SparX Helmets: Top End of the Low End?


It's early October, and I arrive at a large building in Burbank, Calif., that houses two separate helmet companies. Signs out front are for just one of the businesses, 18-year-old KBC Helmets Inc. But I'm not here for KBC. I want to speak with the folks behind the industry's newest entry-level helmet brand, SparX.

I first learned about the helmets a few days earlier while perusing Motorcyclist magazine. Print ads showing the lids alongside topless or naked women, carefully lit and positioned, have run in about 10 street and dirt consumer magazines for the past two months. SparX says it has received numerous calls from people asking about the free T-shirts hawked in the ads. People are also wanting to know the location of their nearest dealer. Surprisingly, at the time of my visit not a single helmet had yet been sold. The company's two models (one street, one dirt in numerous graphics) go on sale in November.

SparX is selling only to California dealers. Tucker Rocky is distributing to all 50 states. Pricing is identical, and margins range from 47 percent to 50 percent. SparX says it will establish, and police, minimum advertised prices. Retail prices range from $109.99 to $139.99 for the street model and from $109.99 to $129.99 for the dirt, though prices and margins are subject to change. Tucker Rocky says the brand will fit a pricing niche right below KBC, which is phasing out its similarly priced TK-77 and TK-X street and dirt models.

I'm half an hour early for my interview, so SparX marketing director Connie Hong shows me around. When we come to the loading dock, she points to the man in charge: Pat Lio, KBC's former VP of sales and marketing. He's helping some guys unload the first shipment from China. He wears a T-shirt and baseball cap decorated with the brand's bright orange logo. A pile of helmet boxes, also branded, claim a small portion of the back room.

Lio rushes over, and Hong introduces us. As if anticipating something, the smiling Lio explains that it's important to him that I make it clear that KBC and SparX are separate entities with different management, different budgets. He says so much that I'm starting to reach for a notepad when he says he's got to get back to work.

Parked in the unloading area are three motorcycles, each with a SparX helmet atop it. Hong says Lio rides the Triumph Bonneville. She then shows me the rooms allotted to SparX, all of which seem to be toward the back of the building and in an out-of-the-way mezzanine adjacent to the back room. Hong apologizes for the disorder. They're just getting settled, she says, adding that SparX will eventually move to its own building. She points to a pile of helmets on a table, many of which are emblazoned with prototype graphics that were never produced.

We go down a hall, and Hong brings me to the cubicle of Kailyn Lu, the person in charge of operations. Originally from China, Lu knows the language, a big plus in communicating with the Chinese factory.

Finally, I meet John Kim, general manager for the brand. He rides a Moto Guzzi. We go to a room with a long conference table with a half dozen helmets on it. A screen and projector is set up for a PowerPoint presentation. Kim, Hong and Lu and I wait a moment for Lio to show up. When he does, Kim begins.

Two Helmet Powerhouses Unite
Kim says he and his colleagues counted 90 helmet brands being represented at the 2007 Dealer Expo in Indianapolis. Many of these brands never take off, but at least 60 are being sold in the United States. Sixty percent of the total market, Kim claims, is the low-end segment.

"So why do we want to bring a new entry-level helmet to market?" he says. "The opportunity that presented itself answered that question."

That opportunity relates to the owner of the SparX brand, MK Sports Industries Inc., a U.S. company founded by the owners of KBC Helmets Inc. and the owners of what Kim asserts is the largest helmet manufacturer in China. Both are major players in the private label business in the United States. Although SparX is a separate entity, it has access to KBC's marketing, design and engineering prowess. Likewise, it benefits from economies of scale by being made at the Chinese partner's factory.

Kim tells me the Chinese partner prefers not to be named. But because of DOT regulations, anyone holding a SparX helmet can look inside it and see that the manufacturer is MHR in China's Guangdong province. MK Sports is a pairing of MHR and KBC. KBC makes the vast majority of its helmets in its four factories in Korea, China, Indonesia and Brazil. Select models, however, are sourced out to multiple third parties, MHR being one of them.

Kim says that because two large companies are behind them, they were able to create a "low-end helmet with high-end features."

"Most of the low-end market is competing on price," he says. "They want to create a really cheap helmet. They're not concerned about the quality of it. It's very difficult for them to brand something like that, so we saw another opportunity."

Higher quality also applies to customer service, he says. "A lot of entry-level brands are nameless corporations that are overseas with distributors. But we are a U.S.-based office."

Speaking of the product again, Kim says, "We could have made a really cheap helmet because we got this manufacturing behemoth behind us." Instead, he says, SparX decided not to compete on price, but to become "the top end of the low end." For $20 to $30 more, a rider's going to get a "feature-rich" helmet with a level of sophistication only direct manufacturers can accomplish because "it's very hard for an OEM to have a constant level of quality if they're not directing production and in tune with the manufacturer."

Lio notes that only a handful of helmet companies own their own factories: Arai, KBC, HJC, Scorpion and a few others.

Summing up the overall SparX plan, Kim says, "We don't want to just sell a bunch of helmets and then fade away. We want to build a road map that encompasses more than just helmets."

For Riders, by Riders
Kim emphasizes that all the people who helped create the S-07 street helmet are riders. "We had this mantra that we used during development: For Riders, by Riders. When developing features, we tried to look at it from a rider's perspective."

He says this is another way SparX differs from many Asian helmet companies. "They're bureaucrats. They're just basically businesspeople building a helmet."

Lio agrees. "We feel you have to be a golfer to make a good golf club. You have to be a fisherman to make a good fishing rod."

"We spend hundreds and hundreds of hours," Kim says, "riding and testing the helmets personally so that we can find out little things we want to change or add."

All that testing and thought is partly what led to the street model's clean, fluid design. "We didn't want a lot of spoilers and fins that you might see on a lot of other similarly priced helmets," Kim says, adding that such fancy extras often cover up a shoddy design.

The SparX team also received help from KBC's in-house design team, whose background is in the automobile industry. When it comes to aerodynamics, Lio says, designing a helmet has a lot in common with designing a car. Look carefully beyond the SparX helmets' graphics, and you'll see carefully crafted lines.

Top vents have no moving parts because small, intricate parts can't be done well at this price point, Kim says, and most riders don't adjust top vents anyway. "Whether it's cold outside or hot outside you want the air to circulate anyway, so we created top vents that do not have any moving parts. They don't fall off. They don't break."

In case something does break, SparX will service a five-year limited warranty. Moreover, SparX customers who get into an accident generating a police report can get a free replacement lid thanks to the company's crash damage program.

Lio explains how the company designed the air channels: "We didn't respin the wheel. We bought different helmets and we tried them. We found that the air guides that are shaped this way seemed to work the best. So we basically just — I'm not going to say who — but we used somebody else's design that really works."

The sturdy mouth vent has a large lip easily operated by gloved fingers. It opens and closes with a loud snap. "We wanted to make sure all the features were user-friendly," Kim says. "Riders wear gloves; I wear gloves. It's very hard to feel the vents [of some other helmet brands] opening and closing, so we wanted to make sure everything was easy to use from a practical standpoint."

Removable without tools, the shield contains two open-and-close vents at its upper left and right. They combine with the nose guard to help prevent fogging. These vents differ from the similar ones found on Arai shields in that there are no vent holes in the shell behind them. "For the price point, we didn't want to make it so complicated," Lio says.

The SparX team tested the shield vents by stopping at red lights and breathing hard to fog the shield. ?Without having them," Lio says, "it took such a long time before it started dissipating." With the holes, the fog dissipated as soon as they started moving again.

A rubber beading seals the shield to the shell. Like the mouth vent, the shield opens and closes stiffly. In this way, Lio says, SparX avoided a common mistake. "Many manufacturers, in my experience, when they first come out with a new helmet, the locked position is so loose that the shield will either shake or slightly open up. Sometimes when it gets too weak, it'll just pop up as you're going really fast. And then there's a recall or changing the shield for the customers. So we're very mindful of things like this. If you feel this helmet, at the end, it really locks. You can hear it and feel it."

The S-07 (in sizes XS-XXL) comes in 14 colorways in four categories: solids, a Shield base graphic, Retro styles and five special editions emblazoned with a cobra, skulls, a hornet, a griffin and — in a nod to popular culture — Che Guevara. By offering such a variety of graphics, SparX hopes to attract both young and old. See all graphics at Kim and Lio say the Guevara has proved popular with test audiences in California, and I'm surprised to hear that the SparX team only later learned that 2007 marks the 40th anniversary of the revolutionist's death.

Each street helmet comes with a free pair of earplugs, and SparX has even incorporated small straps in the removable liner to hold a rider's earplug container. "That is something that is very simple but no one has done," Lio claims, "because they never looked at from a rider's perspective. We're not spending much more money to add this. It just shows that we are one of the riders."

The cheek pads are contoured and nice-looking. Lio believes the pads of many higher-priced low-end helmets are "just plain crap."

As far as fit goes, Lio says seven out of 10 people have been satisfied. "I think it's successful if you can satisfy seven out of 10," he says. "Shapes of human beings' cheeks/heads are so different for each individual. It's like wearing shoes. You're going to have different pressure points depending on the individual's makeup."

When Lio and Kim speak of test audiences, they don't mean the general public. "You've got to go with people who know the industry," Kim says, "that have a lot of experience with different types of helmets."

"I am very close to a lot of the consumer publication editors," Lio adds, "and I learned a lot from their comments. I think they are all proud of us."

I try the helmet on. It fits a lot like my Arai. Lio says that he's heard that comment before. "The only people that really have problems so far are people who have wider heads. I like helmets to be slick. Most other helmets are really round and bulky, so the wider heads are going to fit, but it's not going to look good."

The SparX lineup uses two shell sizes, which especially benefits sizes medium and below. "I'm a small guy," Lio says. "If I'm wearing a large shell and I'm on my bike and I picture myself, all I can see is a freaking big head. All I see is this big helmet, and I wanted to avoid that."

The MX lid, the D-07, has no moving parts and comes in nine colorways in three categories: a Core base graphic, a Camo model with matching liners, and three special editions — Chief, Skullz and Firestorm — that come with an extra peak and screw set. Sizes are XS-XXL and youth S and L. More graphics will be introduced at Dealer Expo in February.
Youth models include a free mouth guard. "In every sport," Lio says, "children are required to wear mouth guards. How come in this industry no one is doing it? It didn't cost that much, so we added mouth guards for all junior helmets."

Although a large nose guard protects from roost, Lio says full-size goggles still fit through the eye port.

I pick up the MX helmet and say that it feels light.

"Even weight distribution makes it seem lighter even though it's really isn't that much lighter than the industry standard," Lio admits. "Actually, that part, it just happened. We were just lucky. Our designers, they weren't concentrating on that."

Coming soon from SparX are three-quarter helmets with shields.

High-End Branding
The SparX team put as much work into marketing their products as they did into designing them. Again, it was the sexy magazine ads that originally caught my attention. Dealers like the ads, too. So many of them requested poster-size versions that SparX decided to have posters made. I saw the first order of them sitting in the back room, still in wrapping.

So sex continues to sell, though Hong says there is a second reason. "All that was to address the lines of our shell," she says. "And obviously it was an attention-grabber. We wanted readers to flip the page and say, 'Oh, what is this? Who is SparX?' We want to be a recognized brand not just in motorcycle helmets. We want to be able to transition into other products in the future."

The campaign goes beyond print ads. "We are doing a lot of grassroots marketing," Hong says. "We're going to target training schools, safety schools, track days, clubs and amateur racers." The racers will get product sponsorships. Dealers will get in-store banners and displays.

"No one is really spending this kind of effort and resources for branding at this price point," says Lio, who excludes companies that make helmets with a range of prices. "Our competitors like HJC, they have the higher-end helmets, and then they have the low end. They have already established themselves as a brand, and they're just going into the lower end. I feel it is confusing as a consumer. They have a $400 helmet and then an $89 helmet, and they all have similar company standards. What is the differentiation?"

I wonder how SparX will differentiate its higher-end helmets when they come, assuming they're part of the plan.

Other SparX marketing efforts include product seminars for local dealers, as well as promotional giveaways such as stickers. Demand for one of these promo items, a tire pressure valve whose color indicates when pressure is low, has been so high that SparX has decided to sell it. Another promotional item is a tube container for earplugs. Both items, Kim says, are demonstrations of how SparX views everything from a rider's point of view. "We wanted something useful," he says, "not just a pin with our logo."

What you're doing, I say, reminds me of what Scorpion did a few years ago.

"We are compared to Scorpion a lot," Hong says.

"We have a lot of respect for how Scorpion has marked and branded their helmets," says Lio, pointing out that Scorpion has since migrated to the higher end. "And SparX might take that direction in the future, but for now we want to be the brand at this price point."

"When we started our whole strategy, planning out our road map, we really did study Scorpion and how successful they were and what they tried to do," Kim says. "You go to any race or any dealer expo, and you see their trucks parked outside with their big logo. Their presence sells. We really did admire a lot of things they were doing..."

"And not only Scorpion, but Icon," Lio says. "We looked at all the people who were successful and don't have a long history. We wanted to follow those footsteps, but perhaps do it a little bit differently, and better if we can."

This isn't the first time Lio has tried to push a new helmet brand into the spotlight. About five years ago he did the same thing with KBC. Up until then, the brand had played second fiddle to the private label business. (Learn more about Lio's time at KBC in a 2004 interview he did with Transworld Motocross).

Lio and his team have done well in promoting the brand, maybe too well. They report that Tucker Rocky reps are telling the distributor it "way underordered." (In a later phone call, however, Tucker would deny this, saying it "stepped up to the plate and ordered very, very heavily.")

Lio says the unexpectedly high demand is a mixed blessing. "It's all a gamble which graphic will really sell well, and sometimes when you don't have enough, people complain like hell. They'll even e-mail us: 'Hey, I back-ordered three months ago. I'll never buy your brand.' And so it could backfire, but it's better than no demand."

The SparX team's original plan was to go entirely dealer-direct. If they used third parties at all, they were going to go with small, regional distributors and then grow them. Tucker, however, saw the product and liked it so much it convinced SparX to go with it. The arrangement in which SparX will sell directly to California dealers (though Tucker Rocky will sell in the Golden State also) was a compromise left over from these negotiations.

And Finally, Safety Standards
At this point in our conversation, the SparX folks have finished their presentation, I have asked most of my questions, and we are well into the lunch hour. I say my last question is about safety certifications. DOT, of course, is required by law. In addition to this, SparX helmets are ECE 22.05-compliant to sell in Europe. In fact, SparX helmets are already being sold by KBC's subsidiary in the United Kingdom. Will the lack of our country's Snell approval hamper SparX sales here in the United States?

"It hasn't been a huge problem with our feedback with dealers," Hong answers.

"We don't want to knock any standard," Kim says. "We think all standards are good. We feel the DOT/ECE standard combination is one of the best and safest standards that we can offer the consumer, and we're very confident with that offering. Based on our media research, some people are going to be die-hard Snell. That's just the case. But then there are going to be other people who understand that DOT/ECE offers a premium level of protection."

Fair enough.

Always smiling, Lio thanks me for the interview and goes back to work. Hong, Kim, Lu take me to lunch. When we return, we see Lio sitting on a stool. Before him is an open box, instructions, and furniture parts.

"We have to put our desks together," Hong explains.

During my 50-mile ride back to the Dealernews office, I think about this odd detail, and about what Kim and Lio said right before lunch.

"It has been really a labor of love for us," Kim said. "This is our baby right now."

Lio echoed the sentiment. "If it didn't turn out the way it is today, I would be crushed, because we put in so much effort."