Joola Table Tennis

Interview with Richard Lee
President

Joola are one of the world's top table tennis equipment manufacturers. Find out more about them in this exclusive interview

 By Martin Hughes
 Owner and Editor

The Joola table tennis brand started in the 1950s in Landau, Germany but in 2019 it was acquired by US based Sport Squad, a company specialising in game room equipment.

Richard Lee and Michael Bachtler - Joola Table Tennis Richard Lee and Michael Bachtler

In 2019 Richard Lee of Sport Squad in the USA took over the company from Michael Bachtler in Germany who had been responsible for Joola as Managing Director since 1968.

You can read my previous interview with Michael Bachtler here

In 2020 I caught up with Richard and asked him a few questions about the acquisition and his plans for the Joola brand.

 


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Hi Richard,

Thanks for sharing your time with me here at All About Table Tennis.com

 

Q.  Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how you became involved in table tennis?

 

A.  I started playing table tennis when I was about 12 years old. I'm in Maryland, USA, and we had a Chinese coach in our area.

I also started playing at Chinese school at the weekends and started getting private lessons. My two main coaches - Cheng Yinghua and Jack Huang - were both previous Chinese team members who moved to this area. Cheng represented the USA at the 2000 Sydney Olympic Games. They got me started in table tennis and I played for the US Junior Team for a couple of years before I went to The Johns Hopkins University.

My sister also played for the US Junior Team for one or two years, but my parents don't play. In the USA many players start playing when they're at school, but tend to stop playing when they go to University as they focus on their education. I play occasionally now, but not as often as I'd like. It's great for fitness. I did play in the 2018 World Veterans Championships in Las Vegas and that was a blast.

When I was still at school I got involved in starting a table tennis club. We got some funding from the school for tables and coaching and we decided to do a fundraiser tournament. We got a couple of locals involved that I know from table tennis and we ran a 4 star tournament that year. We were only expecting about 100-200 players but we had 450 players enter.

I'm a Computer Science Major, but this level of entry got my interest in business even more.

From there, I was doing an Internship over the summer in Taiwan and Larry Hodges and Jim McQueen approached me. There used to be a US Open Teams Championships which was held in Detroit for about 30 years and when the organiser decided to stop running it, we took over the organising. It was a big event on the calendar over Thanksgiving. I was asked if I was interested in helping run that tournament. Within a couple of months we organised everything and ran it as the North American Teams Championships and moved it to Baltimore.

After finishing at University we wrote some software for the USATT to help them manage their ratings system and that continued for about 15 years. We also helped the USATT run the US Open and US Nationals, so after finishing at university I became someone promoting table tennis.

We also ran the North American Tour for about ten years with six or seven 4 star tournaments all around the USA, and we were running the Junior Olympics. So we were the "go to" event management company for larger scale table tennis events. And the peak of that was when we worked with Gordon Kaye on the World Veterans Championships which took place in Las Vegas in 2018.

Running events has always been our passion in promoting table tennis, and one of our missions is to bring professional table tennis closer to the recreational players here in the USA.


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Q.  How did you first get involved with Joola?

 

A.  Around 2006 when we were organising our events, we were sponsored by Stiga, but we decided to switch away from them because there were some financial issues on their side, so we went to Germany for a meeting with Joola.

We had an exciting conversation with them and they suggested that we take over their US distribution. At the time, Paddle Palace were the US distributors, but because they dealt with around 10-15 different brands, they weren't able to focus on just the Joola brand. However, we could focus solely on Joola.

So in 2006 we became the US distributors and started selling just their top of the range professional products. Later we moved to selling their leisure/recreational ranges as well and we went to some of the largest retailers in the USA such as Sears, Walmart, Costco, Amazon, Target etc, and they all became customers of ours. We do lots of business with them.

It was a lot of work to move from event management to selling equipment and then to go after the large retailers as well. So we've converted ourselves over time into what we are today.


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Q.  How did your recent acquisition of the Joola brand come about?

 

A.  Joola have been in existence since the 1950s and Michael Bachtler has been with them since the start.

Michael has done great work with Joola including being the official table tennis table supplier for the Olympic Games in 1996, 2000 and 2004, but he was looking at exit strategies and what would be the next step for Joola.

We've had a great relationship since we took over as the US distributors, but it took us two years to finalise the deal.

Michael remains part of our team for now whilst we get all the right people in place, but he'll retire soon.


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Q.  What percentage of your business does the Joola brand contribute?

 

A.  Joola is the largest brand within Sport Squad, and it accounts for around 70-80% of our business.

We also have the iPong table tennis robots, and they'll become part of the Joola brand. In fact we did a Kickstarter project last year for the Joola iPong Infinity which will launch at the end of this year (December 2020). So that iPong product will become part of the Joola brand.

We're also in the process of rebranding the Joola range and we'll have a new catalogue out soon.


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Q.  Can you tell me about the new Joola logo?

 

A.  Branding and logos evolve and develop over the years and the original Joola logo was looking a little bit tired and we thought it needed a bit more energy. It also seemed like the right time to redesign it, so we've now made it more modern, and given it a new energy.

New Joola logo
New Joola logo It's a stylised "J", in a triangular shape, with a modern font. It was all done in-house by our graphic designers through our marketing team and I'm really pleased with it. It's taken about 6-8 months of development to get to this new logo.

In our new catalogue we've explained the triangular shaped icon. It represents how we describe our business. There are three pillars - Innovation, Inclusion and Inspiration.


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Q.  Can you give us an idea of the size of your business?

 

A.  We've got about 30 employees in the USA, and about 50 in Germany, 25 in China and 4 in Brazil.

For Germany that includes office staff, warehouse and production, whilst the China office deals with sourcing, product development and back office support. The Brazil office will focus on the south american market as well.

The German office will continue, but we'll be moving brand marketing and product assessment to the US office because we want to put a new spin/direction on the brand.




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Q.  Do you have any plans for the business that you can share with us?

 

A.  Yes. In our new catalogue you'll see that we've completely redeveloped our Joola rubber lines. We've reduced the range by about 30%, and we'll probably reduce it even more in the next couple of years.

At present, it's way too confusing for the average player to understand all the different rubbers. Even the good players need plenty of time to study the range before they can make an informed choice. So we've set out 5 different levels - Premium, Professional, Performance, Progressive and Precision. It's now a much more focused product line.

The premium level is aimed at the top player and our new premium level rubber is the Dynaryz ACC and AGR rubbers.

Joola Dynaryz ACC rubber Joola Dynaryz AGR rubber Joola Dynaryz ACC and AGR rubbers

Previously our top level rubber was Rhyzer Pro 50 and we would ask our manufacturer to make a special version just for our pro players. Well that special version is now our Dynaryz ACC and AGR rubbers.

With these 5 different levels of rubbers, we want to make it easier for customers to choose the right ones.

In addition, all the packaging has been redesigned so that you'll now see the brand name more prominently which will raise the Joola profile. Previously, the name of the rubber was more prominent and we wanted to change that.

We want our brand to be one of the first that customers see on the shelf when they go into a shop. In the past, Joola was perceived as a cheaper brand just because there wasn't as much marketing compared to other brands.

We want to maintain similar type pricing but also inform consumers that they're still getting a premium product, and to give us a try.

Most of our rubbers are made in Germany, but some are made in Japan and China.


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Q.  Can you tell us about your sponsorship agreement with USATT for Joola tables?

 

A.  We've supported USATT for a very long time but our sponsorship contracts ended a year ago, and they're currently on hold.

The USATT had a new leadership last year and we're not clear what their vision of USATT is, going forward.

When I was working with the prior leadership it was very clear. They had clear vision, clear goals and clear direction. There was a real strategy behind everything they were doing.

Unfortunately there was a shake-up in the leadership and we're just waiting to see what happens next.

We haven't discussed any renewals yet, and I think they're still trying to establish their future direction.

We'll support them again in the future if it makes sense to do so.


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Q.  Can you give us your thoughts on the state of table tennis in the USA and where Joola fits in?

 

A.  Table tennis in the USA, or Ping Pong as we call it, is hugely popular in people's homes.

In the USA we tend to have larger houses which means we have room for table tennis tables in basements, garages and back yards.

In fact, our Joola recreation/leisure tables account for more than 90% of our table sales, far out-stripping our sales of professional "ITTF approved" Joola tables.

We're in a strong position in the recreation/hobby market. It's a big part of our business and there's plenty of opportunities to grow even more.

What we're trying to do is to get these players from hobby players to "pro-sumers" and away from buying rackets at $2-$3. We want to show them that there are better rackets available and to get them to try them. They'll learn more about the equipment and this will introduce them to top level sport.

But we're a long way from table tennis being seen as a major sport in the USA. We have the top professional sports of Football, Basketball, Hockey and Baseball which dominate and anything else is just "noise".

In my opinion there's too much politics in table tennis and they haven't found a good direction yet.


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Q.  Do you get to attend and/or watch the top ITTF events?

 

A.  Yes. I go to the World Championships every year and I think the ITTF put on a good show. It's not how I'd present it in the USA, but they do put on a good show.

We've got the World Championships Finals in Houston, Texas next year (17-26 June 2021) and that'll be a huge opportunity to showcase table tennis in the USA, but I haven't heard much about it yet.


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Q.  Can you tell us more about the new Joola catalogue which will be out soon?

 

A.  In our new catalogue we've included a lot more information about our Joola rubbers and blades in order to help the customer decide which rubbers will suit them. For example, you'll find detailed specifications about the pimples, such as the width and geometry of the pimples.

The rubbers and blades are now shown in five different levels - Premium, Professional, Performance, Progressive and Precision. There are 2 Premium rubbers, 6 Professional rubbers, 10 Performance rubbers, 7 Progressive rubbers and 3 Precision rubbers. Then there are 7 Premium blades, 7 Professional blades, 9 Performance blades, 4 Progressive blades and 3 Precision blades.

Our new Joola clothing range will use more technical fabrics, with dry-fit and breathability etc, and of course they'll all feature the new Joola logo.

The table tennis balls will also have the new logo prominently featured, as will the new table tennis shoes, tables and accessories.

I'm really pleased with the new look we've created.


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Q.  Are you looking to have more player endorsements to supplement these changes?

 

A.  Not at the moment. We're still in the rebuild phase and we want players to choose our Joola brand because they like our product. The timing has to be right for us.

The top 10-15 players already have good relationships with brands, so we'll be looking to be a part of the development of a future top player.

 

 

Thank you Richard.

I appreciate you taking the time to answer my questions.

 


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