A small business remains grassroots after 25 years

Jeff Knight and Dan Cruikshank remain great friends and solid business partners after 25 years running Granite Gear together.
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Jeff Knight and Dan Cruikshank can recall being “kind of friends” back in junior high school. But it wasn’t until they were roommates in college that they hatched a business plan, dropped out of school and founded Granite Gear (www.granitegear.com).

That was 25 years ago. Today, not only are they still friends, but they’re also still running the Two Harbors, Minn.-based company together. 

As Cruikshank said, “We got to be better friends in college.” That could be an understatement, considering they work side-by-side to this day.

While attending the University of Minnesota, the pair shared an apartment with a mutual friend and “then we started doing some canoe trips together, and that’s kind of where we solidified our friendship,” Cruikshank said.

“We started talking about how we didn’t want to go to school anymore,” he explained, “and turning a business might be a better plan.”

After all these years (and several buy-out offers), the two are still friends, still business partners and still making quality outdoor products.

They went from college kids who grilled on the weekends and listened to Bob Marley on the vinyl to professional guys with wives and kids.

“We’re still good friends,” Knight said. Cruikshank added that both men met their wives (who were and remain friends) around the same time they started the company and both have children around the same ages.

“All of our families kind of hang out and do lots of stuff together,” Cruikshank said.

Putting out and starting fires

The idea for the business came about during a two-week paddling trip the pair took into Canada’s Quetico Provincial Park. The pair bonded over a heroic task.

“We spent what was going to be our one off day putting out a forest fire,” Knight said. They created a perimeter around the fire and “saved a huge amount of forest from burning,” Cruikshank added. “We melted the soles of our boots but (the fire department) was able to contain it the next day.”

Later they talked about outdoor industry products.

“On that trip it came to me that an opportunity was available recreating, reengineering and taking all the modern features and applying them to the portage pack that really hadn’t changed much in 100 years,” Knight said. The two friends dropped out of college and founded the business, first focusing on portage canoe packs.

“The portage pack market is pretty much northern Minnesota and parts of Ontario, Canada,” Knight explained. Though portage packs are still a strong niche for the company, it branched out to include several other products. “In the long run the (portage pack) market is not a big market. We expanded off in all sorts of other directions – most notably in the backpacking market – and became known for the ultralight packs that we do.”

Innovation is their trademark, Cruikshank said. “We don’t really do anything that’s not innovative because why do it if somebody else has already done it and they’re doing it well,” Cruikshank said.

They agreed one of their most innovative product features is the three-dimensionally molded framesheet in the Nimbus pack series.

“We didn’t want the same old thing so we came up with a composite mold that fits the contours of your back in three dimensions,” Cruikshank said. “We came up with that 15 years ago and we’ve been refining it ever since.”

The pair has provided products for several military contracts over the years, including a contract with the Special Operation Forces Command and the Tactical Combat Casualty Care. 

Trendsetters

Granite Gear has set many trends in the backpacking world.

“We pretty much invented (the compression stuff sack) and then we introduced a lot of different styles of packing systems that are widely copied now,” Cruikshank said. “We actually coined the term ‘dry sack’ and now everyone uses that as a (name) for a packable dry sack made out of ultralight materials.”

Ultralight wasn’t always part of the deal, the men said. “When we first started out consumers were looking for packs with overkill in the name,” Knight said. “People are looking for ultralight now.”

Granite_Gear_Vintage_2.jpg

Somehow they’ve managed to go lightweight “without sacrificing the level of durability and comfort,” Knight said. They accomplish this by using higher quality nylon than most companies do, they said. “We have that history of building really rugged gear.”

They’ve received offers from bigger corporations to purchase the company before but they’d rather not sell.

“It was always hard to think of selling,” Knight said. If they sold they “would not have held our obligation to all of the people we employ here. Those are the kinds of things we could never live with.

“The bottom line is we’re still having fun doing what we’re doing and why sell when you’re having fun?”

You’re the inspiration

They test their products in the field using through-hikers who aim to tackle the triple crown (Appalachian Trail, Continental Divide Trail and the Pacific Crest Trail) – or any one of the three trails. Currently hiker Trevor “Zero/Zero” Thomas is hiking the Continental Divide Trail testing out the new Granite Gear pack called the Crown 60 (as in liters). Though he used other packs to do the Appalachian and Pacific Crest Trails, Thomas will be done with the triple crown upon his return.

“He’ll be the first blind hiker to complete the triple crown,” Cruikshank said.

“We try and prove out the ideas on the trail before they actually go into production,” Cruikshank added. “If someone says, ‘Oh yeah, I love the pack except for one strap kept slipping,’ then we go, ‘OK, we can fix that. That won’t happen in the final version.’ ”

Inspiration for products generally comes from dreams or athletes, they said.

“We might dream about something one night and talk it over between Jeff and I and the rest of our team here and think whether or not it might be a good idea,” Cruikshank said.

“Sometimes we’re wrong, too,” Knight said with a laugh. “Not too often,” Cruikshank said. “That’s why you have a team of people that you can kind of talk it through with – they might see the flaw in your idea.”

Athlete Justin “Trauma” Lichter (who is currently hiking through the Himalayas) came to the pair in 2009 to find a pack durable enough for his through hike.

“We developed the Nimbus Meridian and that pack he was able to hike with for 10,000 miles in one year,” Cruikshank said proudly. “That pack won an Outside Magazine Gear of the Year (2007) Award.”

They also do research through their mobile repair van (which is parked at Trail Days every year), something they’ve done since 2002. They fix anything – no matter what brand – that through-hikers need fixed.

“We gain knowledge about what’s working and what’s not working for these through-hikers,” Cruikshank said. They then weave that knowledge into award-winning products. The company has also received a few Backpacker Magazine Editor’s Choice Awards.

Living the simple life

Despite the success of the company, neither Knight nor Cruikshank is living large. “We’ve never really had a lot of money to work with,” Cruikshank said. “We’ve always been just a couple of guys trying to make a living.”

Though they don’t have a lot of resources (Knight said they are “the smaller company in the big pond”) to make as big a difference as they’d like, they do what they can to keep the company environmentally friendly. Those efforts including having products that are PVC free, minimizing packaging, printing catalogs on 100 percent recycled paper and donating a portion of profits to environmental causes.

Knight said he’s been “living off the grid” for nearly 20 years in a solar-powered house in northern Minnesota. 

But above all they simply try to make things that last.

“The worst thing you can do is make a disposable product,” Cruikshank said. “We use the most durable materials that we can.”

“We’re trying to build a product that competes with companies that do build a lot higher volume when they build,” Knight said. “Making a lot of money has never been the most important thing to us. … We didn’t start with much and we built a business out of it.” 

Now, Knight said, “we want to keep growing and supplying good products to people.”

--Ana Trujillo

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