Published January 18, 2011
Volume 19, Number 1

Rider Sportsfashion’s Derek Wiseman, Global Citizen  

By Nicole Zaro Stahl

Derek Wiseman, the recently hired COO of Hacienda’s Rider Sportsfashion LLC, is reveling in a fresh challenge: opening and growing the North American market for the wholly owned subsidiary of a Beijing-based manufacturer of custom cycling apparel. The way Wiseman, a Canadian, came to these responsibilities could be an object lesson in how to transcend national boundaries in this era of globalization.

In many respects, the die was cast early in life for Wiseman, who was born in Germany of Canadian parents. His father, a member of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, was stationed in Cologne doing high-level passport and immigration work in a division much like the U.S. Secret Service.

After Germany, there was a posting to London, and then, when Wiseman was seven, a transfer back to Ottawa. A few years later, his father moved into the private sector, becoming director of security for the National Hockey League—a job that involved not only celebrity and excitement but also extensive travel. The family’s home base shifted to Toronto, so by the time Wiseman entered high school, he had experienced life in three different countries and a few very cosmopolitan cities.

That changed when he went to college in Saskatchewan, Canada’s Midwest. “They say that in Saskatchewan there’s a pretty girl behind every tree--but there aren't any trees there!” is his way of describing the setting. It was a carefully made decision, however. Having attended a private Christian high school, he was inspired by the accounts of visiting missionaries to consider a future in either theology or education. The college he chose was highly regarded for its expertise in those disciplines.

Wiseman graduated in 1988 and almost immediately set off for Japan. “I had an interest in Asia, and I wanted to get some experience teaching in a foreign culture,” he relates. Even though it was 15 years before the award-winning movie “Lost in Translation,” he resolved to avoid the kind of Americanized lifestyle depicted in the film. Instead of going to Tokyo, he settled in Ueda, a rural village in Nagano, host of the 1998 Olympics, immersing himself in its everyday life, which included eating native food and, of course, learning Japanese. “It's either that or learn charades,” he quips, but then he turns serious. “It's possible to spend a lifetime in a culture without knowing the language, but you will never truly understand the people that way. Language and food culture also reflect an entire way of thinking. Without them, you miss out on a lot.”

As the memory of his student days receded, he realized his intended vocation was not a good match. “I loved Japan and I wanted to stay, just not in teaching or the ministry.” Embarking on a business career, he moved to Tokyo to work for one of the country’s leading apparel manufacturers.

Wiseman’s language and social skills made him a quick study as he gained familiarity with the sports apparel space, learning how to develop and market the company's premium products. The challenge was not that much different in Japan than elsewhere in the world, he found. “It's a matter of trying to understand what separates you from your competitors.”

His status as a foreign national earned Wiseman high visibility in the company. Over the next decade he was fortunate to work closely with the company president, an unusual figure. “What distinguished him was his love and passion for international business. He was fluent in German and knighted in Norway--very atypical,” he comments.

Wiseman’s assignments entailed trips to destinations all over the world. “I traveled in Asia, Europe, and North America. The exposure to so many different cultures and languages burned in me the desire to continue working in the international context.”

He also profited from two invaluable lessons from his mentor the president. “He told me that I needed to learn to fail,” Wiseman says, elaborating, “Sometimes we get so fixated on success that when failure comes, we can’t deal with it. Or we resist doing things in our jobs that are out of our comfort zone--but it's critical to learn to do things you don’t want to do. This is not an exclusively Japanese belief, but Japan has certainly learned how to persist,” he points out.

In 2000, after 12 years abroad, Wiseman arrived in San Francisco with the mission of growing the North American business for the company. He spent five more years at the task and then made a lateral move, also within the outdoor realm, working for an Italian manufacturer of handcrafted hiking boots.

While most of his experience was in apparel, he was always interested in technology, especially the Internet, and in 2008 he jumped at the chance to take a senior role in a start-up health and fitness tracking website. There he was exposed to “all the techniques and strategies of taking a business online, acquiring, converting, and monetizing customers. I realized so many tangible goods company don't know how to leverage that Internet experience.” The site's success led to its acquisition by a larger operation early last year. That's when Wiseman opened discussions with his current employer, Jakroo, a rough rendition of the Chinese term for “very cool.”

He was struck by the fact that the company was small and not “siloed out,” giving him the opportunity to dive into all aspects of the business. The clincher was being able to dig deep into the cutting-edge technology of online retail sales. “Using the Internet to build brand awareness and create a more viral effect is the core of our growth strategy. It's very exciting to see people navigate through our site. We can make choices on the fly to convert viewers into customers. It's extremely empowering to see the results of your efforts in real time,” he comments.

Jakroo's brand-building is strongly focused on custom work, for example for cycling clubs, special events, even individual orders. Vertical integration in China gives the company control over all phases of production, enabling it to offer extremely compressed lead times of just two to four weeks. Its manufacturing techniques are all best of breed. Sublimation printing with Italian inks on world-class materials produce jerseys, shorts, pants, and jackets in vivid customer designs and very bright colors. “You really can’t get better quality than this,” Wiseman remarks.

Another aspect of his current position that Wiseman really appreciates is having more time for his personal life. In Japan, he regularly put in 12 to 15-hour days. “This company has a different philosophy. Our Chinese CEO is a staunch advocate of retaining a strong work/life balance,” he comments. “I leave the office between 5 and 6 p.m., so I'm able to spend more time with my family than in the past.”

That is an important benefit for his role as a father. He and his wife, who is Japanese, have two teenagers, one just starting high school and the other ready to graduate. They return to Japan for family visits, but most of his travel these days is local—especially trips to the gym. He does enjoy cycling but stresses he does it for fitness, not competition.

Will his children follow him into the international arena? Wiseman is not certain yet, but he does point out that as dual Japanese and Canadian citizens who also hold U.S. green cards, they have a multitude of opportunities. Like their father, their unique background may have cast the die early for them, too.


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