Industry Insider - ALEX SCHWAN INTERVIEW


[Photo: Ingrid Gasser.]

Pia Kaipainen gets the nitty gritty on another of the snowboard circus’s ringleaders.

“Alex Schwan is pretty much Munich’s answer to Ed Leigh. I don’t know if I will ever meet someone again who can combine humor and knowledge as perfect as Alex when it comes down to Snowboarding. Hosting the Air&Style it was always a pleasure to listen to Alex… and a good laugh as well. In general you could describe him as someone who is down with snowboarding from day one, organizing everything from the second row like supervising the ISF judges back in the days, managing snowboarders like Marco Smolla or Silvia Mittermüller or clearing the way for ratiopharm and Fiat into the snowboard business. With more people like Alex in the biz snowboarding could be well established while keeping the coat of an interesting subculture on, instead of producing “Nas’” To Stay Alive.” – Jan Schröder, Freelancer // Pleasure SNB Magazine

Gang; without further introduction please meet this multitalented expert on snowboarding and everything to do with action sports: Mr. Alexander Schwan – co-founder & Managing Director of Millhaus, presenter of the Air&Style, commentator for Eurosport, a former international ISF judge,…. amongst other credits. Let’s hear more from the man himself!

1. Servus Alex! Let’s start with a fairly fresh from the oven question: what were the highlights of the Billabong Air&Style in Innsbruck 2009, for you as the presenter of the event? The whole event was a highlight – but especially this crowd in Innsbruck was awesome. They went off and I want to say thanks to everybody who was there going nuts! Deichkind was a highlight as well – great to see how they made everybody jump – funny to see that Mando Diao made half of the crowd leave.

2. You have an incredibly impressive track record on action sports — could you please shed some light on how it all got started for you? Back in the days I spent all my spare time skateboarding and snowboarding – always right after or sometimes instead of school – which did not make me a good pupil by the way. Watching skateboard and snowboard videos, reading all the magazines and talking about the tricks were always a passion, so when my friend Pike asked me to become a judge for one of the sports I love – for sure I had to say yes. During the time I judged and head judged almost every major snowboard event the pharmaceutical company ratiopharm was a partner of the snowboard club G.U.F in Munich. As the riders in this club where pretty successful in snowboarding as well as getting good coverage also in general interest media (riders like David Benedek, Xaver Hoffmann or Mini Karpf were already in that team those days) – ratiopharm increased the money to support the club from season to season and for tax reasons we had to establish Millhaus as the business body for the ratiopharm snowboard team. And over the last 10 years Millhaus has become what it is today. In 2002 Eurosport was looking for an expert to be co-commentator for the Olympics in Salt Lake City. Seems that they liked what I said about Heikki Sorsa’s haircut and the wired results – so they kept me until today and I am able to do my own programs and tell people about the sports I love.

3. Despite of being a man of many talents, your main focus is on managing Millhaus, a company that supports business organizations in their Marketing efforts to achieve e.g. credibility & relevance to reach mainly young adults who are a powerful consumer segment today. On the Millhaus website it states: “Interest segments that place the accent on creativity and emotion, such as young people in general or the sports, music, fashion and arts communities, constitute or main areas of activity.” Was it clear to you in 1999, when you co-founded Millhaus, that the demand for action sports focused consultancy was evident or did you decide to take a “wildcard” and see how the business would pick up, besides having ratiopharm as your client? No – not at all. With snowboarding becoming a part of the Nagano Olympics and skateboarding becoming more and more popular with Tony Hawk’s videogame in 1998, there were signals that these sports would grow and its subculture would become more and more mainstream. But when we founded Millhaus we only wanted to support snowboarding, the sport we loved and we grew up with. That it developed as it is today is a mixture of hard work, good business partners and employees, passion and luck.

4. A profit-only focused business executive with no idea of what this subculture represents, can hardly come up with a believable & authentic Marketing campaign to reach these media-smart young adults who live & breath action sports. You gotta speak the language the target group speaks and this is where your expertise comes into the picture. How do you see the progress within the years you’ve been managing Millhaus — has it been tough to get the businesses to realize that “it takes one to know one”? It still is. Companies often work with lead agencies who do not want to lose profit by taking experts or other agencies to consult or support them. So what usually happens is, that they pretend that they just extended their portfolio towards the youth / action sports target group – (and then some trainee with baggy pants is in charge of the project.) Or the marketing responsible in the company has prejudice or bad experiences with small agencies he/she already worked with. There are a lot of “black sheep” in our business and I often got told that a company already tried to work with action sports – but it did not pay off at all. So one of our main goals is to break these structures and it works if you have good references and you do your job professionally. To speak the language the target group speaks is the main goal – not only in action sports. But somehow – due to the fact that the marketing directors of major brands do not know too much about the sports and the lifestyle of their target group – the agencies are able to come up with campaigns which can’t work. In other sports this would never happen – or can you imagine any advertising for a company which is active in alpine skiing using pictures of a cross country skier? On the other side action sport companies are mostly focused on credibility in the deepest scene and are not looking for a broad impact such as coverage in general interest media or activation of their sponsorships. They do cool stuff but they do not talk about it. There is still a lot to do.

5. You’ve also been part of coordinating the Burton European Open contest which must be one of the biggest and best-known events worldwide, alongside other Burton Open contests. An event of this scale must involve countless hours or planning, and executing before it’s ready to welcome the competitors, audience, media. Being in charge of Judging, Formats & Timing — how early did the work start on your part and what was the process like? In 2003 Hasi, the European Team Manager of Burton Snowboards, asked me to support the European Open, which had been relaunched in 2002 in Livigno, regarding judging, competition format and timing. So I developed the competition format, the timing as well as organizing the judges and the tabulation. Involving former pro riders who work hand in hand with pro judges was one of the goals. I do not really remember when I started to work on it – but the coordination took a few weeks. We improved the format and worked on the judging from year to year. The Event moved to Laax in 2005 – and in 2006 Burton USA made the call to use the same judges panel for all events and I was unable to do all of them. Since then I focused on my TV work.

6. As having attended several different kind & size events — which ones have been most memorable for you? What kinda elements does a successful event consist of? I think the most memorable was the Air & Style in Munich 2008. Making almost 30 thousand people to do the Mexican wave or to sing “we want to see David Benedek” was an incredible feeling. An event is like a hotel – all departments have to work well for themselves but also in a team format – this is the challenge. At the very end the visitor – either on site or at home in front of their TVs should have had an exciting and entertaining evening – as well as the staff and the riders. It is really hard to create an event which is able to represent the sport on a state of the art level – just imagine to have a kicker or a quarterpipe and the world best riders are only able to do a 3 feet air. And this has happened too often.

[Photo: Christian Brecheis.]

7. Amongst being a Eurosport’s resident expert on action sports, you have done other TV work. Please tell us more? I did Action Sports programs for MTV in Germany – the T-Mobile Extreme Playgrounds – a action sports event series – which was broadcasted live. I also did live TV commentary for Red Bull Events – Red Bull Cliff Diving was a real challenge. It is always a pleasure to be able to take the viewers at home into the world of freestyle sports. I did a couple of other things over the past years but doing live commentary is definitely the most exciting thing.

8. You are involved in so many different aspects of snowboarding/action sports that it’s almost breathtaking. How do you find a balance between work & leisure and what’s the best way for you to kick back and unwind on your free time? It is hard to find the balance if you run your own business but you have to take time off – if you don´t, you get non-productive and you lose the fun. Here is my list for getting back on track:
#1 Spending Time with my family. #2 Listening to Punk Rock Music #3 Go Snowboarding and Skateboarding for yourself. #4 Buy new sneakers.

9. A must-ask question for someone who has been on the front row of countless contests & events… TOP 3, all time favorite tricks you’ve witnessed?
1. David Benedek – Frontside double Cork 1260 at Air & Style Munich 2006 2. Xaver Hoffmann – Frontside 360 with the 2nd 180 tweaked to a switch backside air at BEO Laax 2006. Xaver is one of the creative riders I really love to watch – front 3s are not really special but riders like Xaver can make these tricks super special. 3. Max Plötzeneder – Crippler at Vans Triple Crown in Breckenridge 1999

10. And whassup coming up next for you? Red Bull Snowscrapers in NYC. I will be one of the judges and be able to take care of Point #4 – buy new sneakers.

Side note! As we closed the interview after Alex got back from NYC; I just had to ask how many sneakers did he actually bring home and the answer was just one pair accompanied with a comment that “Sometimes you gotta be modest”. Don’t we just love this guy? Check www.millhaus.com for more info.

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