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Triathlon Business: A Chat With Franko Vatterott

Vatterott serves as Craig Alexander’s manager, as well as the manager for several other top professional triathletes.

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I met Franko Vatterott the way a lot of people meet Franko Vatterott. I contacted him about talking to Craig Alexander. Franko was quick to respond, letting me know that Crowie would love to talk, but it may take a while to get it scheduled. Such is the life of the world champion. And such is the life of the man behind the man, Franko Vatterott.

Vatterott serves as Craig Alexander’s manager, as well as the manager for several other top professional triathletes from around the world through his Boulder, Colo.-based company Human Interest Group. For more than a decade he has been behind the scenes, coordinating efforts with sponsors, media and handling many of the other obligations that the world’s greatest athletes face.

Talking with Franko I discovered that we shared a common bond. As much as I was interested in his business with Human Interest Group and his other company, Retül (a bike-fitting company), I was more interested in his family life. As the fathers of twin three-year-olds, we shared battle stories. An hour later I had learned a lot about the “man behind the man,” the business of triathlon and just how trying fatherhood can be.

Triathlete.com: You didn’t take the traditional path into the triathlon business (obsessed athlete who turns it into a business). Tell us how you got involved in the triathlon business world?

Franko: Yes that’s correct. I was not trying to work within my lifestyle at the time I was introduced to triathlon, but I did become a little obsessed with it. As my first job outside of college, I was working in the ski industry, living in Park City, Utah. I was fortunate enough to be able to work with the top ski teams in the world, like 15 of them, and this is when I realized how much I enjoyed working with professional athletes on behalf of sponsoring companies. Then I randomly met the owner of a start-up company that simulated altitude that was in Colorado, which is where I went to college, and was offered a business development role at that company. I moved back to Boulder and in year one of that role, the company asked me to explore triathlon markets. I had never heard of triathlon before and one guy in particular who happened to live in our town, Tim DeBoom [a two-time Ironman world champion]. I met Tim, and he taught me a lot about the sport. I went to Kona that year as a sponsor of Tim’s and absolutely fell in love with the sport. Tim won his second world title that year and we began to talk more and more about his sponsorship deals as a result of his success on the racecourse. I was really interested in how it all worked. It eventually led to the concept of gathering some of the sport’s top athletes and forming a super team.

Triathlete.com: The Tri-Dubai team was your baby in a lot of ways. How do you get a sheikh of Dubai interested in the sport of triathlon?

Franko: One lesson I have learned over and over in business is that timing is everything. As mentioned above, Tim DeBoom and I started talking more and more about a team concept in 2003. That same year, I was fortunate enough to meet a lot of other pro triathletes who were all interested in utilizing the same altitude simulation protocol Tim was using: Peter Reid, Chris Legh, Normann Stadler, etc. These same guys would eventually become the athletes on Tri-Dubai. In early 2004, I began working with Godolphin stables, the Crown Prince of Dubai’s horse racing organization, and messing around with altitude simulation for equine performance. This was new ground in the altitude field and required a lot of hands-on involvement. I spent weeks at a time in Dubai and Newmarket UK and eventually met Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. We hit it off in many ways because I was not really intimidated to speak to him openly, primarily due to my ignorance of his role/impact within the Middle East, but also because I was young (late 20s) and rather inexperienced in international business at that time. One of my many trips to Dubai was during the Athens Olympics. The UAE had won their first gold medal in that Games and the city went crazy with enthusiasm. I just happened to be there when it went down. It was the perfect time to present the triathlon team concept that I had been hatching for the past year with Tim DeBoom. The presentation was done at 2:30 a.m. during Ramadan at one of Sheikh Mohammed’s villas. He accepted the idea of sponsoring the team, and I flew back to Boulder and started working out the details of how a pro team would work within an individual sport such as triathlon.

Triathlete.com: What was the dynamic of that team like?

Franko: Anytime you put a lot of superstars together, the dynamic is bound to be interesting. One of the guys that stepped up and helped a ton was Chris Legh. Chris had started using altitude simulation in his training a year earlier, and it became obvious right away that this guy had a strong business mind. He ended up becoming the Australian distributor of Colorado Altitude Training Products and did great at developing the Aussie market. Chris ended up becoming the main sounding board for me when it came to the Tri-Dubai team and ultimately many of the athletes chosen for the team were due to Chris’ influence. Yet not everything was perfect in year one. Another lesson I have learned in business over the years is in the importance of team synergy. Synergy is so essential for the happiness of the whole. This is relevant in athlete circles but also incredibly important within company dynamics. One or two bad apples can weigh down an entire team and many times this is really hard to recognize. You become emotionally tied to people in business and sometimes this becomes a blockade in making objective, intelligent business decisions. Once the hard choices have been made, hindsight becomes 20-20 and you wonder what took so long to implement these changes. But that’s just business I guess. The Tri-Dubai team went through this process between the 2005 and 2006 seasons. We had a team of champions but with all those champions came some big egos. And while ego in itself can sometimes help drive passion, it can also dilute good decision making. We decided to change up the team synergy in year two and brought in three athletes: Lisa Bentley, Desiree Ficker and Craig Alexander. The attitude that these three athletes brought to the team DNA was perhaps their greatest contribution, but their results were not too bad either. Bentley and Crowie won everything they set their mind to that year. Bentley had her best finish ever in Kona, and Crowie won the 70.3 world championship—his first world title. Desiree placed second in Kona that year, which was really satisfying for the team management who were often criticized by industry leaders for choosing Desiree for her pretty face and not for her talent. The guy that is owed a lot of credit for recruiting Desiree is Tony DeBoom, who was the sporting director of Tri-Dubai. Tony saw the raw talent in Desiree and that day in Kona ’06 she caused a lot of critics to go home with their tails between their legs. Of course the whole day was special for us: Normann Stadler won, Desiree placed second, and Lisa Bentley placed third. Crowie won later that year at the 70.3 world champs. The second year of Tri-Dubai was incredibly successful.

Triathlete.com: Craig Alexander was a young triathlete on that team. How did your relationship with Craig evolve after Tri-Dubai?

Franko: From the moment I met Craig in 2006, I liked him. His laid-back Aussie vibe was so different than many other athletes I had worked with in the past and we had several things in common: We both loved soccer, the World Cup was on that summer, and we both had our first child who were about the same age. When the Tri-Dubai team died in late 2006, I buried my head in the sand for six months, a little depressed that the project had dried up. But there were several athletes who stayed in touch regularly and inspired me to keep going with new projects. These athletes were Lisa Bentley, Joanna Lawn and Crowie. By winning the 70.3 worlds in ’06, Craig qualified for Ironman Hawaii and was going to give it his first go in 2007. That same year, we started Retül, a bicycle fitting technology. By going long for the first time in his career, Craig’s position on the bike was more critical than ever, and he became one of the first riders to ever be Retul’d. His support for the company was instrumental, and he became our primary athlete ambassador. A year later, I noticed that he and Neri (Craig’s wife) were struggling a bit to keep up with all the management of sponsors, media, etc., while being young parents and voila: I entered the athlete management world as Craig’s agent. Since I started as a sponsor of Craig’s, I understood a lot of what companies wanted out of him as a business partner/ambassador and it was a natural fit for me to do his management work. The easiest thing about Craig is that he sincerely cares about the success of his sponsors and is committed to make sure they are happy with the return on their investment with him. When an athlete thinks like that, he becomes more than just an athlete. He becomes a true professional.

My job is to put people and companies around Craig that help him perform at his best. But actually, he probably doesn’t realize all of what he does for me in return. In an ironic way, he has taught me so much about how to prepare properly and effectively in the business life. The way he prepares for training and races is so similar to how one should prepare for the big days in business. Days where you need to put in the focused hours are like his training and the days where you do a big presentation to a potential business partner are like his races. I take lessons from him in this context every day. But what I’m most proud of is that fact that I have worked with him through all five of his world championship titles and we both have grown so much as individuals and as parents. Each championship was different and rewarding for both of us in unique ways. Of course, last year (2011) was really special due to a lot of stress that we went through in the months leading into Vegas and Kona [sponsor changes]. That period of about two months took years off my life, but like in business, sometimes people thrive in stressful environments and Crowie is certainly one of those people. To win the double [70.3 and Ironman] is amazing; to set the course record in Kona as the oldest man ever the same year you win the 70.3 world title—hard to ever envision that. Yet Craig can envision that. To be able to visualize that kind of performance, execute it perfectly, and keep your ego on earth—it’s truly the gold standard of professionalism in athletics. Craig is so humble and that is a lesson in life that you can never practice enough.

Triathlete.com: So, you’re the “man behind the man” in a lot of ways with Crowie, and now with athletes like Julie Dibens and Conrad Stoltz. How do you serve your athletes through your company Human Interest Group?

Franko: Human Interest Group (HIG) is a basic management and marketing company, set up for the support of athletes. To be honest, I have never felt comfortable ever marketing the company itself because it feels like bragging to me. I prefer to market the clients and simply stay behind the scenes. I know that is not the cool way to do it and it’s ironic by the fact that HIG is in fact a marketing company at the end of the day. But one of my pet peeves are those folks in the athletes’ network who try and take credit for the athlete’s success or make it about themselves or their company. At the end of the day, we’re on Crowie or Dibens or Stoltz’s career train and we need to respect that—not try to make it our train. But this is only my simple minded approach—it’s not necessarily the right or wrong one; it’s just the way I prefer to position HIG as a support system.

Triathlete.com: Human Interest Group is a great business name, but I’ve always preferred your Twitter handle: @BoulderCartel. Sounds tougher, and with so many stud athletes it works. Any chance you’ll change the name officially? Maybe as the dark side of Human Interest Group?

Franko: [Laughing] I know HIG sounds kind of weak. When I started it, all I knew was that I wanted to market something but I wasn’t sure what. I had no idea it would be athletes. So I tried to pick the broadest audience category I could think of, which was human beings. But I like where you are going with the whole dark side thing. I’ll give that some more thought. The Twitter handle [was] another Tony DeBoom idea. We used to joke about the Boulder Cartel back in the Tri-Dubai days. Tony has an incredible creative side, which you can see in his company Endurance Conspiracy. His T-shirts make up about one-third of the clothes in my closet.

Triathlete.com: Will the “Boulder Cartel” continue to grow, or are you maxed out on athletes?

Franko: It’s growing for sure. I have an awesome guy in Boston that is taking on athletes now and doing a stellar job for HIG. His name is Michael Cardoza. He is the one that is growing the client list at this point. It’s a lot of work with our existing crew and more of a passion play than a straight-up for-profit business. Michael works with Heather and Trevor Wurtele, the young Clayton Fettell and does some stuff with the Caveman [Conrad Stoltz] as well. He is a really good dude.

Triathlete.com: In addition to the business stuff you’re a super nice guy and a family man. Tell us about your wife and kids.

Franko: Wow, I’m blushing now. I have been married 11.5 years—my wife, Lindsay, is the foundation of the family and has had a significantly positive affect on my outlook in life and my overall happiness. You have heard me mention the consciousness of the ego several times in the answers above—that all stems from Lindsay’s teachings. We have four kids—two of them three-year-old twin daughters who are a handful right now. I also now drive a minivan and it’s way cooler than I thought it would be. At the end of the day, being a parent is the highest priority in my life and something I cherish everyday.

Triathlete.com: Twin three-year-olds? What’s that like?

Franko: Twins are special (as you know!) and their connection with each other is something that no one can understand unless you have been there. But age three—oh boy. Patience is a key virtue right now in my house.

Triathlete.com: How do you manage all of the travel you do with your family time?

Franko: Yeah this is really tough. I have been traveling pretty heavy internationally for the last 10 years, so the physical travel itself I can handle, but being away from the family is way tougher than sitting upright on a plane for 12 hours. It’s getting harder as my kids get older (oldest is now seven). However, I don’t see it changing much as long as I’m continuing to work. I like looking people I do business with in the eye, and even though you can do that through technologies like Skype now, I enjoy doing business “in the trenches,” so to speak. I want to be there where the action is. If there is an important meeting, I want to be there. If there is an important race for an athlete, I want to be there. I have learned to prioritize the trips a bit more and rarely do I ever take more time than I have to (no sightseeing for me). If I have to, I’ll jump on a plane, fly for 10 hours, have a meeting and come back the next day. I’ll leave sightseeing for family vacation time.

Triathlete.com: What is your relationship like with your athletes? I know your and Craig’s families are close. Do your families spend a lot of time together?

Franko: You know, I am not really that social of a person outside of business to be honest. I guess with the time it takes to manage two businesses, I really try to make sure I get my homebody time as much as possible. That and the four kids (especially the twins) are tough to take to social events where I’m not running around the whole time being the “no” guy. I do that enough with the people that want a piece of the athletes. Craig’s wife Neri, and my wife occasionally get together and let the kids rumble and for the most part and I think both sides enjoy it. But the lack of social experiences outside our own family is definitely more a result of my own desires to be home and simply hang out with my kids and wife. I guess I am lucky that my wife really prefers that time as well—we’re compatible that way. Lindsay runs all the books for HIG, which is a lot of work actually, so she is very involved in the business and keeping business separate from personal friendships is not necessarily a bad thing. With that said, I think the athletes I work with feel that I am a “wear it on my sleeve” guy and a pretty thorough communicator, so I don’t believe there is ever a point where they feel like they don’t know what’s going on with me. I tell them nearly everything.

Triathlete.com: What’s Kona week like for you?

Franko: It’s pretty relaxed actually. Most of the work is done by that point—I just run interference for the athletes, which is done more in the weeks leading up to Kona than actual Kona week. I just get in the way really, so I mainly hob-knob with sponsors of the athletes and help the athletes get to mandatory obligations like the press meetings and such. The guys doing the work during the races are more of the coaches and performance advisors. Guys like Mat Steinmetz (advisor to Craig, Julie, Rinny, etc.) and Paulo Sousa (Heather and Trevor’s coach) are working their tails off that week, getting the race-day equipment ready, helping the athletes chill out and relax, going over strategy, etc. My work often starts to get heavy the day after the race. Last year was a bit of an exception with Craig’s last-minute sponsor changes. That was an unusual year and there were definitely some celebratory beers flowing after Kona race day last year to balance out that pre-race stress. But the day after Kona last year started at 6:45 a.m. with photo shoots out on the Queen K and my phone rang off the hook as Craig went from appearance to appearance and interview to interview for 15 straight hours. It was crazy.

Triathlete.com: Define Crowie in five words or less.

Franko: James Bond, proper spoken killer.

Triathlete.com: Julie?

Franko: Caring British hipster with incredi-talent (I made that word up to stay within my five-word limit).

Triathlete.com: Conrad?

Franko: Softest hardman I’ve ever met.

Triathlete.com: Laura Bennett?

Franko: Goal-oriented, dedication, successful, focused, American!

Triathlete.com: The Wurteles.

Franko: Bright, polite, sincere, untapped talent, real.

Triathlete.com: What’s the future hold for Retül and Human Interest Group?

Franko: Retul has a lot of things happening at all times. We are expanding globally very fast and are now in 43 countries. Our software continues to be best-in-class and ultimately will help more riders select their new bikes than anything other piece of technology in the bike industry. The Human Interest Group will continue to be a platform in which I try and develop unique projects. I don’t ever see it growing into a mass marketing company or agency—more of something that runs the backend of never-been-done-before ideas. I have lots of them that I would like to do in the future.

Chad Nikazy is an age-group triathlete and father of three kids. He blogs at Trifatherhood.com.