Axial's Growth 100 : Kevin Knight

Kevin Knight

CEO, SanSoleil

Above Par Protection

Kevin Knight had been in the women’s apparel business for 35 years and launched 10 different companies when he finally saw the light.

A single item from one of his brands was selling very well. “At that time it was a collection business and it was weird to see one item selling so well,” Kevin says of what would soon become the launching pad for SanSoleil and a full line of UV-protected sports garments.

Four years ago Kevin and his management team made the decision to break the brand out into a business unto itself. Since then they’ve seen tremendous adoption. “It was the right thing to do, to focus on the one brand.”

Mixing Healthcare and Fashion

Even though he is the business of designing and producing apparel, Kevin calls SanSoleil a healthcare company. More specifically, one that incorporates fashion into the mix. He started out in a sport that demands long hours in the sun— golf.

In the beginning, Kevin says, the company marketed itself virally. They started out in the Southern states where the sport was most popular. Florida was a flagship market. 

Then, “members carried the product with them to their Northern clubs.” Female players who now swore by the comfort and protection SanSoleil offered them on the course starting asking their local pro shops to carry their line of apparel.

Kevin is thankful for the loyal customers who led SanSoleil to start outfitting players on the most beautiful clubs in the country and eventually all the way to the PGA tour. “Our customer loves the product and continues to interact with us all the time.”

The Sunny Side of Marketing

Sports apparel is a crowded market and though plenty of brands compete to get their logos on the backs of the sport’s most recognized players, Kevin doesn’t really consider the big guys to be competitors. “What we’ve done is created a product that is very specific to sun care and made it easy to wear on the course,” he says. “Other brands advertise the sun protection but they don’t concentrate on making it easy to wear.”

SanSoleil has five different fabrics that offer sun protection from cotton to a fabric that cools when you put it on. He says it’s the combination of protection and comfort that has won him so much new and repeat business. “We’re going to the PGA next week and we’ve got over 200 appointments booked for that show,” he said. “I bet Nike doesn’t even have that many appointments.”

Kevin also made early inroads with the major influencers in the golf community to help promote his product, following the model of other category leaders such as Reebok who gave their shoes out to all the big tennis instructors when they first came onto the scene.

“I’ve outfitted many of the LPGA teaching professionals, and they’ve become very loyal and a great asset for me.” SanSoleil also represents the healthcare portion of the LPGA ambassador group.

SanSoleil has already moved horizontally into sports with similar customer profiles such as tennis and equestrian. Until now, the women’s avenue has been a profitable one. “Tennis has significantly more women playing than golf,” he says.

“[Women] are definitely more in tune [to protecting their skin],” Kevin says. Still, he believes the concept will carry across gender lines and plans to launch the company’s first menswear line this year.