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TK Sports | Rassie Pieterse | New MDTK Western Cape agent Mike Wallace, CEO Thomas Kille and new MD Rassie Pieterse
March 2016

SA’s Rassie now

MD of TK global

Rassie Pieterse, MD of TK South Africa, has been appointed as successor to Thomas Kille, legendary founder and MD of the hockey brand that revolutionised composite sticks and is one of the market leaders in six major hockey playing countries

The TK hockey brand and its creator and namesake, Thomas Kille, are inseparable. For more than thirty years he had been intimately involved with the development of innovative products and growing the brand he started in his basement into one of the leading hockey brands in top hockey playing nations like Germany and Holland. It was therefore a huge honour for Rassie Pieterse when Kille chose him, the MD of the South African distributorship, to take over the day-to-day business of running TK Hockey Equipment as International MD.

Kille announced in December last year that he would step back to concentrate on his role as CEO of the TK company, one of the market leaders in 58 countries. They are particularly strong in Holland, Germany, the UK, US and South Africa, Kille said during a visit to South Africa last year.

When announcing that Pieterse would take over from him, Kille described him as not only one of the best hockey goal keepers in the world, who played 120 matches for South Africa, including two Olympics, but a highly successful as MD of TK South Africa since 2009.

Pieterse has been groomed for the job for the past six years, during which time he was working closely with Kille on designs, manufacturing and sales in the global company.

He has great admiration for Kille, whom he describes as a workaholic who is passionate about the brand and passionate about hockey. “He knows exactly what players want, because he listens to players,” says Pieterse.

“He is hands-on and I know he flies to factories all over the world to make sure he gets the right products. He always has new ideas: sometimes he’ll phone me and tell me he’s got this new idea for goalkeeper equipment, which sounds like absolute science fiction. But, we try it, and if it works, he carries on with manufacturing it.”

Slowing down could not have been an easy decision for a man who thought and walked and talked the brand in a relentless and passionate round-the-clock schedule for more than thirty years. “Nobody is as crazy as I am to do so much to promote the brand,” he admits.

The right people

But, apart from good manufacturing, and smart management, he ascribes the brand’s success to employing a network of the right people: “Crazy people who work seven days a week for 24 hours.”

The fact that about half the people who work in the head office in Mannheim are — or were — hockey players further contributes to the success of the company, he believes. “They have knowledge of the requirements of players, the game, and they understand the infrastructure needed.”

This sentiment is echoed on the TK website: We are a team built of current and former hockey players, sports-mad lateral thinkers, young creators and determined personalities. We have known each other for a long time, like a family we’ve shared many different activities together and are motivated to break new ground.

It is also a mind-set Pieterse shares. “I love what I do,” he says. “On and off the field I love my job.” Working in his own business directly related to the sport he loves has been a great benefit, he believes. This not only enables him to play hockey at the highest level — but also enabled him to reach such a high level in his career at a fairly young age.

Playing with your heart and soul is the key to success, Pieterse is quoted as saying on the TK Hockey website. The player with the most hunger is usually the most successful one.

Whether laying his body on the line to stop a ball from entering the net, or developing a clothing range or promoting TK sticks, he wants to “make sure that people remember me for making a difference on and off the field … not always playing with pure technique but always giving it my all!” he says. “I also love pushing myself to greater things and that is why I like the challenge of playing international hockey.”

Luckily, he enjoys travelling and meeting interesting people, because in his new position he will work in close contact with all the international sales teams as well as manufacturers.

Hectic days

He had been a goalkeeper for the national men’s hockey team for close to ten years — whilst also building the TK brand in South Africa and running the TK distributorship in Johannesburg. He will still be based in Johannesburg, where he will continue in his current position as MD of TK South Africa, in addition to his international duties.

He is used to hectic days packed with meetings, hockey practice — as goalie he puts in extra sessions on Wednesday evenings — and matches for his Wanderers club on weekends. That is, if he is not travelling with the Protea team.

But, walking in Kille’s shoes is no-doubt a daunting prospect. He is a legend among hockey players across the world, because it was his experiments with glass fibre and polyester reinforcements in the basement of his home in Mannheim during 1978 that evolved into the composite sticks of today.

An experienced player with 60 caps for Germany’s junior national team, captain of the German U21 team and a player in the national leagues, Kille understood players’ needs. The players who bought the handcrafted reinforced blank sticks from the young business economics student confirmed this — and soon spread the word about the unique performance of these sticks.

The demand grew to such an extent that Kille launched a range of TK branded sticks in January 1985, which he distributed in partnership with Ranbir Bal, who had contacts with manufacturers in India and Pakistan. The brightly coloured logo depicting two elephants whose crossed trunks were shaped like hockey sticks, further attracted player attention — and grew demand for the sticks. Eye-catching styling in graphics and design has since become a trademark of TK.

At the 1992 Barcelona Olympics the brand got international recognition when ten men and women in the German teams won gold and silver respectively played with sponsored TK sticks.

In 1999 The FIH (international hockey federation) gave their stamp of approval to composite sticks when they changed the rule to allow these moulded glass, kevlar and carbon fibre sticks to be used in all levels of play.

Today, TK is much more than just a hockey brand, it is becoming a general sports brand, says Kille.

Being innovative, staying one step ahead of the rest and being different to everybody else are the reasons why TK became so successful in a relatively short time, he says. “The fact that we made a very good composite stick also contributed. And we combine technology with a great look.”

South Africa, with about 120 000 registered hockey players at 10 000 clubs, is one of the big hockey markets in the world, and therefore important for them. The high import duties, however, makes it a very difficult market to trade in, says Kille, although he is full of praise for his local distributor.

The US is probably the biggest market with thousands of girls playing at universities and colleges. “Holland has about 220 000 players, followed by England and Argentina, where every girl has to play hockey, and then South Africa.” But size is not all that matters: multiple gold medallist Germany has about 65 000 registered players, of which about 50 000 buy equipment, and in France there are only about 5 000 players, Kille estimates.

“We feel very positive about our performance in 2015, in all categories, including clothing and equipment,” says Pieterse, who is also happy that the sport is growing so rapidly in South Africa, especially in Afrikaans and boys’ schools, where hockey traditionally had not been popular sports.

TK South Africa enjoyed good sales across all categories: their clothing range is doing very well and the orders from schools are just getting bigger every year, says Pieterse. Apart from good growth in hockey clothing, they also supply cricket clothing and have been in contact with some other sporting codes like rugby and netball, he adds. They also sponsor a few development teams with TK sportswear.

Their Shrey cricket helmets are doing so well, that they are struggling to keep up with demand, and three franchises are wearing them on the field: the Lions, Dolphins and the Knights.

The innovative TK stick selector app helps retailers to select the right stick for the right player, by entering the player's age and profile for the app to recommend a stick, adds Pieterse.

Part of his new duties will be to ensure that the great service he, and other sponsored players, received from the TK head office continues. “The whole camaraderie with the TK team is very special,” he says. “TK is not just a sponsor, nor just a stick that you play with, there is a lot more behind the brand.”

Apart from sponsoring some of the world’s top players in fourteen countries, including the 2015 FIH Women Player of the Year Lidewij Welten and the 2015 Goalkeeper of the Year, David Harte, TK also supports disadvantaged youngsters in India and Pakistan, where most hockey sticks are made.

The elephants depicted on the logo have become more than a symbol — TK say their products pay tribute to the characteristics of the elephant, namely quality and durability. “The elephant often represents a symbol of size, strength, power and long life expectancy. They are creditable and strong.” But, elephants are also endangered by poachers hunting ivory and TK Hockey therefore decided to adopt an elephant as mascot — Tembo Kille — who now resides in the elephant sanctuary near the Kruger National Park. They also actively support the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) efforts to create a better habitat for elephants and promote a positive relationship between people and animals.

Because Brazil, host to the Olympic Games this year, is not a hockey-playing nation, they will not be making a special effort to promote the brand around the Olympics. “In a country like Holland with 220 000 players, it is easy to fill a stadium with 18 000 people and create hype around and support for the Dutch players,” says Kille. “Brazil has no chance of filling a hockey stadium and it is very difficult for international hockey brands to create excitement around an event if there is no local market for their products.”

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