Interview with John Robinson, KEE CEO

By February 19, 2012 Interviews 20 Comments

ProPaintball caught up with John Robinson, President & CEO of KEE Action Sports (home of Empire, JT & BT Paintball), for a quick chat about NPPL vs PSP debate, his background in paintball, and growing the game. Read on for an awesome interview!

1: How did you get involved with paintball? What career path led you to becoming CEO of KEE?

John Robinson: I played paintball for the first time in 1995 at a field in Fanling, Hong Kong. I was living, playing pro basketball and working in Hong Kong at the time. I started working in paintball in 2006 when I was transferred to JT. At the time, K2 owned JT and it was the last of my 5 stops in my K2 career. After Jarden bought out K2 and made the decision to sell the paintball business to KEE, I was asked by the KEE ownership to join as CEO. So, my path to KEE was by over 20 years of sporting goods experienced and I am now in my 7th year in paintball.

2. Lot of discussion last year about a league merger. What was KEE’s position?

John Robinson: KEE has been fairly vocal for the past year that we would like to see a merger between the PSP and the NPPL. There are many reasons for our position, which starts with pure economics. But more importantly, it’s about making a league more meaningful and aspirational for new players. We aspire for our Pro Players to become more recognizable and marketable, while earning a living by playing and promoting paintball full time. KEE’s vision includes a plan to get to that point and beyond. One Pro league makes that much, much easier.

3. Once the merger talks fell apart what were the major decisions KEE had to make regarding
sponsorship?

John Robinson: We remained committed to our position that we would only sponsor one league. That didn’t and doesn’t mean we won’t support both leagues. There is a difference in the two terms. But it was important to us to understand and discuss a “vision” with both leagues and then sponsor the league that best matches our views and direction on growing the sport. To do that, there must be a tie back to our grass roots efforts. In short, our marketing plan for new players has to ultimately point to a league and its players.

4. PSP Press Release – why choose them?

John Robinson: The PSP knows who they are. They are committed to a format, a structure, locations and they have a clear vision for the areas they want to grow and improve. In our discussions with the PSP, I was convinced what they want to do and what KEE wants to do and that has the potential to be a very good match.

5. What does this mean for the NPPL?

John Robinson: In short, we will not sponsor the NPPL. However, we will support our teams, partners and customers within the guidelines of the NPPL. We will certainly send our Techs to events and support those that own Empire branded equipment. We will not display or sell our products at the events.

6. What about the Valken rumors?

John Robinson: In our discussions with the leagues, we absolutely brought up the economics of having an open door policy on paint vendors. People have to understand that being committed to sponsoring a league means investing several hundred thousand dollars in sponsorship fees, travel, freight, event support and free/discounted product to sponsored teams and customers. That is before we sell one box. There are a few really good events with 120+ teams, but there are more events with less than that, sometimes as few as 60-70 teams. Throw in 2-3 other paint vendors and there is simply no math that makes being there from a short term economic perspective a good idea.

7. What is your position on the market today?

John Robinson: Competition is a great thing and critically important in any industry. I respect the companies that build their brand through innovation/great product, packaging, sharp marketing and clever ideas. Dye, for instance has done a great job with their brand. In particular, the Rotor launch and execution a few years back was tremendous. Tippmann, historically is another who has done a really good job with their brand. I would also throw in DXS and Eclipse. To me, that is where the game amongst companies is played. I want to out develop and out promote the other companies in our industry. If that’s where the game is played, the consumer and the industry win.

8. Growing the Sport – what are your thoughts about how to do this?

John Robinson: Everyone is using this phrase as if just saying it is actually going to do something. It doesn’t matter if I am listening to a pitch from a league, watching chatter on a paintball website, or reading something another company is trying to do. The reality is for the past 5-6 years there have been no significant impactful initiatives to grow the sport. But that is about to change. This summer we are introducing a comprehensive concept/product line to drive new participants to our sport. I believe it is going to be a tremendous shot in the arm for paintball.

9. Can you elaborate?

John Robinson: The SPLAT of the paintball and the adrenalin rush of our game is what makes paintball great. There are many other qualities, but that’s our hook. For the first time player though, the barriers are high. It may be a kid’s mom who doesn’t like the noise or the bruising. It may be a kid that get can’t handle getting hit. It may be the expense of getting into it, the logistical issues of finding a field, or the many other areas that prevent someone from getting in. We have to attack all of these areas. Personally, I think Airsoft is lame, but they have capitalized on these and other areas to build a solid industry. So, it’s time for us to address these issues and ensure when a kid pulls a trigger for the first time, a paintball is what comes out of the barrel.

10. KEE is sometimes referred to as the “Evil Empire” – how do you respond to that?

John Robinson: It’s part of what comes from being the largest player in the industry. We certainly have our shortcomings, as all Companies do, but we work on improving every day. Our focus is on developing great products and driving people to our sport. Our record over the past couple of years demonstrates our commitment and what is coming in roughly 5 months will send a strong signal to the market we are serious about driving participation. I pay very close attention to thoughtful commentary about our company and our product. I completely ignore the emotional banter that lacks fact or credibility. Our focus is on building a great, branded Company that sets the standard for supporting our teams, players, leagues, customers and most importantly, drives new people to and retains them in our sport.

11. One of KEE’s flagship brands, JT Paintball, has been marketed pretty aggressively in big box retail stores like Walmart, Dicks, etc. What is your plan for big box retail and how does it fit in the big picture?

John Robinson: We feel strongly that the Mass/Retail channel is critical to exposing a broader group of consumers to paintball. The JT brand is the cornerstone of that strategy. We have worked exceptionally hard to offer quality, value based product in the Mass/Retail channel specifically targeted at first and second time players. Our belief is if the consumer has a good experience with this product, they will graduate to higher end product that is available in our Traditional channel. Obviously, there is a delicate balance and we try to manage that through branding and product features. The Empire brand, for instance, has very little visibility in the Mass/Retail channel and is intended to be more aspirational and Traditional channel focused. All that said, the JT brand has a rich heritage in the traditional market. There is no group more passionate about the JT brand than the guys from XSV. They definitely have some great ideas for JT and it will be exciting to see what they do in the months and years ahead.

12. Where do you see paintball (in general) in 3 years? Up, down, flat, left, or right? Which way?

John Robinson: We are very bullish on the future of paintball. We believe we have a great opportunity to start moving the needle with our product launch this summer. In addition, we have really worked hard to increase our product development pipeline for Empire, Empire Battle Tested, and JT. I believe people will be excited at the new products we will introduce over the next 12 months and beyond. Over the next 2-3 years, as we more firmly establish that link between the first time player and the Pro, we believe there will be tremendous opportunity for everyone from Field/Pro Shop owners to the Pro players. It should be a fun ride.

Thank you very much for your time John. We appreciate Empire’s continued support of professional paintball. For more information on Empire, please visit EmpirePaintball.com.

20 Comments

  • amargio1 says:

    nice job justin..great article..

  • Dork McDorkerson says:

    Mr.Robinsons point of view sounds like Bill Gates justification when they were holding a near monopoly over the desktop PC world. Sure, it made sense to Bill to protect the direction things were going in order to protect their bottom line. The end users? Pfft, they were going to buy a new PC anyhow, it’s not our fault they had next to no choice on what operation system they got. If you hate us that much, go buy a Mac. They still had a “choice”.

    KEE has a near monopoly on the sport, like old Mr.Gates did. They own multiple competing companies, hold most of the patents, and supply a majority of the paint. Sure nothing is forcing you to do business with them, but if you don’t play ball, be ready for them to stop doing business with anyone else who does business with you (and don’t think they don’t play that game, ask any retailer). Oh wait, those other companies can’t, but they sure can do without you. Whoops, now you’re out of business! That worked out real well…

    KEE needs to be broken up, or they need to be forced to sell off some of the IP. The sport can’t grow (and hasn’t) when someone holds such a strong grip over the majority of the industry. Companies like KEE keep innovation from happening. They hamper small companies from getting out there, even with better products. How many small companies does KEE distribute today? Zero. How many small companies can compete with KEE’s prices? Zero. How many small companies can come to market with a competitive product when KEE has acquired almost all the patents in the sport? Zero, unless you pay KEE part of your profits, which defeats the purpose.

    F it, you might as well just get a job working for them or start playing airsoft…

    • mature says:

      Welcome to a mature industry.

      it’s not 1995 anymore. Virtually every industry gets to a point where there are 2-4 major players and coming in as a new company requires either a phenomenally earth-moving new technology or business method (see: netflix) or a whole bunch of capital. Without those two things, the established players, who have large economy of scale or existing patented technology, are going to just be in a better position than any new upstarts.

      Fact of the matter is if you expected to start a new paintball company and make it big, you’re 15 to 20 years too late.

      Even if KEE were a monopoly, which it isn’t, who cares? You can get guns that perform very well for under $300, hoppers for under $100, great masks for under $100 … and paint is cheaper than it’s ever been. It sounds like the current paintball companies are doing just fine at offering good products to the consumer at fair prices.

      Just because a new small company has trouble making the economics work out doesn’t mean there’s a problem. Business is hard. If it was easy everyone would be doing it.

      • Brandon says:

        Ha, I agree with mature. Seems like KEE is one of the few companies that with some legitimate strategic planning in place. If a small company wants to innovate and create a new product then they need to go through the avenues that the rest of the world goes through. That’s just the reality of business in the real world. Think about how a company in another industry gets to the top… it’s tough but if you have a good product and concept, you can compete.

  • Something Missing says:

    While it is true KEE holds a huge grip on our sport, I find it really hard to take a negative stance because of it. We as players and supporters of this sport are constantly striving to earn respect in the sporting world. KEE has invested millions in OUR sport. Yes, they have driven prices down and created huge barriers to entry for those thinking about forming new paintball businesses. But, that can also be an advantage to current and new paintball businesses. I applaud KEE for believing in OUR sport enough to see it as a hugely viable business opportunity.

    John Robinson covered many topics in this interview. One glaring omission was at no time did he talk about the people that work at KEE. In my opinion, this is where KEE is lacking. By turning a blind eye to some of their employees’ complete lack of customer service, they have hindered additional revenue. I hear consistent grumblings about a number of frontline KEE employees that continue to have an old school mentality by favoring or blacklisting certain companies, teams, and individuals. Unfortunately, any upstream customer service complaints or issues run directly into these frontline employees. Since these individuals lack serious skills in the relationship and retention area, KEE has put themselves in a position of having a negative reputation in this aspect of their business.

    I am sure there are a number of quality, passionate, and decent people working at KEE, but Mr. Robinson needs to take a hard, and HONEST look at those individuals that are souring the overall image of such a great investor in our sport.

    • I can tell you that Mr. Robinson does look at the quality of the KEE employees. I have had the oppertunity to sit down and speak with him personally. He really is about KEE being a customer service driven company, to both the retail customers they deal with and the end user. Does that mean everyone that works at KEE is up to the job maybe not. But they are always working to improve.

      As for IP and small companies trying to develope new products. I believe KEE has actually made many of the hurdles easier to clear then the previous holders of those IPs.

  • Tim says:

    Ther real issue regarding growth of the sport isnt the equipment or prices of paint. There are cheap options available anywhere you look. The issue is the fields. They are the “end user’s” first look. Refs and management need to make it loud and clear that new players are to be friended and taught about the sport in a good way.

    I remember my first time still, which was ages ago. No one talked down to me or lit me up, but I remember the intimidation factor of not having the best gear was still there. It’s an undeniable influence that cant be fixed. It comes from not knowing, and no one certainly stepped in to tell me that my spyder 2000 would do the job just fine. Of course there are the assclowns who encourage this phenomena and they should be dealt with accordingly.

    Get the fields to make the new player’s experience amazing and you’ve got a ball game

  • Please! Please! says:

    Get rid of that low end crap your pushing in the big box stores!!
    You know, those stale jelly beans you got in the plastic jugs and plastic bodied markers that are just a step above a nerf gun.
    Those items do nothing but end up discouraging the buyer and their parents!

    • I think you see it incorrectly says:

      I think you’re missing the point, as John Robinson explained about big box stores, it’s “critical to exposing a broader group of consumers to paintball”.

      Even if you aren’t buying the products in walmart – those kids that are wouldn’t be in a traditional paintball shop otherwise. Meaning they would never be exposed to paintball in some cases unless they came across it in one of these stores.

      Although I’d never buy a paintball gun in walmart – kids just getting started will.

      • Terry59 says:

        Nah, your missing the point.
        Some of the quality is so bad, leaving first timers with such a bad experience, they never comeback. Paint that doesn’t break or fly reasonably straight and guns that don’t last longer than a single afternoon. This does nothing but turn off first timers, leaving them feeling they wasted their money while never getting to taste the fun we do every weekend.

      • Terry59 says:

        Nobody is discounting the value of having product in the big box stores to introduce people to the game.
        Just quit with the product that is so inferior, that it turns people off instead of getting them hooked on the game.

  • Finally, an industry figure that talks about connecting the first timer to the Pros.

    This is key to growing paintball as a sport.

    As long as 90 % of first timers are playing “wargames” in the woods, our sport will continue having marginal growth.

    However, bringing out products is not enough…. Kee and other major distributors need to help field owners (who are by and large a very conservative group of people), with formulating their business plan, for making tournament style play a profitable entity within their rental business.

    That in turn means, the distributors need to think through the concept, and educate their employees – before they can start creating real change at field level.

    Let’s see if Kee gets it right…. they would be the first – but if they do, all the others will follow suit.

  • Rob says:

    Hopefully his idea of bringing in new players via retail doesn’t just mean selling more cheap nasty stuff at Walmart for people to shoot up street signs with. Maybe they’re talking about things like collector cards and play sets.

  • Real question is says:

    How are you going to get paint to your sponsored teams and what of those set teams have extra paint left over? My teams from the east coast and do to axe an empire sponsorship we must shoot empire paint. So how do we pick up paint, and if any remaining paint left, what are we to do with it, ship it back home?

  • RT says:

    Out of all of the guys running paintball companies JR is the guy. He actaully wants pro players to be able to make a living playing paintball and working in the industry.

  • Awesome says:

    What a great article. I am glad to see that Propaintball can actually get information straight from the horses mouth.

  • Douglas Grider says:

    I was disappointing that he never mentioned the “Mom & Pop” stores. As a owner of one I have found Kee seems to place no value in you. I understand the economics and the need for volume, but I also understand that if they want paintball to truly expand they need all of the potential market, not just the large metropolitan areas.

    I have been fighting this battle for 5 years and I am getting tired. I have to sell at MAP because every person that walks into my store will rattle off what they can buy it on the internet for, and yes I have beat the “But we provide you with the best customer service” horse to death, in today’s economy most don’t care, it is bottom dollar. 18% mark-up is not enough to keep the doors open.

    Not trying to sound like a whine bag, this is just some of the issues facing your local small paintball stores and know-one seems to care.

  • joe says:

    I like how in this interview how he describes “talking with the psp” and “liking the direction the PSP has chosen” and totally plays off the fact that they are part owners in the PSP just like DYE

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