36 years in, the venerable cycling clothing company remains close to home
LEUVEN, Belgium (VN) — At age 70, Frans Verbeeck gets up early every morning and walks down his quiet driveway to work.
Verbeeck raced as a professional for years — often placing second to a certain Eddy Merckx but winning a few himself. After retiring, he began importing Santini cycling clothes in 1977, operating the business out of his house in rural Flanders. As that business blossomed, he decided to launch his own clothing company, and VermarcSports was born in 1989.
Today, Vermarc is an international company with 52 employees. It sponsors the ProTeams Quick Step, Omega Pharma-Lotto and AG2R-La Mondiale, and makes custom kits for thousands of other smaller teams and clubs. Yet Verbeeck still manages to work only steps from his front door.
After years of wrangling with local officials over zoning regulations, Verbeeck and his son and company CEO Marc Verbeeck were able to construct a modern building directly across the one-lane road from Verbeeck’s house. Traveling to visit Vermarc using GPS, you would swear you had been steered wrong, as the surrounding area is agricultural fields and small houses, about 10km north of the college town of Leuven.
“Frans didn’t want to move the company into an industrial zone. He cannot live without the business,” said Umberto Ottolina, Vermarc’s import/export manager and a 25-year employee. “He is the first man in every day.”
Vermarc still uses much of Verbeeck’s house and its accompanying outbuildings for sublimation, storage and offices. The new building, with floor-to-ceiling glass walls that face a bucolic field, houses a showroom and management offices plus warehousing.
Some 32 employees work at the headquarters, with another 20 in a second operation in nearby Aalst that does sublimation and sewing.
Sales of official team gear make up a small percentage of business — perhaps 5 percent of sales with about 15,000 Quick Step or Omega Pharma jerseys sold annually, Ottolina says — but custom kits are the company’s bread and butter.
“About 85 percent of the business is custom,” Ottolina said. “We sell all over Europe, plus we have a growing business in the United States, Korea, South Africa and China. They find us — we are not looking — and it’s all because of the sponsored teams.”
About 80 percent of the clothing is manufactured in Italy at A.P.G., the same factory that produces clothing for Giordana and other high-end companies. The other 20 percent is made in Belgium, Ottolina said, because of the need for quick turnaround on certain products.
Between the two facilities, Vermarc offers a staggering selection of cycling clothing. There are seemingly endless options in skinsuits alone: longsleeve in standard or Roubaix fabric, shortsleeve skinsuits in multiple fabrics, kids skinsuits, and on and on. Plus, after an initial deal, clubs and teams can reorder single pieces at a time.
Yet with all of this made in Europe, it comes at a price. Other clothing companies can offer far lower pricing, especially for large orders.
“The only things we can do are quality and good service,” Ottolina said. “Sometimes we have teams that go away for a year, but they always come back. Of course there is a huge price difference. But we are not losing business.”
Vermarc prints all of its designs in Belgium, then ships the giant sheets of ink-laden paper to Italy for sublimation.
“When we started with APG, they didn’t have the capacity to produce what we wanted,” Ottolina said. “Then, they didn’t want to do small orders. Now they are starting to do printing for small orders as well, but we continue to print our own. We also keep all the team papers here just in case we need to do a quick order.”
Editor’s note: Vermarc was one of 17 companies featured in the Custom Clothing Buyer’s Guide of the December VeloNews issue. Digital subscribers can check out the Custom Clothing Guide online. If you are a print subscriber, you can get a digital subscription for $10 by calling customer service at (800) 494-1413.