FROM GRIPS TO THE BIG LEAGUES – HOW LIZARD SKINS GREW INTO A MULTI-MILLION DOLLAR BUSINESS

A small accessory brand's success story

FROM GRIPS TO THE BIG LEAGUES

Lizard Skins’ founder Brian Fruit was a student at Brigham Young University in 1990 when he bought his first mountain bike. “I loved it,” Brian told MBA. He loved riding it in the mountains of Utah, but then he started riding it to get to his classes at college. Soon, he and his riding buddies at school were creating courses on the campus so they could race their bikes at night for a break from their studies. When the campus police saw them, Brian and his friends would sprint away, riding down six or seven flights of stairs on their rigid mountain bikes to get away.

Lizard Skins’ custom-modified grip tape became a huge money-maker for the company after some of the top players in Major League Baseball started using the tape on their bats.

 

While Brian was still in school, one of his friends showed him a postcard about a nearby company, Reflex Bicycles, that was going out of business. Reflex had been bought by Look and had to liquidate all its parts at huge discounts.

Brian drove to Reflex and bought $300 worth of bike parts, figuring that he could sell them to his friends. When he showed his friends the parts, they bought all of them that night.

The next day, Brian went back and bought another $300 worth of components. He sold them in one night, too. “Over the next six weeks, I ended up selling about $30,000 worth of parts out of the back of my Chevy Camaro IROC,” he told MBA. After selling everything he could to his friends, Brian started selling parts to bike shops. “I was going from store to store to store, and they started buying from me.”
“I marked it up just a little bit,” Brian recalls, “and over that time, I just really fell in love with the bike industry. I made enough money to buy my wife a wedding ring and save up a little money for us to get married. And then, in August of 1992, we got married and I realized, man, I really like this bike thing. I want to see if I can find some business that I can do in the bike space.”

Check out this Lizard Skins’ chainstay protector from 2006. The popular frame protection pads helped put Lizard Skins on the map.

 

THE LAUNCH OF

In late 1992, Brian was out of college and getting ready to start his own business in the bike industry with his friend Lance Larson. They were going to sell chainstay protectors and fork boots. Lance had come up with the idea for the chainstay protectors. His brother had invented the Lizard Skins name and logo for one of his college class assignments, and Lance and Brian thought they would work for their bike products, so they got the okay from Lance’s brother to use the name and logo for their business. (Brian would end up buying out Lance’s share of the business in 2001.)

Brian moved back to California in December of 1992, while Lance stayed in Utah. Brian started the Lizard Skins business in January of 1993. Still working full-time for his father, Brian ran Lizard Skins out of the spare bedroom in his house. “When we started, we could fit the entire business on one table,” Brian says.

“Our first ad was a 12th-page ad for Mountain Bike Action magazine. We had to race to FedEx to get it sent out and barely met the deadline for it. We immediately started receiving calls from the ad before we were even really ready to take them. If we had missed that ad deadline, Lizard Skins might never have taken off.”

Brian eventually had to give up working for his father as Lizard Skins kept growing. Brian and his wife moved from California to Utah in 1995, where Brian bought a house with a five-car garage, building a wall in the garage to create a room for the Lizard Skins business. The business kept growing and eventually started taking over the basement of the house, too.

Brian Fruit, shown here with his wife and daughter, was running Lizard Skins out of his garage when this photo was taken more than 25 years ago.

 

THE BUSINESS EXPANDS

It was around ’96 or ’97 that Brian decided that it would be good if Lizard Skins could start selling grips, too. Brian got a local injecting company to start making slip-on grips for them. Their sales took off.
Brian’s wife found a small building that they could buy for the business. They bought it and started cleaning up the place so they could move in. While they were doing that, the town told them they could only open a retail business there, not an industrial business. Brian decided to open a small bike shop in the front of the building and run Lizard Skins in the back. They’d put a buzzer on the front door in case somebody came by and wanted to buy a tube.

Before long, the buzzer was going off all day long as the bike shop thrived. One day, Brian recalls, they had 30 people waiting to get into the shop to buy BMX bikes. Brian had to keep expanding the size of the shop to handle all the business. He finally ended up moving Lizard Skins to another building.

When ODI came out with its first lock-on grips, Brian asked ODI’s owner, David Grimes, if ODI could make some lock-on grips for Lizard Skins, too. ODI agreed, and in 2003, the sales of Lizard Skins lock-on grips took off.

In 2013, Brian got a cake to celebrate the 20th anniversary of Lizard Skins being in business.

 

LIZARD SKINS TAPE

There was a young man named Brad Barker who had started working with Brian in 1997. Brad and Brian got along great with each other.

In 2009, Brad suggested to Brian that they go to California, visit some companies and see if one of them might have any new materials that they could use for some new Lizard Skins grips. If Brian liked the idea, Brad would oversee the development.

Brian said he’d be happy to go to California with Brad for a few days and get away from the cold Utah winter. They visited two companies but didn’t see anything they could use. “When we were about to leave that second company, Brad asked if they could make a tape for us,” Brian recalls.

Brad wanted them to come up with some handlebar tape that Lizard Skins could sell. The company came up with a 12-inch sample that looked and felt good, but it needed a lot of refinements in its thickness and beveling, and it needed an adhesive backing. Brad worked with the company through months of prototypes before they finally produced a Durasoft Polymer tape that Brad was happy with. It would cost about $35 for one bike, which was much more than any other handlebar tape on the market, but when anyone touched the tape, they loved it, so Brian agreed to go forward with the deal. Brian had to mortgage his house to buy two 20-foot containers of the tape, but the gamble paid off.

Handlebar grips may be the best-known items in Lizard Skin’s mountain bike catalog, but they make up only a small part of the company’s total inventory.

 

Lizard Skins’ founder Brian Fruit fell in love with mountain biking while he was in college. He turned that love into a mult-million-dollar business.

 

MOVING INTO OTHER SPORTS

As a lifelong baseball lover, Brad tried putting the grip tape on a bat to see how it worked. He and his two sons loved it. Soon Brad was putting it on his sons’ friends’ baseball bats, too.

One day, a major league baseball player named John Buck came back home to Utah for a visit and met Brian and Brad at Lizard Skins to see if they would be willing to share their booth with him at a baseball products show so he could show people a new product that he was hoping to start selling. They were more than happy to have him in their booth. During the show, Buck kept checking out the Lizard Skins tape on a baseball bat. He asked them if they could make a thinner version of the tape that would work better for major league ball players. They had some made, and Buck started using it and showing it to other pro ball players. The demand exploded. TV stations started talking about the tape and showing it on their broadcasts. The tape ended up becoming an officially endorsed product of Major League Baseball, and the sales went through the roof.

Brad put the tape on hockey sticks next, and it earned the official endorsement of the National Hockey League. After that, Lizard Skins tape caught on for use on pro lacrosse sticks, video game controllers and even pickleball paddles.
By 2021, Lizard Skins had grown so big in the baseball market that Marucci Sports, the baseball-focused branch of Compass Diversified, offered to buy Lizard Skins. Marucci spent only four months on “due diligence,” reviewing the Lizard Skins papers to see if everything Brian Fruit said about the company was true. After checking everything out, the buyers closed the deal, paying almost 50 million dollars for the Lizard Skins company. The money was split between Brian and his investment partner, Seidler Equity Partners.

Brian Fruit took a chunk of the profits and shared them with Lizard Skins’ employees as bonuses. After closing the deal, Brian went back to managing his two bike shops and the real estate business that he had started while running Lizard Skins. Brad Barker took over the management of Lizard Skins under the new corporate owners.

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