By GEORGINA BOND
Waterwear company Snapper Rock is cruising into the market for youth sailing apparel - and it all started as a small business assignment for "skipper" Liz Eglinton.
After moving to America two-and-a-half years ago when husband Mark transferred, Eglinton enrolled in a small-business course because she didn't have a work visa and "wanted something to do".
Living in the thick of the keen sailing community in Annapolis, Maryland, near Washington DC, she based an assignment to devise a business plan for a new venture on producing clothing for young sailors.
In the process, she noticed hardly any sailing gear was available for the young people who spent a lot of time on the water and in holiday sailing camps. Most wore surf clothing or mini versions of adult sailing gear.
Materials did not "breathe" and garments provided little sun protection.
Talks with sailing coaches and people in the industry, including Team New Zealand skipper Dean Barker, confirmed the market gap and she started to see her assignment as a real business opportunity.
A former marketer for Lion Nathan, Eglinton had no experience in the rag trade, but found a New Zealand clothing designer with a sailing background to help produce samples.
The designs are influenced by the uniforms of some America's Cup crews, with practical adaptions for young people.
So far the range includes short and long-sleeved fast-drying water tops with UVF 50+ broad spectrum sun protection, and warm titanium wetsuit tops.
Eglinton said the name Snapper Rock came from the idea that "everyone in New Zealand has their own snapper rock - their own legendary fishing spot".
The brand was launched last October at a boat show in Annapolis.
Day one served Eglinton a terrific surprise when the the US general manager for British sailing brand Henri Lloyd approached her with an offer to buy the business.
Although highly flattered, she turned it down.
"We were so new I wasn't prepared to give it up. But it was encouraging to have that interest in the brand - it confirmed we were on to something."
The brand was promoted at junior sailing regattas and advertised in industry magazines. First season sales came relatively easily as there was little competition.
It is now stocked in six stores in the United States and sales there are expected to treble in the next year.
The US market is now mainly handled by a sales rep since the Eglintons shifted back to Auckland in April.
Eglinton is keen to see how sales go in New Zealand this summer.
The brand is stocked in four marine stores, and sponsorship of top youth sailors is being negotiated.
Eglinton sees the New Zealand market meshing well with the US.
She's glad to have done things a bit backwards from most New Zealand businesses by launching in the United States first.
"If we had started in New Zealand it would be daunting thinking we now have to tackle America,"she said.
Interest is also strong in Australia and a distribution deal with a leading marine supplier is being discussed. There are plans to expand the range to include sailing shorts and jackets.
Eglinton said her lack of experience in the clothing industry probably worked to her advantage.
"If I had known the hurdles I probably wouldn't have gone through with it," she said.
Cross-country sizing issues and the personal investment required to get stock up front have been the biggest challenges.
Early suspicions as to why the youth sail-wear market was largely untapped also had to be put to rest before she took the plunge.
"Starting a small business is just a matter of doing it," she said.
"You don't have to be a rocket scientist. It's just a matter of taking the bull by the horns."