Karhu Holding, the company that holds rights to the Karhu brand for skis, running and other sports products, has struck a new licensing agreement for production and sales of Karhu-branded cross-country skis, boots and poles. Covering Europe, Russia and CIS countries, Japan and South Korea, the deal will allow Karhu skis to be made in Finland again as it becomes a century old next year.
Starting from the second half of March, the agreement was sealed with KFS Sport Oy, a partnership between several Finnish investors. They have taken over the former Karhu plant on Karhu Street in Kitee, in eastern Finland. Harri Kirvesniemi, a former Finnish cross-country skiing champion, who was involved with Karhu in the past, is the chief executive for Karhu skis at KFS Sport. Other partners involved in the company operating Yoko, another Finnish brand of cross-country skiing products.
The agreement comes after Karhu Holding and Startex, the Finnish company that sells the Start brand of ski waxes and other products, put an end to a similar licensing agreement started three years ago. The deal with Startex was sealed after a particularly strong winter season and the company had strong ambitions for Karhu. However, it immediately faced two seasons of weak snowfalls in the most populated parts of Europe's largest cross-country ski markets – and the current season has not started much better. Startex thus wants to focus on its own Start-branded products, consisting of wax, roller skis and poles. They are mostly made in Finland, allowing for more flexible inventory management.
Under the license with Startex, Karhu cross-country skis were made in Austria and the Czech Republic. When it comes to footwear, Startex had switched from the Rottefella to the SNS system, but KFS Sport apparently intends to switch back to Rottefella. The demand for Karhu-branded cross-country skis in an average year in terms of snowfall in Europe is estimated at about 30,000 pairs.
Employing about 30 people, the factory in Kitee started making Karhu skis in 1972 and continued to manufacture them until a few years ago under the supervision of Karhu Sporting Goods (KSG). This company was the owner of the Karhu trademark and related rights but it became embroiled in a drawn-out dispute with Karhu Holding, a Dutch company, around the sale of the Karhu trademark outside Iberia. A settlement reached in 2009 reaffirmed that Karhu Holding held these rights to the trademark, while KSG was given a license for cross-country ski products. But that agreement was scrutinized again in 2010, paving the way for the agreement with Startex in 2012.
Huub Valkenburg, Karhu Holding's chief executive, says that Finnish production should make Karhu more flexible in terms of innovation and production for its cross-country equipment range. Valkenburg drove the acquisition of the Karhu trademark rights and was a leading shareholder in Karhu Holding, but last year a majority stake was acquired by the family of Franco Arese, a former Italian track and field champion who has been involved with Asics for more than three decades.
Karhu Holding has remained most active with the Karhu brand in the running market, building on its Fulcrum technology. It opened a European office for Karhu in Amsterdam and its warehousing for markets in the European Union was moved to the Netherlands. Karhu also boasts a design and development center in Montebelluna, in Italy.