Bel-Ray orders up threefold as company reinvents itself

Publish Date: 
Apr 13, 2011
By Arlo Redwine

Bel-Ray’s first heyday began in the 1970s when champion motocross racers touted the brand. But as with all heydays, there was a dropoff. Excitement waned even as sales of the company’s powersports lubricants remained steady.

Today the brand is at the start of a second heyday. All the following has occurred within the past year: Re-engineered formulas. New packaging and dealer display program. New employees. A larger booth at Dealer Expo. A mainstream marketing push. And new sponsored riders led by Supercross champion Chad Reed.

“We have a phrase inside the company that we’ve used for the last year,” COO Jennifer Liquori says. “It’s our mantra for everything, and it’s our guiding force. It’s Go Big or Go Home. We don’t want to do anything halfway. We want to do it all the way if we’re going to do it.”

This hard-core policy has paid off, she claims. “Our distributors have been ordering three times the inventory that they ordered from us last year, so we know the demand has changed,” she says.

Dealernews recently spoke with Liquori to obtain details about Bel-Ray’s “comeback,” and how dealers can get in on the action.

Strong legacy
Every Bel-Ray press release notes that the Farmingdale, N.J.-based company is “woman-owned,” but it’s actually two women running the place. “The way the owner and I have divvied up responsibility is she makes the product, and I find the right sales channel for it,” Liquori says in reference to female CEO Daryl Brosnan, whose father, Bill Kiefer, founded the lubricants company in 1946.

“She’s certainly a woman to celebrate,” Liquori says. “After 35 years, she knows the company inside and out. … Although she could have sold the company many times, she hasn’t. She doesn’t take any profit out of the business and puts every dollar back in.”

That level of investment came in handy last year when Liquori began leading the Bel-Ray comeback. “One of the things I tell our employees all the time is we did all these things to re-engineer the business, but it was Daryl who ultimately never said no,” Liquori says. “I think that takes a really strong, confident, smart, strategic business owner to do that.”

Many people don’t realize that Bel-Ray is also a big name in the industrial and mining markets, where most of its business is done. Among the company’s first products were high-temperature baking lubricants.

Moreover, Bel-Ray has made products specifically for space shuttles and is a lubricants supplier to the U.S. Navy, a relationship highlighted in a recent grease-focused episode of “Modern Marvels” on the History Channel. “They talked about Bel-Ray and the fact that the U.S. Navy can’t launch aircraft from their naval carriers without one of our high-temperature grease products,” Liquori says. “They basically say, ‘We couldn’t do this without Bel-Ray.’”

The company had existed for more than two decades before it entered the motorcycle market in the early 1970s, led by Daryl’s brother Kurt, who had a passion for the sport. Soon Bel-Ray sponsored nearly every motocross champion.

“Kurt really started the powersports division,” Liquori says. “It was his baby. He originated those first products. He was the one who drove around the country and built a grass-roots brand behind the company.”

Then in 1976 Kurt died in a traffic accident while in Italy for a race. “When Kurt died, the light went out of the powersports division in that the person whose passion it was wasn’t there anymore to provide guidance and vision,” Liquori says. “The division kind of rolled on its own for the next eight to 10 years, but then when real changes were happening in the industry, we missed an opportunity to align the right strategy. As a result, it kind of went on autopilot.”

Also during this time Bel-Ray was expanding internationally. Today, a majority of its business is with customers outside of North America, even though all its products are made in the U.S. “We try diligently to use only raw materials and packaging made in the U.S. as well,” Liquori says.

Bel-Ray’s current motocross revival was preceded by a corporate revival a few years ago when the company bought new equipment and increased production capacity. “We did a lot of investing overseas in the mining industry and saw excellent growth as a result of that,” Liquori says. “We chose to invest in the powersports side of the business at a time when the industry was in a decline.”

Across-the-board revival
About a year ago Bel-Ray re-engineered all its powersports products to bring them up to the highest level of JASO certification. It also redid all its packaging, adding to the oil bottles a back label with a pull-out booklet in 25 languages. This allows Bel-Ray to ship the products to anywhere in the world. New spouts on the 1- and 4-liter bottles make pouring easier.

Bel-Ray hired a new sales team to work with its many distributors. “We pay them a pretty decent salary and a full benefits package,” Liquori says. “They drive a Bel-Ray-branded ‘Flex Your Engine’ truck. We gave them computers and Blackberries, and on top of that a rich commission package because we wanted them to have a stake in the game.

“Distributors are selling a lot of brands,” Liquori continues, “so we want to make sure that we preserve a relationship with dealers. We’ve sent notifications directly to dealers about our programs to keep them informed about the changes in our company.”

To promote the new products, last summer a newly assembled Bel-Ray marketing team worked with an outside ad agency to launch a mainstream advertising campaign that, in addition to ads in industry publications, included ads in GamePro, Maxim, Men’s Health and Playboy.

Radio ads have appeared during sports talk shows and on SiriusXM satellite stations during shows like Howard Stern, and Opie and Anthony.

Because Bel-Ray couldn’t display banners within the motocross stadiums, it arranged for “Flex Your Engine” aerial banners to be flown over pit parties and races throughout the season. There also are “Flex Your Engine” billboards.

Bel-Ray designed a new catalog in the shape of an oil bottle. The clever brochure is easily navigated via bottom tabs (hidden by the cover in the photo) labeled “Street,” “Off-Road,” “ATV, Kart, Scooter,” “V-Twin” and “Service.” Slick-looking photos, diagrams and charts explain the company’s product range. They’re complemented by large photos of racers like Mike Baldwin, Roger DeCoster, Marty Smith, Carey Hart and Chad Reed. “Again, we wanted to go big or go home and do something that would stand out,” Liquori says. “We wanted the catalog to be more of a user guide for the parts department with a lots of useful information. But also it’s visually stimulating. It has a lot of consumer appeal.”

Bel-Ray’s new compact rack display is made of wood and comes on wheels. Any dealer ordering $999.99 worth of product from any of Bel-Ray’s distributors receives it for free.

After several local dealers went out of business, Bel-Ray last year raised dealer margins by lowering prices at all levels. Unfortunately, the oil market’s volatility has led to a partial reversal of some of the decreases. “But we tried not to pass on those increases in totality on our powersports products,” Liquori says.

Bel-Ray and Reed: A good match
The most outward display of the Be-Ray comeback is the company’s presenting sponsorship of Chad Reed.

Before the deal was finalized, Liquori spoke with Reed about what they both hoped to get out of the relationship. “What came out of that conversation was that this is a comeback year for us, but it is also a comeback year for him,” she says. “He has a lot of great qualities that mesh very well Bel-Ray in the sense that he’s been a champion, as we have — some of the best riders were Bel-Ray-sponsored riders.”

Both Bel-Ray and Reed benefitted from their racing hiatus, Liquori says. “He’d developed a real appreciation for the sport, as did we,” she says.

Another similarity between the Australian Reed and U.S.-based Bel-Ray: They both have international appeal. Australia is a major market for Bel-Ray, and both Bel-Ray and Reed are popular in Europe.

During the sponsorship negotiations, Reed had yet to announce that he’d be managing his own race team, TwoTwo Motorsports. Liquori was pleased with the decision. “It shows a real commitment on his part to put a real chip in the game,” she says.

At Dealer Expo dealers got to meet Reed during an autograph signing at Bel-Ray’s brand-new booth structure (shown at top). The company will also have a new booth at this fall’s EICMA in Italy.

In addition to Reed, Bel-Ray is sponsoring Hart and Huntington’s attempt to combine racing, rock ’n’ roll and tattoos. It also sponsors the Tech 3 team in Europe.

The sponsorships, the consumer advertising, the wholesale programs — all have led to the sharp uptick in distributor orders of Bel-Ray products, Liquori says. “We probably could have not done any of this and continued to do perfectly fine, but we decided that we had a legacy in the sport, and we wanted to make the investment to come back.”

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