It’s 6 a.m. on a Wednesday morning on a 2,000-vertical-foot catwalk trail leading to the top of Colorado’s Steamboat Ski Area. Before the groomed corduroy ridges have a chance to reflect the early morning light, a lone figure scars the parallel lines. While most locals are still snug in bed, Big Agnes owner Bill Gamber already nearly has his day’s activity in.
Not that he won’t try to fit in another round. If it’s a powder day, he’ll be back out. Or maybe he’ll coach his sons Max, 9, and Bennett, 6, in their cross-country program that afternoon. Or maybe he’ll bike to his house atop a dirt road six miles out of town and don skins to lay a few tracks out his front door. Then there’s his competitive side: He holds the 12-hour solo record for the local 24 Hours of Steamboat mountain bike race (112 miles, 20,000 vertical feet), and has competed in more than 100 triathlons, including 16 Ironman Triathlons. Not bad for someone who juggles a family and three growing companies.
He approaches his companies -- fleece apparel-maker BAP!, energy gel and bar supplier Honey Stinger, and tent and sleeping bag operation Big Agnes -- with the same passion he brings to his sporting pursuits.
“My personality definitely fits with working hard,” he said from his cramped office in downtown Steamboat Springs, The Clash’s “London Calling” blaring in the background and Susan Snyder’s book, “Past Tents,” laying haphazardly on a nearby bookshelf.
He emails his Chinese manufacturers from home after the kids are in bed and can be seen in his office before the local coffee shops are open (and, scary thought, he doesn’t even drink the stuff). Gamber once even worked a tradeshow booth with an IV still attached to his arm after a recreation binge resulted in knee surgery.
“He definitely brings the same intensity from his rec life to the work place,” said business partner Rich Hager, who splits duties with third owner Len Zanni.
It wasn’t always so. Gamber picked up his family, home and businesses after moving to Steamboat in 1990. He had started BAP! in college at Loch Haven, Penn., selling bike shorts to fund his triathlon habit, while also working construction and guiding rock climbing. Borrowing a name from the nearby Mt. Zirkel Wilderness Area, Big Agnes was born in 2001 with a simple line of innovative sleeping bags with pads slide into sleeves, reducing material and weight. Inc. magazine thought the concept interesting enough that it profiled the company its first year, but it didn’t pull any punches. “A lot of people didn’t think we would make it,” said Gamber. “They thought the market was too crowded. But we saw it as an opportunity because there wasn’t much innovation.”
That innovation didn’t happen over night. He and partner Hager tested the first prototype on a cold November evening after a three-hour night-skin from his house. After building a snow cave and crawling into their product, they found sweet dreams turned soggy when the cave collapsed and the pad and bag weren’t exactly a seamless fit. “It was back to the drawing board after that,” said Hager.
Whatever they did worked, with REI jumping on board as a retailer the first year. Two years later Big Agnes rolled out its first tents, the Seedhouse and Mad House, also to rave reviews. From three bags and six pads in the first year to today’s complement of 30 bags, 20 pads and 20 tents, including its best sellers, the Seedhouse Superlite 1 and 2, business has nearly doubled every year. And at every product’s root is one of the basic human essentials. “We started by just trying to create a more comfortable sleeping system,” says Gamber. “Somehow we managed to bridge the gap between comfort and high performance.”
Now they’ve bridged the gap between small upstart and major player, with REI continuing to increase its orders every year. And Gamber didn’t need to twist any arms to get the retail giant to buy in. “They’ve done really well in innovation,” said REI Product Manager Tom Kimmet. “They’re able to see a trend and act on it very quickly.”
Kimmet credited this industry foresight to Gamber. “He has great partners, but the company exists on the sheer will of Bill,” he said. “He has a great vision of what needs to happen next, is willing to take risks, and is eager to launch new products. He always has something in his back pocket that he wants to show you. There’s a little bit of mad scientist to him.”
This analogy carries through to company No. 2: In 2002, not long after founding Big Agnes, Gamber launched Honey Stinger, which specializes in honey-based bars and gels, at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2002 (click here to read a July 11, 2002, SNEWS® story, “EN-R-G Foods to debut Honey Stinger all natural energy gel at OR” http://www.snewsnet.com/cgi-bin/snews/05458.html, and a May 11, 2002, SNEWS® profile, “New honey-based sports gel ready to sting the category.” http://archive.snewsnet.com//subscribers/fitness/Fitness_May8to14.html) Though his family has been in the honey business for more than 60 years (his grandfather conceived the original plastic honey bear), he had to tinker around to formulate traditional honey to include everything from electrolytes to flavorings. That company, too, is seeing sales increasing annually, with a beefed-out product line that includes a variety of gels, energy bars and protein bars.
But it’s Big Agnes that keeps him busier than a bee and that contributes the most margin to the bottom line. And it’s this bee-like work ethic that has kept the accolades coming. Backpacker magazine gave the Insulated Air Core sleeping pad its Editor’s Choice Award in 2004, Outside magazine awarded Gear of the Year honors for the Emerald Mountain 2, and in 2007 Backpacker gave the Emerald Mountain 3 its Editor’s Choice Award.
Even more established companies like The North Face, Mountain Hardwear and Sierra Designs recognize Big Agnes’ growing position in the industry: “He’s definitely giving us respectful competition,” said Mountain Hardwear spokeswoman Paige Boucher, whose office next door offers her glimpses of Big Agnes tents set up on the company’s front lawn. “He’s one of the independents that we’re keeping our eyes on. The fact that he only makes tents, bags and pads lets him focus on those categories, and he does an excellent job at them.”
His biggest challenge now is managing his company’s growth while continuing its trademark innovation. As well as launching a line of mountaineering tents for 2008, and a 25-person base-camp media tent for next summer’s Mt. Everest Olympic Torch Relay, he’s also taking his company green. All pads and bags containing PrimaLoft will now be made of PrimaLoft Eco, made from 50-percent recycled bottles. The company is also debuting the Diversion Pad and 20-degree Skinny Fish and 35-degree Ripple Creek bags made from 100 percent recycled insulation from Climashield and 100-percent recycled fabric.
Gamber simply loves what he does and where he does it. “I don’t think you can be very good at something that you don’t like to do,” he said. “We’re authentic. If we want to test a tent, we do it right here in our backyard.”
And just like balancing a triathlon’s three disciplines, he often combines family, business and recreation into one. This summer he camped at Hahn’s Peak Lake for four days with his kids – of course while testing product at night -- while biking 70 miles roundtrip each day to work in Steamboat. The only seemingly downside to his breakneck pace is that his family tries to keep up: When his 15- and 18-year-old nephews visited last winter, one left with a broken collarbone and another with a concussion when they got banged up following him around on a snowboard. No matter. They had a good time, he said. The juggling act will get another monkey wrench soon; he and his wife, Lisa, are planning to adopt a baby girl in a couple of years.
But even that’s not likely to slow him down. For him, the race is just starting, with the finish line no where in sight and more market share waiting. “It’s funny,” he said, “because I wasn’t very competitive when I started racing in triathlons, either. But you just put your head down and stick with it and good things seem to happen. ” - By Eugene Buchanan