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Carom Billiard - General - Kozoom Interview - Andernos (FRA)

Karim Belhaj, Predator's CEO

Posted by on November 16, 2020

Karim Belhaj, Predator's CEO

© JP Parmentier
Karim Belhaj (44), a model of french success in the United States

On the occasion of Karim Belhaj's visit to Andernos a few weeks ago in the new premises of Kozoom, we were able to attend in private the working sessions of the greatest American and Carambola champions. Two SAM (Spain) billiards were set up in the recording studio, one for each discipline. Jérémy Bury and Dani Sanchez played the OneCarom event in the showroom despite the Spanishman's request to the UMB to change the date with another group in order to be able to play from home.




                     Dani Sanchez, Karim Belhaj and Jérémy Bury with a part of the 2021 collection


We got to know each other with the team of the group Predator (Poison, Uni-Loc) and its CEO Karim Belhaj (44 years old), a model of french success in the United States. Accompanied by his french wife Pauline and his two daughters Leena (7) and Jenna (5), inspired by his mother and grandmother since early childhood, women have always played a major role in the french entrepreneurial sphere. Real globetrotter, he now lives in Puerto Rico. His company Predator is located in Jacksonville, Florida.




                                                           Karim and his wife Pauline


Its products make a remarkable entrance into Carom market with the adhesion of huge stars of the world's 3 Cushion. For Kozoom, he kindly accepted to devote a few hours to this interview (thanks to JP Parmentier for the pictures):


Jérémie Picart/Kozoom : Hello Karim Belhaj, you are the CEO of the Predator group, leader in the pool cue market. The introduction of your products on the Carom billiard market is recent and dazzling. The success of a Frenchman on the other side of the Atlantic appeals to us, tell me about your career path up to your arrival in this company.


Karim Belhaj: I was born in Paris, I grew up there and discovered billiards quite late in fact. The arrival at Predator is, in my opinion, the result of two things: a taste for adventure and entrepreneurship on the one hand, and a passion for billiards on the other. My parents were shopkeepers on the markets of Clignancourt at the beginning and then at the Forum des Halles then in the clothing sector, my mother Sonia created her own lines and was very successful, I was then about 10 years old. She taught me never to complain, that we were lucky and that everyone owes their destiny only to themselves. At this time, I understood that we had to be opportunistic in the good sense of the word. I had confidence in myself, I was ambitious, I felt that I was different from teenagers of my age. My first connection with billiards was at Cap d'Agde and La Grande Motte where my parents also had stores. So it was in the south of France that I made my first shots at 8 Pool in a café in 1986, I was 11 years old at the time. Then we moved from Franconville to Champigny-sur-Marne four years later and I continued my schooling  in Saint-Maur. At 18, I work at Ikea for a first professional experience and I love it, the business, the model and the Swedish design. At 18 years old with the baccalaureate in my pocket, I felt the need to go abroad and especially to the United States, I needed a challenge. I flew to San Francisco on a visa assistance program to go to work and I thought I would have a job there as soon as I arrived, it turned out I didn't and I was told that on the spot. With enough money to last only ten days or so, I had to act quickly. I managed to convince a person in charge of SideStep (sale of sneakers) to take me on after a three-hour trial period. Great experience and first real encounter with American culture. In spite of a permanent job offer, I decide to continue my studies in France. I go from the Faculty of Economics to a BTS (Advanced technician’s certificate) in International Business. There I did "Shoot Again" (Name of the billiard room in Champigny-sur-Marne) option BTS, I became passionate about billiards surrounded at the time by Laetitia Dos Santos, Alex Zenati, Christophe Biche ... and developing new friendships with personalities like Jean-Philippe Parmentier and Stephane Cohen. Soon after, I met Carol Farinaud who was bringing back Predator pool cues from the United States, I helped him sell them, it helped me financially and I absolutely wanted to work for this start-up, Predator. Carol Farinaud talked about me to the creators of the brand, the town of Champigny gave me a boost and here I am back to my American dream during the BTS internship.


JP/Kozoom: How do you go from being a trainee to being the Predator boss? Why did the founders of the brand let you take the reins of their creation?


KB: The day before I arrived at Predator, I met Steve Mizerak, the legend of pool, in Florida. On April 1, 1997, I arrived at Predator, met founder Allan McCarty (with Steve Titus, his inventor partner), spent a few hours explaining my ideas to him, and began working on marketing and sales development at home and abroad. There are 6 or 7 of us in the company. The company then makes 2% of its turnover abroad. Today, we are at 50%. I go back to France to finalize my BTS with a presentation of Predator which was very much appreciated by the jury, then I go back to Jacksonville as a marketing manager and management/marketing student at the University of North Florida. One day, I discovered big accounting problems when I accidentally received a phone call from the bank telling me that I was 4 months in arrears. After resolving the accounting problem, I was appointed general manager and a complete restructuring took place. I meet for the first time Paul Costain (Uni-Loc) who will later become production manager. In 1999/2000, I already manage the company but not yet the management. Paul invests 10% in the company and reorganizes the production. To ensure the development, I call upon a friend from Fac, Philippe Singer, who accepts my proposal and we start to turn the company around. We go from 7 employees when I arrived to 45 today. A little anecdote: in 2001, when I wanted to create my own start up (outside of billiards), Allan McCarty suggested that I take shares in Predator every year in addition to a modest monthly salary, and I started with 10% and then 25%. Then we have some disagreements with Allan about the direction the company is taking, he finds the design too aggressive for his taste. I tell him that I can simplify it but that the rest will be done, in this case, without me... He decides to retire and sells his shares while remaining available if necessary, we leave on good terms. Then a few years ago, I have 49%, Paul has 51% and in 2018, Paul retires and I buy back his shares. What I really like about this career path is that I have participated in the development of the Predator Group and have worked alongside Paul, who is my mentor in production and research and development. He's still working with us... even after one of his most important contributions to billiards, our carbon shaft: the REVO(lution).




                                                 Predator's team in Jacksonville (Florida)


JP/Kozoom: Is the use of carbon in your products the trigger for the brand's growth?


KB: In 1999, we were the only ones to own a robot reproducing the movement of a pool cue, this robot was the Iron Willie. At that time, we had tested the carbon shafts but the result was catastrophic, it was a fishing rod with a tip at the end, so to speak. In 2004/2005, we worked with a golf club manufacturer on the carbon tubes. We improve but the sound is still as unpleasant. There, we realize that we can modify the sound with foams in different states inside the shaft, we work with Porsche Engineering which reproduces the shock of a shaft in contact with a ball (with a "Finite Element Analysis"). At the end of these experiments, we conclude that a shaft in billiards sometimes has more complicated constraints than in other sports without going into details, we would be closer to the constraints that apply to golf or tennis. Our competitors don’t take these technical aspects into account as intensely as we do. So in 2004/2005, we're still putting off this carbon project. The crisis of 2008 followed and I created a division in Hong Kong in 2011. I still hear people today saying that the best thing is a cue made entirely of carbon, I can tell you that they don't know what they're talking about. So to answer the initial question, we had a first boom in 2003/2004 and then a second boom with the production of carbon shafts in 2016/2017 but we were already the market leader before carbon. Six years ago, we were 100% wood, 4 years ago, 5% carbon and today we are at 70 to 80% carbon. A study like the one on carbon requires years of development and nearly 20,000 hours of work. For example, Paul used hundreds of different foams and when he finalized his product, I tried it, it was magic! Then I went to the Philippines and I realized that in those countries, the shaft didn't slip through my fingers at all... Of course we used to play constantly in air-conditioned rooms! It took 9 months to solve this huge problem, a lot of financial investments, we destroyed more than 15.000 shafts because we didn't realize that 80% of our users don't play in air-conditioned rooms like us... among other technical challenges.


JP/Kozoom: What is the proportion of high-level players sponsored by Predator at Pool and Carom and who are your main ambassadors today at the Carom?


KB: The Carom is a totally personal challenge that comes from my french origins and therefore from my attachment to the Carom Today, we have under contract the biggest names in Pool and the Carom adventure begins with Jérémy Bury. After a conclusive test with the REVO 3C-U shaft, i.e. Ultra Low Deflection (almost no deflection), Jérémy Bury leaves Longoni to come to us. Then, it is a sequence with Dani Sanchez who uses the other model of shaft, the 3C-S (Standard) which perhaps adapts better to the transition from the standard Carom shaft to the REVO shaft or rather does not offer a radical change but more smoothly. But it is not always the same choice among the Carom champions. Tayfun Tasdemir and Semih Sayginer, for example, made the same choice as Jérémy Bury, namely the 3C-U. We also have Sameh Sidhom (3C-S), Nguyen Quoc Nguyen, Hugo Patino, Gökhan Salman under Predator contract and we also have all those who use our "old" products at Molinari such as the Swede Torbjörn Blomdahl, the Greek Nikos Polychronopoulos, the Koreans Sung-won Choi and Jung-han Heo... Regarding the Pool, 70% of the world's best use our products. Our break cue is the best-selling cue in the world!




                    A.Kazakis, K.Tkach, D.Sanchez, J.Bury, F.Sanchez-Ruiz, E.Kaçi from left to right


JP/Kozoom: With such names, there is no doubt that your arrival on the 3 Cushion market is likely to make some noise. The technology and design of your products are unique, nothing is left to chance at Predator?


KB: Nothing is left to chance, quality is our ultimate quest as is customer satisfaction. Our approach to sports-billiards is similar to McLaren's approach to Formula 1 or NASA's approach to conquering space. We design every detail with a "people-centric approach", always keeping "victory" in mind. With our "Innovation & Inspiration" approach, we truly believe that the development and advanced technology of our equipment will inspire players (amateur and professional) and improve the quality of their game. We even study players’ habits outside of billiards to better understand "How to better design for each player's style"... we study fashion, design and habits trends... a bit like Apple does by marrying function and design while remaining people-centric. Our ambition is to win the trust of all players towards our products and to be with them on their journey to celebrate their personal victory!


JP/Kozoom: Can you explain the differences between your two carbon shafts, the REVO 3C-S (Standard) and the REVO 3C-U (Ultra Low)?


KB: I really thought, at the beginning, that Carom players would turn to the 3C-S, which offers a smooth transition to a game with less deflection compensation, and I even encouraged some great champions to start with the 3C-S. The switch to the 3C-U is much more radical since there is virtually no deflection compensation. You hit where you aim... But that was without counting on the adaptability of these Carom champions who, for the most part now, choose the 3C-U.


JP/Kozoom: You spent the week on Andernos with part of your team, why did you choose to come here at Kozoom to work?


KB: We need to be able to offer content and this is done through events, through communication. Xavier Carrer, with whom I've been friends for a long time, offered me to come to his new premises where his recording studio is located. I liked the idea and I tried to bring together five of our best players in the American and Carom style. With the health crisis, Semih, Tayfun and Sameh declined the invitation and we gathered Dani and Jeremy at the Carom to play matches and to present them all of our new 2021 collections but also to try to find game formulas including a mix of Pool and Carom for the next World Cup in Las Vegas (March 2021). You will soon have the opportunity to discover our images on Kozoom, a show guaranteed especially on the France-Spain meeting.




               J.Bury, T.Tkach, E.Kaçi, F.Sanchez-Ruiz, K.Belhaj, A.Kazakis, A.Montpellier, D.Sanchez


JP/Kozoom : Thank you Karim for agreeing to answer these few questions in order to know you and your products better. Congratulations for having given life to these billiard cues that make us dream and that are true works of art. You reflect the image of an accomplished and fulfilled man both professionally and in your private life. So Karim, 44 years old would it be the « Bel âge » ?


KB: Hahaha... with a wonderful family at home, with two young billiard players (7 and 5 years old) and a Predator family all over the world in full swing at the Pool and Carom... you may be right!




                                     Two future stars : Leena on the left and Jenna on the right




25 years of Predator

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My Comments

Predator-Kozoom relationship
This article, in short, sounds like about Kozoom's business relationship with Predator cues.

Is Kozoom now a distributor of Predator cues in France or Europe?

And, who is the distributor of Predator carom cues in Korea?
I guess it is not the 5&6 Company (old Kozoom Korea).

Message 1/3 - Publish at November 18, 2020 2:46 PM

Hello inception, the goal was not to advertise for Kozoom and/or Predator. I just met Karim Belhaj and I liked the career path of this man. I'm also a fan of his products, I play with Predator, I like design, that's all... No commercial interest in this interview, I could have done the same thing with a representative of another brand if the idea had seduced me... For distributors, I don't know but a suggestion, check the Predator's site, you'll probably find an answer...

Message 2/3 - Publish at November 18, 2020 5:09 PM

For Carom products (Predator) :
- DS Billiards (divisions in Europe, South Korea, Turkey, Vietnam), in Korea, it's DS Billiards Korea
- Kozoom (mainly Europe)
- High Rock (USA/Americas)

Message 3/3 - Publish at November 18, 2020 5:20 PM

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