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Hydro-Turf retains traction in challenging industry

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Jeff Hemmel, Contributing Writer
February 9, 2013
Filed under Features, Top Stories

Mat maker expands operations for faster production

Much like Kleenex or Xerox in their respective product categories, the Hydro-Turf brand has come to define the traction mat market in the personal watercraft industry. For more than 20 years, the company’s familiar mat materials have been underfoot, first as consumer replacements and later as stock mat material on OEM brands from Yamaha to Kawasaki.

In between, the brand has also gotten into the replacement seat cover business, most recently launching the HT Premier series aimed at the higher-end market. At its core, however, Hydro-Turf remains successful with very much the same product it brought to market all those years ago.

And while new competition certainly has had its effect (Hydro-Turf recently added a second shift to lower its turnaround time to 24-48 hours), it’s the brand’s familiar EVA padding, custom seat covers and longstanding reputation for quality that seem certain to carry it into the future.

Water … and beyond
It’s been 23 years since the Hydro-Turf brand first appeared on the market. In some ways the company’s history stretches even longer. It was Arno Olbricht’s brother, Curt, who initially made the foray into the PWC aftermarket with Jet Strip, a pad company that used brightly colored Neoprene to replace the all-black rubber padding that was the norm. When the younger brother turned his focus to law school before becoming a Navy pilot, Arno, the elder Olbricht, stepped in and bought the company.

He changed the name to Hydro-Turf following a switch in material to EVA foam, the same basic material used to this day. It was a material used by a competitor — Sano Pads — but rather than a thin 3mm top sheet, Hydro-Turf offered a thicker 5mm pad with a grooved surface to enhance traction.

The Hydro-Turf HT Premier line targets the high-end user, and is part of the company’s recent expansion.

Says Arno: “We quickly grew to be the No. 1 mat, and have had a very good run for the last 20 years.”

Though the brand started with consumer sales, the quick acceptance of the product led OEMs to also come calling. Early on, Hydro-Turf worked with niche brands like Laser Jet, PJS and Typhoon. Polaris was the first major OEM account. Today, Hydro-Turf continues to supply the matting material for both Yamaha and Kawasaki, and has expanded into the larger boating market. Olbricht counts Chaparral, Yamaha and Hobie Cat among the brand’s clients and notes the company has also expanded into the growing watersports market.

“We do a lot of private label product for some other customers, including those in the wake-surf, surfing and snow-skate industry. Stand-up paddle has also become a very large market for us in the last five or six years,” he said.

No dedicated sales force searches out these clients. Instead, most of these customers have actually come to the company.

“People come up with different applications for the material,” Olbricht said. “We don’t do a lot of outside sales. We haven’t had the need to pursue new accounts because they seem to find us through word of mouth. We’ve been able to expand into different markets that way fairly easily and fairly successfully.”

Under the HT Moto designation, the company has also expanded into the motorsports market. At first it was simply by request, with riders asking for motorcycle, dirt bike and ATV seat covers. But by adding a pattern to their database each time a seat was created, the company eventually built up an inventory of nearly all the seat patterns in the market.

“Now we make an effort to keep up with all the different models,” Olbricht said.

The HT Moto brand has become increasingly popular in AMA racing.

“That’s a growing effort for us. We’ve also become quite popular with the freestyle sport bike riders. We did some advertising, but the growth has been more through word of mouth, and through sponsorship of riders like Jason DiSalvo, Bill Dixon and Jason Britton.”

The brand’s expertise in PWC freestyle carried over to the moto side well. The company not only provides a better nonslip surface, but actually replaces the majority of foam in the seat, changes the shape, and even builds in footholds and reinforcements. The familiar Hydro-Turf padding is also used under the HT Moto label for tank pads.

The PWC market accounts for about 80 percent of Hydro-Turf’s sales.

Hydro-Turf has even reached as far as the space program. SpaceX, the firm known for being the first private company to ever return a spacecraft from low-Earth orbit, uses the material to pad their rockets and capsules during transport.

Though the personal watercraft market still accounts for about 80 percent of the brand’s sales, Olbricht admits there’s a lot of potential for further growth outside of the market where it originally made its name.

“We’ve kind of let it almost flow naturally,” Olbricht said of the company’s newest directions. “Whatever markets seem to be interested in the product, that’s the direction that we’ve gravitated towards.”

A replaceable product
The company has succeeded during an era when many aftermarket brands have failed. Traction mats and seat covers are a universal need, unaffected by the transition from two-stroke to four-stroke engines or the shift to a recreational-dominated market that has little need or desire to invest in performance parts to make their craft go faster or handle better.

Thanks to use and exposure to the elements, mats and seats still tend to dry, tear or wear out. Replacing them is also one of the simplest ways to freshen up an aging craft, or give a PWC a custom look.

The original product itself, however, deserves its share of credit. “We were fortunate enough to develop a good product right off the bat,” Olbricht said. “The material really hasn’t changed in 23 years. We’ve expanded our colors, now we’re doing more two-tones, textures and molded materials, but the original material still is our most popular. We’re fortunate enough to have developed a good product from the beginning, and the two markets that we’re into — traction mats and seat covers — all the old and new watercraft need, and need to be replaced on a regular basis. Add in the quality of our customer service staff — we don’t have a sales staff here; we have a customer service staff and their primary function is to make sure that our customers are happy — and that’s a good position to be in.”

 

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