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Jun

9

2014

Working the Dream

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Stio founder Steve Sullivan at his outdoor office in Jackson, WY.

Outdoor companies thriving in mountain towns.  

By Eric Hansen | Photographs by Greg Von Doersten

When product arrives at an outdoor gear company based in a major metro area, it gets shuffled into a warehouse by worker bees without much fanfare. That’s not always the case for Big Agnes, a celebrated maker of tents and sleeping bags located in Steamboat Springs, Colorado. When a container of sleeping bags showed up early one winter morning, the CEO himself ended up off-loading the truck into a rented mini storage unit, in the dark, in subzero temperatures.

From Liquidlogic Kayaks in Fletcher, North Carolina, to Loki outerwear in Grand Junction, Colorado, the last decade has seen outdoor gear companies seemingly spring up out of nowhere. Meanwhile, established mountain town companies—like backpack-makers Kletterwerks in Bozeman, Montana—continue to innovate and thrive. But as the Big Agnes example illustrates, these companies aren’t always run the way they teach MBAs in business school. In mountain towns, the supposed “flatness” of the global economy—the ease with which goods and services move around most of the modern world—runs up against very real and challenging elevation changes. Still, doing business away from the thronging masses offers unique advantages.

In the early days of the gear industry, founders based their operations where they lived. Klaus Obermeyer started a down jacket factory in Aspen in the ’50s. Yvon Chouinard laid the groundwork for Patagonia by hammering out climbing pitons in his parents’ backyard in Burbank, California. Whether by coincidence or design, many apparel companies have ended up residing in California’s Bay Area. The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, and Marmot all have offices in or near San Francisco. Because their CEO wanted the company to be closer to the mountains, Black Diamond ended up in Salt Lake City, Utah.

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Big Agnes founder and CEO Bill Gamer in Steamboat Springs, CO. Photo by Aryeh Copa

To survive the startup phase, however, new companies need to be strategic about where they locate and what they produce in-house. The same is true with proven brands. “Could we move to Back of Beyond, Colorado?” asks Owen Mesdag, product manager for Seattle camping and climbing company MSR. “I think it’s possible, but we’d end up a different company.” MSR manufactures virtually all of its hardgoods in the U.S. That requires big equipment—machines to make the tools that make the snowshoes, stoves, and water filters. “It’s hard to move a 20-foot-tall, 400-ton punch press,” says Mesdag, “Or the waterjet cutter for that matter—it’s the size of a small conference room.”

Even moving people in and out of mountain towns is difficult. “There’s no question that flying is the real chafe,” says Steve Sullivan, who co-founded Cloudveil in Jackson Hole, Wyoming in 1994. More recently, Sullivan launched technical-lifestyle clothing company Stio in Jackson in 2011. On far too many occassions, Sullivan has flown from Jackson to Denver, caught a flight to New York City, had a meeting, and turned around, only to discover that a storm in Jackson meant the fastest return trip required driving some eight hours from Denver. Travel like that, says Sullivan—spending three days away for a two-hour meeting—takes a psychological toll.

So, as much as possible, Stio and industry peers use technology to avoid business travel and even improve efficiency. Instead of sourcing materials in person at trade shows, they surf the web and email sample orders. They utilize Skype to give foreign factories feedback; employ Dropbox cloud storage to share design patterns, and hire third-party distribution centers in California to receive goods from Asia and ship them to customers. Direct working-dream-stio-steve-sullivan-greg-von-doerstenselling through company stores removes a layer of markups and makes it easier to compete with, or beat, big competitors on pricing.

Venture Snowboards, which builds handmade boards in Silverton, Colorado, is another success story. Silverton is a remote town of just 628 people (less in winter). Even if an avalanche cuts off all routes out of town, as it did for three weeks last winter, Venture owner Lisa Branner stays busy sniffing out suppliers, comparing prices and shipping costs, placing orders for samples, and then asking one of her six employees to track the deliveries—all online. Even with the challenges of U.S. manufacturing in a tiny town, Venture’s boards cost a reasonable $595.

Mountain town companies do struggle with hiring, though. Plenty of locals line up to test gear, but not many qualify as, say, financial controllers. Prospective hires have to be sold not just on the job, but on the school systems and communities—and sometimes perverse local real estate markets. “In the Bay Area, everyone jumps back and forth between outdoor companies. You can find experienced people no problem,” says Bill Gamber, sleeping bag unloader, founder, and CEO of Big Agnes. “Getting somebody to move to Steamboat for a career is a challenge.”

The flipside is stability. New hires quickly find themselves trapped. Or, more likely, in love, with the setting, lifestyle, and the product they’re building. The powder day clauses don’t hurt. “The level of commitment is unmatched,” says Dan English, who worked in software before he launched wool clothing maker Voormi in Pagosa Springs, Colorado in 2010. “People put their heart into the product.”

Setting up shop in a mountain destination that sees thousands of visitors each year also offers word-of-mouth marketing and a steady stream of potential customers. And most important, proximity spurs creativity, says Chris Prior, founder of Prior snowboards and skis in Whistler, BC. Individual graphics on each ski in a pair? Prior tried it on a lark, only to see it become a standard feature not just on his skis, but from big manufacturers as well. “We design products, test materials, and make everything eight minutes away from the mountain,” he says. “We don’t have to be a year or two ahead, buying materials and locking in our distribution.”

Most mountain town companies are small businesses by the U.S. government’s standard—less than 500 employees. Big Agnes, which is considered big, maintains some 80 staffers. There’s a real question about whether a small town can support a big company. Ogden, Utah, a quasi mountain town of 80,000, some 35 miles north of Salt Lake City, has been trying to make the case that success requires large–scale infrastructure. “We’ve been at it for nine years, actively recruiting outdoor recreation companies,” says Dave Hardman, president and CEO of the Ogden/Weber Chamber of Commerce. Their efforts have paid off. Salomon Sports makes its headquarters there. Enve fabricates and assembles carbon fiber wheels there. Scott Sports builds goggles and eyewear and warehouses its U.S. inventory in Ogden, and recently relocated most of its North America operations from isolated Ketchum, Idaho to nearby Salt Lake City. Rossignol’s operations and repair work is done in its Ogden office. Atomic, Salomon, and Suunto, arms of Finnish giant Amer Sports, have 90 employees in Ogden. None of these are big businesses, but collectively they matter. And more companies might come soon. Ogden’s mayor is returning to Taiwan for the second time in a year to meet with Taiwanese bike manufacturers interested in offshoring production.

Affordable real estate, nearby airport, and mountains—including Snowbasin—just out the back door? Ogden’s selling points are clear. But plenty of mountain town gear companies aren’t enticed. It would change their soul, they say. “We’ve been told on more than one occasion that we should be building the business to sell it, that the business is the product, but that idea doesn’t appeal to us,” says Venture’s Branner. “We know how much we can grow in Silverton. At that point, we’ll just cap our production and stay where we are.” As proof, just look at Venture’s history. As it’s grown, Venture has moved ever deeper into the mountains, from Denver, to Durango, to Silverton. “It just makes sense,” Branner says. “If you’re a mountain brand, be in the mountains.”

From the Early Summer 2014 issue.

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