The road less taken

“We’ll be bold enough to say that we had a lot to do with popularizing outdoor sports in the Philippines. We promoted the category, we supported the community, we baked the pie.” — Willy Sy, Primer Group of Companies co-founder 

Words  POLA ESGUERRA DEL MONTE | Photography  CHARI T. VILLEGAS

Willy Sy of Primer Group, which brought international outdoor sports brands like The North Face, Columbia Sportswear and Quiksilver to the Philippines, looks at brand acquisition as a road race. “Getting brands is just like a marathon,” he said. “You don’t look back and there’s no finish line. You just run straight ahead. Keep on running.”

There are no suits in Primer’s headquarters to support the “spirit of the outdoors.” A Vespa, a gift from an Italian sports apparel company Ellesse (which Primer also distributes), is parked inside the boardroom, a brightly lit space surrounded by the individual offices of the company’s board of directors: CEO Jimmy Thai, Thomas Lim, Johnny Thai, Mr. Sy and his brother Jerry Sy.

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Willy Sy

When Primer was founded in 1985, it focused solely on luggage (it carries 24 bag brands including the ubiquitous backpack icon, Jansport). After building relationships with various sports companies, the directors thought, “Why not expand the category?” Thus arrived outdoor labels like Black Diamond, Coghlan’s, Eddie Bauer, Mountain Hardwear, Nalgene, Nathan, Osprey, Poler, Salomon, Sea To Summit, Teva; and action sports brands DC, FOX, O’Neill, Roxy, Supra, and Volcom—names that are known within their respective fringe communities, whether mountaineering, biking, surfing, or skateboarding.

Primer took the road less taken, pushing what Mr. Sy called “not the regular kind of sports.” The decision sat well with the other board members, since they themselves were “adventure travel” enthusiasts. “Outdoor sports cater to the upper market,” Mr. Sy said. “Come good times or bad times, those people have enough money to spend.”  The brands they carry, he continued, are “recession-proof.”

Outdoor sports wasn’t a “thing” when Primer went into business. “We’ll be bold enough to say that we had a lot to do with popularizing outdoor sports in the Philippines. We promoted the category, we supported the community, we baked the pie.” Because of its niche position, Primer has quite a number of competing brands under its umbrella. “I think all these principals know that we can do the job, and we can do better than others, so they don’t mind,” he said. “We were able to prove that we can handle competing brands. There’s peaceful coexistence.”

The secret is giving everyone equal attention. “You don’t favor one brand over another. Just do what’s best for a particular brand. It’s a healthy competition here. You find ways to keep the business alive. We’ve been doing this for the last 30 years, so we know the ins and outs, we know what to do and not to do.”

Primer continues to find ways to “bake the pie” It has branched out into local tourism through its Great Escapes business unit, which offers specialized tour packages to adventure enthusiasts and luxury travelers. After all, how will there be a demand for the products you sell if there is no opportunity to use them?

Unfortunately for Mr. Sy, the desire to serve the leisure of others has prevented him from pursuing his own. “I used to play golf a lot,” he mused in the vernacular, “but I don’t have time anymore. I’m tied up with so many things in the office.”