Episode 15 - Franko Vatterott

  

  

In this episode, we talk to Franko Vatterott, Managing Director of Human Interest Group.

Human Interest group is a 9-year-old Athlete Management and Marketing Agency in Dubai. Before the company expanded as an agency, it started out managing Sports Media Relations for the government of Dubai and then re-inventing into an organisation involved in developing the Tri Dubai project in collaboration with the government of Dubai.

In this episode we cover: 

  • Franko’s journey working in sales and marketing to athlete management  and moving from Colorado, USA to Dubai
  • How he started out in Dubai and met Craig Alexander, the first athlete he managed
  • The story of his bike fitting company, Retul Bike Fit Specialists
  • Stories on cycling teams and the fun videos they made
  • Key attributes that make Franko’s managed top-level athletes stand out
  • Franko’s advice for juniors
  • How they choose which athletes to work with
  • Where Franko sees the future of Triathlon going
  • Information about the workshop - Braver, bolder, stronger by Rachel Joyce

 

Links

Transcript:

 FELICITY:

Welcome to the All Torque podcast, where each episode we interview an inspiring person to share their story with you. I'm your host, Felicity Dales, managing director of Body Torque.

I have here today, Franko Vatterott, the managing director of Human Interest Group who launched the company nine years ago and managed sports media relations for the Government of Dubai and lead the reinvention of the organisation that involved developing the Tri-Dubai project, collaborating with the Government of Dubai and expanding into a leading athlete management and marketing agency. You currently service an 18 client portfolio that includes an Aussie, Craig Alexander better known as ‘Crowie’, Tim Don, Rachel Joyce, Ben Hoffman, Lesley Patterson, Team Wurtele, Mauricio Mendez, Sam Appleton – another Aussie, Jessica Long, Matt Chrabot, another Aussie - Ellie Salthouse, Rob Gray, Radka Vodickova, Kevin McDowell, Thiago Vinhal, Jake Montgomery, Ryan Petry and Morgan Pearson. What a stable of athletes!

You’re worldly managing these athletes involves cutting edge sponsorships, content creation, brand strategy, sampling and product based partnerships with the most elite group of multi-sport endurance athletes under one umbrella. Wow! What a portfolio there. Welcome Franko.

FRANKO:

Thanks Felicity. Thanks for having me, that list sounded crazy long. I guess when you hear it like that, it has a little different effect on you.

FELICITY:

That’s right.

Your background began as director of sales and marketing with Colorado Altitude Training and then vice president of sales and marketing and co-founder of Retül bike fit specialists, the director of business development and co-founder of Sansego, a triathlon coaching membership platform.

Tell us about your journey from starting in the States, being in Colorado and ending up in Dubai.   

FRANKO:

Sure. Where I grew up in the mid-western part of the U.S. Farmville, we didn’t really have endurance sports. We were more field sports guys and so when I went out to Colorado for college, I was introduced to more the endurance, the cycling and the triathlon – skiing, swimming, endurance running that sort of thing. We have mountains here in Colorado, it’s sort of a natural playground in Boulder, Colorado where I am based is world-renowned for that.

I sort of fell into that, that world and I know that’s more main stream in Australia but here triathlon is actually sort of exotic. But I fell into that world, really just got introduced to the sport in a really organic way and started with Colorado Altitude Training, which was a start-up company that simulated altitude environments for athletes to sleep in. And at that point, they were breaking science in terms of getting an altitude boost if you will. Red cell mass boost by spending a certain amount of time at altitude and the easiest way to do that was to sleep, and get your eight hours in an altitude tent and hopefully an hour or two reading or doing something else in the tent. So you get a certain amount of exposure per day and then your body makes these changes.      

FELICITY:

Adjustment.

FRANKO:

That’s how I got introduced to the endurance sports scene.

In late 2001, sorry 2002, the company sent me out to Iron Man Hawaii to do an expo, to showcase the tents. And at that point I knew nothing about, I had just started with them, I knew nothing about endurance sports. I didn’t even hear Iron Man, all I heard was, “I’m going to Hawaii to work!”

That was awesome, I went out there and set the expo up and basically fell in love with what I saw, which was the infamous Iron Man world championships. I didn’t know anything about any Pro, knew nothing really there, I knew a couple I guess, top guys that we had sponsored with Colorado Altitude Training but I really knew nothing.

But what I loved was the scene, the human interest stories out there. The people that needed a catalyst in their life to overcome something or challenge or whatever it was, where they went from never doing anything to doing Iron Man Hawaii. I loved those stories and there was a lot of those out there. Essentially I’ve been inventing walls to stay in that world and hovering from going from brand management and sponsorship and sales and marketing. That side into my own companies that are in more the marketing side and eventually into athlete management and then a couple of entrepreneurial adventures in between.

Essentially I’d classify my world as active lifestyle and primarily around endurance and Olympic sport.

FELICITY:

Right. What a way to fall into it, starting with the Altitude Training and then progressing from there and it’s your passion evolving, isn’t it?

FRANKO:

Yeah, it was like in anybody’s career, you look back and every vertical in your resume, every job you had was a stepping stone to the next point. I met most of the first level endurance athletes, professional cyclists, professional athletes, anybody that’s had an endurance component. Even guys at least, the Aussies with Aussie Rules Football would laugh at this but even some of our non-endurance athletes, like our NFL players, these sorts of guys were using Altitude tents. I got turned onto the leveraging these high profile influencer or athlete, profiles and usage of the product, quote, unquote ‘sports marketing’. And started leveraging that and trying to figure out how to grow a brand that way.

Altitude Training was amazing and I got this call one day, this fax, we actually uses faxes back then, but we had this request for proposal in from an outfit from the U.K. that came in and wanted us to bid on some athlete dorms, essentially. And the athlete dorms, we would convert like a dormitory to altitudes. All of these individual rooms and the funny things is, is that we were looking at the plans and the fax, typically these things would accompany with a call. But this just came straight into our fax, so we analysed it, I looked at it with some engineers. We quickly found out that this was for, not for human athletes that they were interested in using it for horses. We made the phone call and they said, “Okay, we want to use it for horses.” That had never been done before.  

FELICITY:

Wow.

FRANKO:

It was an interesting project to go through the product development type and take what we were doing in human sport science and apply it to horse racing and I guess horse usage, so we developed these stables, these internal shells that held altitude within a horse stable. And that’s how my relationship with the Government of Dubai started, I was the sales guy over there doing those types of projects with them. We had a few altitude rooms for the mountain climbers and things like that and the organisation, the Government over there is massive.

FELICITY:

Yeah.

FRANKO:

There’s a lot of layers.

FELICITY:

Right.

FRANKO:

And that was how I got interested in working, started working with them and happened to be over there during the 2004 Olympics, they won their first gold medal and when I happened to be there working, there was a massive parade and everything in Dubai. And I was a guest of Sheik Mohammed, who was the Crown Prince at the time, now he’s actually the Prime Minister of the U.A.E. and ruler of Dubai, so I was working for him with this altitude product and he’s the owner of all the horse stables and things like that and that led to this opportunity to where I saw them get really excited with this gold medal, and I presented them a plan to assemble the first ever global triathlon team. And that led to this project called ‘Tri-Dubai’ which was the first pro-grade, pro-level triathlon team where we had world champions gathered from all over the world and we had a similar uniform and pioneered that model.

And that’s where I met Craig Alexander, he was on the team and he won his first world title on the team in 2006.  

FELICITY:

Okay.

FRANKO:

And then..

FELICITY:

They were the international, our athletes, Franko as part of..

FRANKO:

International athletes grouped under this team umbrella and the idea was to promote Dubai.

FELICITY:

Right.

FRANKO:

It’s a funny story of what prompted me to make that pitch to the Sheik, and it was because, it really came from, what I would call the ‘ignorant American stereotype’. I was pretty young at the time, I was naïve to world politics and that sort of thing.

FELICITY:

No, we’d love to hear it.

FRANKO:

I went over there, I was just a young working guy trying to further my career and I was hungry and would go anywhere to do anything and chase business. I went over there and didn’t, I thought Dubai was lovely and I made a couple of trips there and then one day I was checking in and literally the United Airlines ticket counter representative asked me if I was in the military. If you saw me, I’m skin and bones, very skinny, I definitely do not look like a military guy.

FELICITY:

No crew cut?

FRANKO:

But they, I said, “No, why?” and she had asked me if the Middle East was safe. This was in 2003-2004 time frame.

FELICITY:

It’s different to now.

FRANKO:

If I wasn’t. Dubai was definitely not what it is now but it wasn’t dessert either, it was, they had a flourishing airport and everything. We were the first project of our kind that kind of came in and worked with the Government level. But I always felt very safe and it really rubbed me the wrong way, I was a pretty frequent flyer with United at the time and it just caught me off guard, that someone in the airline industry would say that.

Anyway, long story short it just dawned on me that so much of the statistics of that time was something like 30% of Americans had passports so it just, the idea to have a team came around, thank gosh we should create some sort of platform to market how actually cool this place is and how nice and friendly, business friendly it is and what a better way to do that than triathlon and by the way, I know all these professionals that I’ve met through the Altitude world and I have this great idea and bam the team was born. That’s how it evolved.

FELICITY:

Fantastic.

FRANKO:

And then again, Craig was on the team and when that team sort of died and sponsorship ran out, I weaved into my next career which was Retül bike fitting and Craig happened to be a world champion that same year, so I started managing him on the side to make ends meet in the early days of Retül and that’s what grew into the athlete management company. That’s a long boring journey.  

FELICITY:

No. Well that was the beginning for Retül as well, that’s a 3D platform isn’t it? For bike fitting, so that was quite unique as well, at that time.

FRANKO:

It was, yeah right when the Tri-Dubai died I sort of reconnected with this colleague of mine, that I actually worked with at the Altitude tent company. He was the, I was the young guy there I thought, but he was actually a lot younger than I was and he was this crazy brilliant kid, an engineering kid. I mean he was literally like a kid, if you remember that show Doogie Howser, the kid doctor you know? He was the Doogie Howser of the Colorado Altitude Training.

FELICITY:

Yeah.

FRANKO:

And he was just brilliant and we always stayed in touch throughout the Dubai days and so he had started working on this prototype, sort of bike fit system. He had showed it to me for a little while and I actually showed some athletes that I was working with on Tri-Dubai and nobody was really into bike fit at that point, so it was basically born out of the fact that once the team died, I didn’t have anything to do.

FELICITY:

Yep.

FRANKO:

And so I buried my head in the sand and was sort of depressed that my big team had died and so I went back and started meeting with my partner, his name is Chris and essentially, yeah we finally decided to do it and we renamed his current technology. We renamed it Retül, we went and found a third party, Todd Carver and we launched it and built it up and seven years, eight years later Specialised Bicycles bought it. That was in end of 2012 and I worked with Specialised for a few years before resigning at the end of 2015.

FELICITY:

You worked with Team Sky as well, with that product.

FRANKO:

Yeah, we implemented the exact same strategy as I did at Colorado Altitude Training and even what we do, to this day with other brands is this top down story telling. Make the technology and the data and the info good enough for pro-grade level and then establish credibility and authority that way and then bring it down to where it makes more sense for the consumer level. That’s what we did with Retül and I was fortunate enough to be on the head of the sales and marketing side of that. So I got to manage all the team’s sponsorships and we started with Team Sky in year one and then British Cycling in their very first year, as a combo group.

And then we had, we worked with Orica GreenEDGE, the Aussies were probably my favourite team to actually work with. They were amazing.

FELICITY:

Oh good.

FRANKO:

Yeah, and quite a few other of the big teams.

FELICITY:

Yeah.

FRANKO:

It was a pretty fun little area of my life.

FELICITY:

Yeah, Scott of the GreenEDGE team which is now evolved and changed to Scott Mitchelton. They are our first Aussie team, so we’re very proud of them.

FRANKO:

They were awesome, most of those teams have European influence, so even at the American, Canadel, the current EF education team of the slip stream group in Garmin for years. Those guys, the trek team we worked with Europcar and Data Dimension and MTN-Qhubeka back in the day. A lot of those groups had a European influence.

FELICITY:

Yeah.

FRANKO:

The Orica group had a few Euros in there but it was definitely the leadership was Aussie, which made it fun, and the videos they made were, had way more Aussie flair, which I think it more universally loved and maybe some more of the stiff traditional European cycling messaging.  

FELICITY:

That’s right.

FRANKO:

I just thought they were a brilliant group and even watching them this year I still root for Matty White.

FELICITY:

Yeah.

FRANKO:

I always liked those guys.

FELICITY:

Yeah, I loved the video they did a take-off of some other video that went viral and it was hilarious. I thought that was great.

FRANKO:

They did a lot of those, that guy, I believe his name was Dan Jones. He was a legend, I think he came out of Fox, he was like a producer at Fox Sports, he was covering the team and then I think that’s the story. I’m probably butchering it.

FELICITY:

Yeah, right.

FRANKO:

They were covering the team and then they just hired him and he led the video team and they did a ‘call me, maybe’ I think, that was sort of their first one and then they did one, ‘uptown funk’. It just showed the lighter, fun side.

FELICITY:

I agree.

FRANKO:

The truth or the reality of those teams is that it’s the boy’s club.

FELICITY:

Yeah.

FRANKO:

There is a lot of men on hotel rooms, on the bikes, eating on the bikes, training, sleeping, by themselves for a lot of the year. And so, in order to keep it interesting and especially when you’re mixing backgrounds, most of those teams have a very variety of backgrounds so they have one that was Michael Matthews and Simon Gerrans and his brother was the PT at the time. Obviously all the Aussie staff and that was a really, really good group and it was fun. Made them fun as a sponsoring company to work with them.   

FELICITY:

Yeah, absolutely. That’s good to hear.

What are some of the key attributes Franko, of the top level athletes that you work with? What makes them stand out?

FRANKO:

They have an intrinsic driver that is always pointed North, North in terms of wanting to make themselves better. They never stop. Craig Alexander, Tim Don all the way down to even a guy like Sam Appleton who is and Ellie Salthouse, are the younger Aussies that we work with. And definitely a different generation, I mean Crowie has got almost 20 years on them and it’s really different, the way they act but their common characteristics are certainly just this drive.

I mean triathlon in general, more so than cycling, inside the cycling industry triathlons is one vertical but it’s definite vertical that if you broke down the profile of the participants, you’d see heavy type A, type triple A.

FELICITY:

Yeah.

FRANKO:

Successful, very driven, once I reach my goal it’s all about setting the next goal. That sort of mentality and those are really great people to be around because they motivate you to be like that. I’m definitely more on the laid back, artistic, creative side and when I’m around Craig or my athletes, I’m snapping to it, I’m colouring between the lines and I like that. I learn from them a lot.

FELICITY:

Yeah.

FRANKO:

That’s really it, I mean these guys set a goal and are really driven to get that goal and not derailed by things like, “I’m struggling at making a living at this,” or “I am struggling with injury,” or “This is affecting my relationships,” trying to travel all over the world and win prize money. Those obstacles weed out the weak, I guess I would say and the ones that are really strong in terms of they want to do this, they want. I see especially being in Boulder here, Tim Don, Ben Hoffman and Crowie’s home away from home.

Apo, Ellie they all live here, they come in during the season and you get to see it firsthand. In terms of the, if they’re going to move from home, move into an expensive place, invest in their training, invest in their coaching, obviously invest in travel and accommodations and those things that help you perform your best. Those are all expenses that a lot of people don’t understand in the pro-side of things, it’s not golf, it’s not even pro-cycling where everything is sort of covered for you, under your team deal.   

FELICITY:

Right.

FRANKO:

It’s quite different as an individual tri-athlete and like cycling, it’s the same. Those guys don’t want to go suffer every day if they’re not driven.

FELICITY:

Yeah, that’s right.

Surfing is very similar to that as well, they do it all on their own and have to travel and be quite resilient. So that’s interesting that you say that about the tri-athletes, I hadn’t identified that before but I see what you mean now.

FRANKO:

Oh yeah, surfers they’re awesome. Punching sharks, I mean it doesn’t get any better than that.

FELICITY:

Not so sure about that, Franko.

What advice would you give to juniors coming up, is there anything that you could share that you think would be worthwhile for them to think about?

FRANKO:

Sure, yeah the juniors coming up, I mean the advice that, gosh I don’t even like giving this advice but it is good advice. Is performance comes first, you’ve got to be performance driven, you need results I would say to. Improvements, steady improvement and definitely the drive to make it as a professional and be able to earn a good living. But you can’t ignore the social media side of it, the engagement with fans, it’s so different these days then when before these platforms came around where it was.

Image was different, the way athletes were marketed was different, the rise of, or the death of specialty retail and rise of online commerce has really affected the way that brands have had to be with pros. Just because you’re winning races and doing all that, that’s enough to get you by, of course enough for you to succeed but to really, really thrive you need to be thinking about the business side, be thinking about connecting with your fans, producing content, consistent strong messaging. You’ve got to do that side of it and in this type of sport where recovery is before sport, recovery and nutrition, you’ve got to do those things. Body work, massage, you get to that top level you can’t skimp on those things so after the swim, bike, run, you’ve got all this other stuff that you’ve got to do to tune your body to be ready to go to battle.

And then you get to the point where you can be really calculating how much you’re earning, off winning the battles and off performance but that’s only a temporary side of your career. You know what I mean? You have the rest of your career and so you have to be building that audience and they just really dislike the social media. Myself, I realise how important and valuable it is and we use it of course but from just a character development and a platform which consumers see high profile influencers. It’s very, very easy to be fake and to show the best side and that’s I see the other side of some athletes sometimes and I really hate that the good ones get sort of hidden in this sea of, “look at me” on social media.

FELICITY:

That’s right, it’s easy to..

FRANKO:

But my advice is to not have an attitude like fortunately I have good partners that are really savvy in the social media and we sort of divide and conquer but getting, even with some of the high profile characters in cycling, the highest profile character for example. I really feel that today’s social media can really massage and hide a lot of the truth that were out there before. You didn’t have a chance to combat that, if you screwed up you couldn’t massage it, there was no damage or reputation control online that was easy to manipulate.

FELICITY:

Right.

FRANKO:

We really try to choose athletes that have strong character, values, those types of things because this sport is too small and the industry relationships are too small to bring in bad character.

FELICITY:

Yeah.

FRANKO:

When I mean bad character, I mean we have to look at the brand side as well. When we represent an athlete, we certainly have to look at the brand side and we care about the relationship and even though technically the client comes first, we really want to make sure that when we present somebody we can stand by their, the way they carry themselves as a professional.

FELICITY:

Yes.

FRANKO:

And that is started with the standard that Craig Alexander set many years ago, that’s the one we follow.

FELICITY:

Yeah, working with athletes with the same values.

FRANKO:

Yeah, it’s, of course winning is the goal but it’s not winning above all else.

FELICITY:

That’s right.

FRANKO:

And it’s absolutely professionalism and when I look in the mirror and be very proud of the path you took to compete as a professional at all times. And I think those are whether it’s a lesson for your kids or a lesson for your clients, it’s not one that we really have to preach because you can tell the good characters, we can tell right away.

FELICITY:

Yeah.

FRANKO:

We’ve made very few mistakes over the years, although we have made them.

FELICITY:

Yes, well that’s great that you hold true to your values and it’s important that there’s that alignment with integrity and then I think that’s good feel brand, it’s good for them and it’s also engendering trust really and that’s what you want. You want to enjoy your life, you don’t really want to be with people you can’t trust.

FRANKO:

Yeah and the nature of an athlete agent is, we don’t even call ourselves agents in the triathlon world, we’re more managers, we manage a lot of stuff we don’t just hock deals and get in the way of brands and working with their ambassadors. But unfortunately, agent has somewhat of a sleazy connotation to it and in terms of the way that some people behave with the other athletes outside of our world.

FELICITY:

Yes, that’s right.

FRANKO:

You want to be true to your word or they’ll see right through it and then all of a sudden your title starts working against you.

FELICITY:

Yes, absolutely.

Where do you see the future of triathlon heading from here, Franko?

FRANKO:

I think it’s still growing globally, I mean we’ve seen Iron Man been bought and sold a couple of times over the years and I believe they’re owned by I believe, the biggest company in China right now so it’s a pretty large player to be interested in the sport. I see it continuing to grow, I definitely see the format changing up in the next Olympics and the first Olympics was in Sydney. So triathlon is relatively a young sport by Olympic years but it’s evolving and now they have the mixed relay team for the first time in 2020 in Tokyo. We represent a couple of American guys that are contenders for that mix relay team, that’s a really exciting team format. Men and women which is pretty unique. That’s evolving.

Iron Man is certainly, it’s a business first so I guess profit comes first and that is understandable, they’ve been sustainable for many years so I would say they’re probably running it pretty well, from a business standpoint. But of course, we’d love to see more TV and these sorts of things, it’s a hard event, the long course for Iron Man they’re harder than to, they’re expensive events to put on. Especially in the big cities but you see these races in Germany, that just were run for eight and a half hours live on TV and have massive people on the course and you see that and it’s very optimistic about it.

Then there’s some new formats coming out that seem to be more made for TV and that’s good. I definitely see the future of the equality movement happening in the sport and it’s primarily been a male dominated demographic. And there’s been a lot of efforts made recently over the years, particularly by Rachel Joyce, who is an athlete we manage, one of the top professionals who led from the athlete standpoint. I’m getting more women in the sport, you see that being universally adopted by media, stakeholders, athletes both from the men and women side. That’s cool, I tend to think triathlon is a leader and a little more nimble than maybe some of the other sports. That’s good. I see a pretty bright future.

FELICITY:

And I noticed that there’s a workshop that’s actually run by two women that you have in your stable.

FRANKO:

It’s Rachel Joyce, Rachel is a British athlete who lives here in Boulder. She’s a world champ, she’s won world champ, long course champs and most notably she was on the podium for three years in a row in Kona and then in 2016, took a year off to, well took nine months off to welcome her first child into the world. And exactly nine months after she gave birth, she came back and won Iron Man Boulder last year and that was a big deal because it basically emphasized what they call the ‘maternity penalty’ in that professional women take a year off to be mum, they get penalized with points and the fact that they have to start over and gain points and maybe do unoptimal schedule for..

FELICITY:

Oh okay.

FRANKO:

.. yeah the level that they’ve competed at. Mirinda Carfrae, Rachel Joyce these podium level athletes need to have enough points so they take a year off, they lose a lot of those points. Rachel spearheaded that issue and highlighted it with a massive block of victories and podiums, three Iron Mans to make it to Kona, in the first 14 months of her son’s life, which is pretty crazy for a professional.

FELICITY:

Yeah.

FRANKO:

She’s connected with a women’s leadership expert here in town and they’re producing a seminar called ‘Braver, Bolder, Stronger’ and it’s using triathlon and multi-sport style training mixed with leadership seminars. It’s not just boardroom stuff, it’s life, mum’s stuff, relationship stuff, stress stuff, killing inner demons, really good stuff that at least the.. I’ve filmed a couple of them so I’ve sat in the back and the women attend these really seem to be responding positively.

FELICITY:

Yes, that’s great.

FRANKO:

She, those sorts of projects continuing to evolve as well.

FELICITY:

It’s wonderful that there’s great mentors that can guide those women as well to help them keep evolving and be the person that they want to be. That’s fantastic!

FRANKO:

Absolutely, absolutely.

FELICITY:

Well I think I’d like to thank you for joining us today, that’s been very insightful, learning about your journey in Dubai and the Altitude Training plus working with the Team Sky athletes etcetera and people can find you at your website Franko, can’t they? At www.humaninterestgroup.org or you’re also on Facebook and Twitter @humaninterestgroup so if people want to find you or follow you, they can look at those platforms.

FRANKO:

Yeah and www.sansego.co which I’m also a member of, which is mostly Aussie dominated, that’s another great platform if they’re interested in training, fitness tips, nutrition. It’s sans – S-A-N-S-E-G-O dot co.

FELICITY:

Yes.

FRANKO:

And that’s Craig Alexander’s training brand.

FELICITY:

Great, well we’ll put those in our show notes as well so that everyone can see that.

FRANKO:

That would be awesome.

FELICITY:

Yeah, well it’s been lovely chatting with you today, Thank you for taking the time and I really enjoy seeing what are other athletes, particularly Aussies of course, that you get to snare in your portfolio.

FRANKO:

Well you guys are a great culture, every time I get to, I’ve been to Australia now four times and every time I go down there I come back saying, “What an amazing place, what an amazing culture.” Anytime, any time we can chat. Thank you very much for having me and have a great day.  

FELICITY:

You’re welcome. Thanks Franko.

FRANKO:

Bye Felicity.

FELICITY:

Thanks for listening to the All Torque podcast. We'd love it if you would leave us a rating and review on iTunes. This helps us to deliver content you want to hear about. Please take a moment to share it with your friends and family on Instagram and Facebook. I'm Felicity Dales, see you next episode for another story of inspiration and motivation on the All Torque podcast.

 

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