Interview: Thule's Magnus Welander

By Matt Pacocha, US editor | Saturday, May 1, 2010 7.00am

Magnus Welander, 44, is the new CEO of bike rack company Thule. Just a couple of weeks into his new role, he has taken the helm at a crucial time for the Swedish business.

After buying Colorado-based Case Logic two years ago, they're poised to break into the sports luggage market with their new Crossover range. This includes four roller bags that are built around robust aluminium ‘V-Tubing’ frames which take design cues from Thule's rack systems.

There are also complementary duffel bags and backpacks which feature aluminium hardware and share the rolling line’s water resistant fabrics. All seven pieces incorporate a ‘Safe Zone’ pocket meant to protect fragile, crushable gear. Prices range from US$119.99 to $319.99.

BikeRadar secured the first interview with Welander as CEO outside of Sweden during a visit to Case Logic in Longmont, Colorado. Promoted from within, he inherits the helm from Anders Pettersson, who will remain on the board of directors.

Welander is young and, internally, described as hands-on. He’s said to be someone who knows the day-to-day processes of much of the brand’s business and isn’t afraid to jump in when something isn’t working.

BikeRadar: So, you’ve just taken over at Thule. How’s it going, and will consumers see any sort of change?

Magnus Welander: In [such a short time] you can’t say how it’s going, but I’ve worked in one of the business areas within the group for traditional Thule products and I was responsible for all the countries outside the US and Canada. I know the brand well, I know the company well and that means the overview of our strategy doesn’t change that much.

Consumers will see some differences in the coming year or two. We're focusing on the front end of the business. We've improved our homepage significantly, making it much easier for the consumer to find products, dealers and the things they need. The packaging is newly launched this year. In the past, you more or less you had to break open the package to understand what was inside. We’ve changed that, showing more pictures and explaining more.

Another thing we’re working on is working with athletes, by providing them with products and getting their feedback. We have a multisport team called Team Thule Adventure and we get feedback from these most extreme users of our products. They take a kayak on and off a car three times a day, every day of the year. There’s no user like them, and consumers get the long-term upside.

What’s it like to take charge of a global company?

I think I have one of the most fun jobs you can have. I love the active lifestyle. Last summer I traveled around in Colorado and Utah, did rappelling [abseiling] in Zion, mountain biking and rafting in Moab. I love the things we do – that’s a great starting point, if you like your own product and you like to use your things.

Secondly, since it's international it's interesting to see the differences in a Latin American market to that of a Northern European market, but there are also many similarities. If you take a shop in Colombia, guys going biking there have the same attitude as somewhere else in the world. There's the aspect of difference that makes it fun, but there’s this red thread that runs through it bringing it together. It's an incredibly fun job – I have to say that.

Does the current state of the world economy add an element of pressure?

I wouldn’t say that much, for our product range. Of course it always does and it’s nicer when there’s a great world economy, but you buy our products because you want to do something, not because you need to.

That means that many of the people who buy these products are saying, 'I still want to have fun in life; I might cut back a little, but I do want to go out and bike or take that trip'. So we haven’t taken the same hit as other types of companies in the downturn of the economy.

Auto rack giants thule now have a comprehensive range of luggage: auto rack giants thule now have a comprehensive range of luggage

Thule were showing off their new luggage at this year's Sea Otter Classic

Tell us a bit about Thule’s foray into luggage ...

For years we’ve had consumers asking why we don’t make solutions for travel, especially since they’re already using so many Thule products. When we acquired Case Logic we gained a competence that we didn’t have. We weren't strong on the soft-sided goods, we weren't strong on fabrics and we didn’t know how to play that side as well. We were very good at metal and plastics.

We gained this competence with Case Logic and we had consumers asking for smarter active lifestyle products. We tried to aim for that delicate balance of not too sporty but not too city- or business-like either. It’s the balancing act of finding a product range.

It’s not [a question of] ‘I only go out biking' or 'I only travel to big cities’ – many of the ideal Thule consumers do both. We went this way because we felt nobody was really combining the two. There were some really good sports bags and some really nice expensive luggage, but nobody was matching the two.

How did Thule find Case Logic?

There’s always the question of doing it (moving into new areas) organically yourself or finding someone with the competence and acquiring them. After looking around and deciding that we didn’t have the internal competence to go into soft-sided products, we looked for a company in a clear change mode that was already mentally open to doing new things.

What we liked about Case Logic is that they had already made this dramatic change from only making CD wallets into photo-video, computers and even dipping their toes in luggage. They were mentally prepared.

We looked at other companies that did luggage as well, but they were all very ingrained – ‘we do this type of bag and nothing else’. We wanted a team that was open, that would roll with the flow and find opportunities. That’s why Case Logic fit.

In terms of history, Case Logic had many similarities with Thule. They were entrepreneur-driven and started in a small place in the middle of nowhere – in Thule’s case Sweden, in Case Logic’s a small place in Colorado – And they both went global.

One of those things [to bear in mind] when you acquire a company – make sure they actually like the same things you do. Here, there was a match. They go biking at lunch, they do yoga – exactly like our company.

Thule are well known for their environmental conscience. Where do those initiatives come from?

If you have people who like the active lifestyle and who live out in nature, by default you get a bigger interest. We're far from perfect. We’re not proud of everything we do environmentally, but we at least work on it all the time and try to improve.

We have solar panels. We have cleaning days and green themes in the environment close to our factories. We have a very long way to go, but we have a mindset among the employees that's there all the time. In some companies it can be top down. This is a company where it bubbles all the time from the bottom up.

There are more proposals coming from the employees of our company than the company, partly because of the type of interest these guys have. So there’s a long way to go for us, but there's a constant moving in the right direction and that’s the nice thing.

What would you like people to know about Thule that they don’t already?

One of the things they probably don’t know is just how global the company is – you can find our products in more than 145 countries around the world – and that Thule was founded in a small tool shed in a small forest in Sweden, where we still have a large part of our product development.

Thule has a very long heritage of wanting to make products that people really like. We have internal product testing teams and there’s no-one more ruthless than that team because they want to make aspirational products.

Look out for reviews of Thule’s 87-Liter Rolling Duffel (US$299.99) and 30-Liter Backpack ($119.99) on BikeRadar soon.

Thule.: thule.

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