By Dan Sanchez | Sep 20, 2019
Motorcycling and bicycling apparel and gear
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Motocross and bicycling apparel and gear
Riding motorcycles since high school, O'Neal realized that motocross racing was an emerging sport in the 1960s. As a racer, he says the sport started changing and in 1970 and he saw an opportunity selling motocross fenders and apparel to local motorcycle shops. "I modified a bakery delivery van and used it to sell, deliver, and collect all in one stop," says O'Neal. "In truth, the company van was our first office and warehouse all in one."
Now on the cusp of its 50th anniversary, O'Neal USA is the oldest motorcycle apparel company in the United States. "When I started the company, I called it Jim O'Neal Distributing," he says. "I wasn't trying to promote my name, it was just the quickest and easiest way to open a bank account and file the business paperwork. At that time, I didn't think my name would become a brand."
Operating out of a 66,000-square-foot building, the company now distributes riding gear, apparel, and components for the motocross, mountain biking, and BMX markets.
O'Neal says it was necessary to move its manufacturing overseas. "It wasn't too long ago, we were making jerseys locally," says O'Neal. "They were perfect and they lasted so long wash after wash after wash. But to pay California wages, comply with state environmental laws, find qualified labor, and cover the high overhead of rent and insurance, it just became impossible. Our jerseys would have to retail for about $129 and no one would buy them as all the competitors' products are made overseas and we had to compete. All O'Neal products, however, are designed, developed and tested here in SoCal and some in Europe. We have a great crew of hardworking people here and are proud to have them with us for so long. Our employees have been with us for an average of 18 years."
The O'Neal brand remains the largest within the powersports market, and O'Neal credits the company's involvement with the best riders. "We work closely with the top athletes we sponsor, providing them an open platform to give product feedback," he says. "We learn and work with them to enhance and improve the product. We have initiated our Fueling the Future campaign several years ago which now allows us direct feedback and communication with a large pool of top young amateur athletes nationwide. We also listen to our dealers and are not some big distributor trying to sell 100 different brands to everyone. We sell direct to dealers and we listen to what they say about consumers that walk in their doors."
O'Neal is the rider of record with the most SCORE Baja race wins in history, and has competed in 118 Baja races. "I love torture-testing product myself and with my buddies down in Baja," he says. "Sometimes we get sample products and put nearly 10,000 miles on them before they get to market. In all, we listen, quickly respond, and react, and are market-driven and focused."
The company's success also comes from its use of technical fabrics. "Much of our apparel is made with custom fabrics that allow the rider to remain cool and dry. We work hard to develop both the fabrics and the patterns to allow stretch, mobility and flex all while remaining protective in the event of a crash," says O'Neal. "Making light fabrics is easy. Making apparel, protection, helmets, and boots that are comfortable, functioning, lighter and perform even better in the event of a crash is always what we work on. The product, simply put, just keeps getting better and better."
Challenges: "As a brand, we struggle a little bit to be new and relevant to young consumers. When you are the oldest American MX company and in business for 50 years, you are not new," says O'Neal. "I just want to make sure we continue to build superior quality products that perform and help people enjoy riding."
Opportunities: "For 2020, we have several new helmets that are coming to market," says O'Neal. "These helmets are all new from the ground up and the shell design, fit, and finish is fantastic. We are also looking to increase our market share in the U.S. on the bicycle side. I think with the current status of distributors, a fresh and focused approach on select key products could provide us additional growth over the next five years."
Needs: O'Neal believes land restrictions hurt the industry. "Government restrictions on land use for moto, bicycle, and even horseback riding is ridiculous," he says." This needs to swing back and find a reasonable footprint. Of course, we promote responsible land use, but the government restrictions and actions in robbing our California green sticker budget is simply criminal!"