Bombproof at full blast

A mountain lover scales new heights in business
By Karen Galarpe

Ever since he was a kid, Jay De Leon always loved the outdoors. He was a Boy Scout and enjoyed camping and going on expeditions.

At 17, he started climbing mountains with the San Beda Mountaineering Club. Even after finishing his Business Management course in San Beda College and working in the corporate world as sales trainer at a real estate company, he would hie off to the mountains during weekends with friends.

But the call of the outdoors was louder, and so, three years after graduation, he gave up on the corporate world, put on his climbing boots and became a full-time climbing instructor at Power Up, an indoor climbing facility. “I was earning P28 per hour and survived on Korean noodles, bread, and soup. I spent most of my earnings on new climbing gear and travel to do climbs,” he says.

Up on the mountains, he’d get so pissed off when, just as he would take a step up the trail, his shorts would rip at the crotch area. “Nawawarak ang shorts ko.” Sometimes when he would cross a river, coins and other items in his pockets would float around. And his backpack would be all wet inside out.

That’s when he thought of coming up with backpacks that are stable, waterproof and durable, and manufacturing outdoor clothes that would be practical and can be guaranteed to last a lifetime—something bombproof.

In climbing parlance, ‘bombproof protection’ means that your anchors are really strong and reliable. Jay aimed to have bombproof products that would be superior to what the market then currently offered.

And so he went to Robert Garcia, the designer of his sister Michelle. “Robert introduced me to Divisoria, and taught me how to do costing even down to the consumption of thread. He made me excited at the thought that I can be my own boss,” says Jay.

Jay’s mom Yolly dissuaded him. It was 1998 after all, and it was not a good year to start a business. “I did not have any feasibility study. I only had my handwritten computations and a gut feeling that this business will work.”

Jay saw that a neighbor of theirs had three or four sewing machines in their garage that were not needed. He talked to the owner and was able to get the machines on a lease-to-own plan. Jay made some designs and tapped out-of-work sewers to make prototypes. He then asked his friends from Power Up to test them on the mountains and give him feedback. “I was excited with the whole concept. I wanted quick dry, wash and wear type of clothes.” His friends okayed his products.

That first month, 20 pieces of pants and shorts were made with his P30,000 budget. The next month, he had about 40-60 pieces sewn and went off to Boracay with the goods to join an event of the Sports Climbers Association of the Philippines. It was a marketing gimmick, as he didn’t sell anything. “I gave them all to the top climbers. Call it guerilla marketing. When one of the sponsors arrived, he was shocked to see all these climbers wearing my stuff with the Bombproof Gear brand. He went, ‘Ano ‘to?’”

Response was good, and Jay went full blast in 1999. He registered Bombproof Gear Designs Inc. as a corporation with authorized capital stock of P500,000, of which less than P100,000 was paid up. Climbing buddies were his partners, but later on, his family, including his mother, started buying some of the partners’ shares.

“I knew my market well. They are my friends,” says Jay. What Jay would do to sell his products was to talk to his “moles”—his friends in the different mountaineering clubs, and find out when and where their next meeting was. “I’d bring my van, park nearby, then open my trunk to sell my clothes. I would bring about eight boxes full of clothes. When sales are good, I would give my friends commissions in the form of a free pair of shorts.”

Even if Bombproof Gear’s products sold at P100 to P200 higher than other products in the market, climbers bought his stuff because they were durable. The pants, for instance, are made from a mix of nylon, polyester and cotton for easy drying. There is also an extra layer of fabric in the crotch area to prevent rips. Pants also have deep big pockets so stuff like passports can be easily stored and secured. Polo sleeves can be folded up and buttoned so they won’t fall down as you cross a river.

“We also offered a guarantee that they are going to last, notwithstanding wear and tear, accident or misuse,” explains Jay. One time, he had to pull out 100 pieces of pants because the fabric snagged. “I replaced them. I want the customers to know they can count on us.”

Jay started offering his products to outdoor shops on consignment not only in Manila but even in Boracay and other places. “I offered as much as 40% discount and vouched to replace anything that would be broken.” Business was good. It helped that the top three climbers of the Philippines were wearing Bombproof Gear products.

When Jay started, his dream was to have a shop in a mall in five years. But just after a year of operations, he found himself faced with a tempting offer. One of the shops he was consigning to, High Adventure, couldn’t pay him back due to financial difficulties. The store was also in arrears in rental payments to Robinsons Galleria for their 50-square-meter shop on the third floor. The owner asked him if he would want to take over, get the rights transferred to him, and assume the balance of the debt to the mall. All stocks would be left to him on consignment. He could pay High Adventure gradually in six months for the rights. He was given a week to decide.

It was too good an offer to pass up. “We were all excited. We never had a store before, tapos sa mall pa,” says Jay. A week after, the store Bombproof Gear opened, just in time for Christmas. In addition to High Adventure’s stocks, Jay filled up the store with Bombproof Gear stuff, as well as outdoor local products like Montanara Backpacks, Mojo Sandals and Tribu Sandals. “We had a pretty good sale.”

Jay wanted to keep the manufacturing operations separate from the mall store, and so the store is run by a separate company, Stoke Inc., owned with friends and family. Initial investment was about P300,000 only. They got back their investment in two years, and in 2003, the company was worth P3 million. Annual sales in recent years reached P6 million, but Jay is targeting to hit P11 million this year. Bombproof Gear Designs, on the other hand, also gave back their investment in 2-3 years.

Aside from outdoor clothes, Bombproof Gear the store also carries accessories branded as Guerilla Wear, which is a co-production with the Agaw Agimat band. They also carry imported products such as hook sets, head lamps and camping equipment. They became the exclusive distributor of Kong climbing equipment from Italy, Lanex Rope climbing ropes from the Czech Republic, and Rock Empire harnesses also from the Czech Republic. The store also has institutional clients such as the Philippine National Police, the US Navy Regional Contracting Center, the Philippine National Red Cross, the National Disaster Coordinating Council, and the rescue teams of local government units. They get stuff like harnesses, carabiners, rapel belay devices and other climbing equipment, and even tear gas.

There have been rough times when mall sales are down, but both Bombproof Gear Designs Inc. and Stoke Inc. have weathered them. Last year, a new store was opened in Tiendesitas, and Jay is setting his sights on opening another store somewhere else.

He’s also looking at having special fabrics done for him in China. “I want to keep expanding our product lines and improving our designs and product quality. I also want to expand our distribution network,” Jay says. His ultimate goal: to be world-class and be the first Pinoy brand in the outdoor category to be known internationally.

And to think it all started with a case of ripped shorts.

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