche and created the merino outdoor clothing category,” Mr Moon recalls. “And because we believe in [all-natural merino wool] that is what the entire company is built around.”

Icebreaker utilises the highest quality merino wool to ensure that all of its garments deliver the comfort and performance that nature enthusiasts expect from premium outdoor clothing brands. Mr Moon likens the process to creating a fine wine. “You can’t make great wine unless you start with the finest grapes. So we started with the finest raw material that we could get.” This commitment to quality led the team to go straight to the source. “In 1997 we were the first company to work directly with [merino] farmers,” Mr Moon reports. “We realised that if we pay farmers a premium and give them what they want, which is premium pricing and long term security, then we can get what we want, which is the highest quality fibre, guaranteed quantity and [good] land care and animal welfare.” Partnering with New Zealand sheep farmers proved a huge success and Icebreaker has enjoyed a steady supply of the softest and finest wool available.

The team has used this high quality merino to develop its own one-of-kind products. “We have created a whole clothing system around lightweight fabrics,” Mr Moon reports. “The whole system is about pieces of clothing that interact to let your body be free in nature.” And Icebreaker continues to innovate and discover new applications for the all-natural fibre. For example, last year the team developed a water resistant merino using nanotechnology. “All in all we have 20 different fabrics in our range, each with a specific purpose. And through that we can create really stylish sweaters or underwear or jackets, base layer products, socks, scarves and accessories that feel silky soft next to skin.”

With so much versatility, the possibilities for merino are endless. “Last week I was skiing wearing merino,” Mr Moon points out. “And this morning I went for a run in 18 degrees wearing a beautiful lightweight merino running top, shorts and socks. It is amazing that we keep on discovering new uses for this miracle fibre that has come from nature.”

Outdoor enthusiasts Down Under have been quick to embrace Icebreaker’s all-natural product. “We’ve got a very passionate customer base in Australia with hundreds of thousands of Australians who own Icebreaker,” Mr Moon reports. In fact, the entire brand is customer driven, and Mr Moon credits the people who wear Icebreaker with the company’s success. “The whole company is built from our users,” he explains. “We don’t spend money on advertising. Everything is driven by word of mouth. What I am most indebted to is those hundreds of thousands of [Icebreaker customers] in Australia and millions of people around the world who have built icebreaker just from passionately believing in what we are doing and talking to others.”

Australians have been so enthusiastic about Icebreaker, in fact, that the company is expanding its presence here; wholesaling will continue to be an important part of this growth. “Our expansion in Australia is going to be driven by our wholesale partners that believe in the Icebreaker story and can tell it to our customers,” Mr Moon says. “There is also an online strategy and a retail strategy where we can build our own stores to tell a richer version of that story.” Currently, the company supplies about 150 outdoor and sport stores across Australia. The team has also just launched its first retail store in Australia, which is located in Melbourne’s Chadstone shopping centre.

The company is also busy revamping its retail layout in stores located throughout the world. In fact, the Chadstone store will soon be remodelled to meet the requirements of this new retail design. The innovative retail layout was developed in partnership with a New York City based retail design agency and was created to help teach customers about Icebreaker’s vision and mission. The new format was first applied to an Icebreaker store in San Francisco – and sales immediately shot up by a whopping 30 per cent. “It’s because we are learning to be stronger story tellers communicating what we believe and what our product system is built around,” Mr Moon shares. “I am really excited about that.”

Refitting existing stores is only the beginning. The team will be building thirty new stores over the next two to three years, including six new stores in Australia. Overall, the company plans to double its business over the next 36 months. “This year we did roughly 200 million, so we’ve got a very ambitious plan. But the reason I think we can pull it off is that Icebreaker has got a very strong team, a very passionate culture, and a totally unique product system.” The timing is also right. “Globally, the trends are focussing on people reconnecting with nature. So the concept that we started 18 years ago has only gotten more relevant.”

Making Sense of Management

Management is the art, or science, of getting things done through people. Sounds fairly straightforward – except for the fact that people are not robots waiting to do our bidding. People have their own minds, motivations, and goals. So how do managers keep operations – and the people behind them – running as planned?

October 21, 2018, 11:47 AM AEDT