Chris Leatt interview
Posted on August 13, 2019
When the Leatt neck brace arrived on the scene back in 2004, it was considered the most important safety device brought into the sport. Within a few years thousands of riders were wearing one, and spinal damage decreased within the sport. Now 14 years later, Leatt isn’t just known for their neck brace, but for a whole range of safety products and cool looking apparel.
Last week Dr Chris Leatt, the founder of the company and a likeable South African visited the Grand Prix of Belgium, to spread the word for rider safety and see if it was possible to get more of a voice within the FIM for a better standard of neck braces. We sat down with him and asked him about his goals for more safety within the sport.
MXlarge: Firstly, it is nice to have you at a Grand Prix. When was the last time you visited a GP?
Leatt: I haven’t been for a while, maybe a decade in fact. So South Africa to Lommel.
MXlarge: So why Lommel?
Leatt: I think we have critical mass now, with all the new products. The team is growing the marketing team is growing, social media components are growing. So, with the riders and the new products, it is important for me to interact and understand from the rider’s perspective. How they feel, and what they think of the products and also the people who are not wearing our products, why is that? Also gives me a chance to speak to the media and speak to the FIM, the organizers and see the dynamics of what has changed, or what can change.
MXLarge: I remember when you first started with the brace, your son had just starting to ride, and you saw an accident where somebody died and thus you wanted to prevent that happening and also have a safety device for your son. Firstly, how old is your son now and is he still riding?
Leatt: My son is 22 years old now. He was four at the time. Yes, we still go riding, also with my daughter, fortunately there is no competitiveness about racing, thankfully.
MXLarge: No doubt, when you go riding in the hills, you are all wearing a Leatt brace?
Leatt: Absolutely, head to toe in Leatt.
MXlarge: Obviously it all started with the brace, and now you have a lot of different products. I remember soon after your brace came out, a thousand other braces arrived on the market. How was that for you, as you invented the first one. Do you know how many companies now produce neck braces?
Leatt: I do have a good idea, and there are neck braces and there are neck braces. I won’t pick on names and I think there is one other legitimate neck brace. We test all the braces and ours performs the best. We have the IP and we have allowed a few companies to co-exist with us, because I think it is good to not have a monopoly. There are a few others, when we test braces, that do not perform well. One of the reasons I am here is to push for a standard in neck braces. It is important with a piece of equipment as a neck brace that there is a standard. I can’t do it, somebody else has to do it (like the FIM or Youthstream). There should be an agency to do that. There is some nice movement at the moment, FIM are adapting a new helmet standard, which is a really good standard, so hopefully we will see a standard for neck braces soon.
MXlarge: I mean it is ridiculous if there are neck braces that are more or less just for show?
Leatt: You know the amount of testing and research we have done, and people can put a product on the market with absolutely zero testing. We know what the test results are, but if you go and ask some of the other brace companies where their tests are, and there just are not any. In terms of EU, you can sell a brace in the EU by having a self-declaration with EU testing, which is mostly around materials, but no performance criteria and I think that is ridiculous.
MXlarge: You started with the brace, but you have a lot of different protective products now. Obviously, your neck needs the most protection in this sport. I guess the neck brace is still the product you are most proud of.
Leatt: Absolutely, it is our flag ship product, I think it always will be, it is also a percentage of our sales, obviously not 100% because of all our other product categories. If you look at our helmets, knee braces, everything we do has an inventive component. We really do a lot of testing and we think a lot about the products we produce. Unlike a lot of other companies, our initiative really starts biomedical engineering science and then we make it cool. We can have cool products, but gosh, we have to pass the standards. Interesting enough, we don’t start looking at standards, we start looking at the product and then sometimes have to change the product to pass the standard.
MXlarge: When you mention about the products, you do have some really cool stuff. Looking at the guys from the F&H team, the gear looks really nice. Obviously, FOX is the leader in gear, as far as sales and stuff. Do you use other companies as a motivation to improve in the new markets you reach for?
Leatt: Motivation or target? You have to follow industry trends and that is something we had to get used to. In the beginning we would develop a product when it was ready, put it in the market, but now you have to fit into industry norms. In terms of apparel, you have to be on trend, because if you are not, you are not going to sell them. For sure, we look at what others are doing, and we look at trends in the industry. It is an important part of the business now. It is encouraging to see with our body armour, our body protection, chest protector, how well we have done and how much market share we now have.
MXLarge: Do you think that is because of the brace, because I think many people believe the Leatt brace is still the best brace and such an important introduction into protection for the riders. So, people assume all your products are great quality?
Leatt: We strive for quality and proven medically tested products. Our catch phrase, science of the thrill, it starts with science and it ends with the thrill, so hopefully that is the route we will continue to follow.
MXlarge: The whole experience you are in, with the brace, a protection device for riders, but I can’t imagine running a company and bringing in all the new products is easy. What is the biggest challenge?
Leatt: Well, I am not particularly good at running companies. I am great at starting things, I am not so good in keeping them going. I have a fantastic management team. Leatt is like a family and we have a flat management structure. If you ask any of our dealers, they feel like family. Shaun McDonald is our CEO; he is a born CEO with a solid financial background as a chartered accountant. We look for the best people, people with a proven track record, that also fit into the Leatt family dynamic. That is what has allowed the company to thrive and let me do the R&D, which is what I enjoy doing.
MXlarge: Being involved with the teams. You mentioned you want to see the next EMX race and see Roan (Van De Moosdijk) race. He looks like he has a lot of potential. Do you get the follow the highlights from the GPs?
Leatt: Yes, I watch all the highlights. I also love MotoGP and World Superbike. I must say, I am old school and I love 2-strokes and I was up early in Lommel to smell the two strokes and watch them go past.
MXlarge: How is it being involved in the dealings of signing riders or teams?
Leatt: We have a lot of kids wearing our products, and sometimes when the riders get to a level of being World class, and I find this unfortunate, is then they can’t wear our product, because the team has a deal with another brand. So, you can have riders wearing inferior products because it doesn’t go with the team’s sponsors. I find that really unfortunate and why I think it is important that we have a standard. So, these riders can be protected all the way through. Neck injuries are a major part of the sport. I get the process, but I think it is unfortunate when a team says you can’t wear a Leatt, you can’t wear an Alpinestars, you have to wear this. Is that really the right thing to do?
MXlarge: Obviously there are the different World markets, be it Australia, America, France or wherever. Obviously, America is a massive market, but how are the markets?
Leatt: We are very fortunate. We had a boom at the beginning, then of course we had the recession and we made some marketing errors five or ten years ago. We were too focused on technology and not focus on our end users. That has changed now and what we did well through the recession we carried on full steam ahead and we continued to innervate. Now we have a much better marketing team and a better strategy and at the moment we are doing well, and we are growing in all markets. The US might be good some years and some years we need to work hard.
MXLarge: Do you have a top five products?
Leatt: For me, the C-Frame knee brace is really important. It was a concept I came up with, when you look at riders, they have to adjust their riding style to where their knees are not applied to the motorcycle. They have to change their riding style. We learnt a lot about the knee talked to a lot of knee surgeons about the pivot points and we designed a knee brace where you can touch the motorcycle on the inside with two hinges on the outside and two virtual pivot points. I am really proud of that product. Also, the helmet, with the turbine technology. There has been a movement in the industry with the new FIM safety standard and looking at rotation now. 10 and 15 years ago it was all about linier deceleration, and now we understand that people injure their brains from rotation. So, to have low speed linier damping built into the helmet has been a really interesting research product. Another product I like, and it is a small product for us, but it is the shoulder brace. A lot of athletes dislocate their shoulder and now they have a dilemma, do you have a significant operation, which puts you out for the rest of the season? We looked at the shoulder braces on the market, and they all pull the shoulder down and forward. How do you dislocate your shoulder, well 85% of them happen with your shoulder going down and forward? So, we did the opposite and we worked with surgeons and developed a shoulder brace that pushes your shoulder up and back. So now the shoulder brace makes it possible for the rider to ride out the season and have the operation at the end of the season. Our googles are bullet proof and an exciting product. Watching the Leatt apparel ride by, I think we have some pretty funky designs.