CAMP -- All in the family

Given all the mergers, acquisitions and failures in the outdoor world in recent years, it's difficult to conceive that any brand can claim over a century of history in the same family. Yet one of the oldest names in the climbing world -- CAMP -- can make just that claim, and is still going strong.
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Next time you're wandering the aisles at either Outdoor Retailer Summer Market or Winter Market, imagine how many of those booths are family-owned companies. A minority, but still quite a few, right? Now, take a closer look and try to guess how many second-generation companies there are. Probably still several parent/child outfits. Maybe even a few companies that are now run by the grandkids. But how many brands out there are fourth-generation companies still based out of their hometown?

Given all the mergers, acquisitions and failures in the outdoor world in recent years, it's difficult to conceive that any brand can claim over a century of history in the same family. Yet one of the oldest names in the climbing world -- CAMP -- can make just that claim, and is still going strong.

Recently, SNEWS® visited the headquarters of CAMP in Premana, Italy, to bring you a behind-the-scenes look at production and a glimpse of the future. We also visited one of its sister companies, Cassin, at its office near Lecco, Italy, to find out how the companies are joined, yet separate.

Background

In 1889, young Nicola Codega bought some land and opened a blacksmith shop in the tiny village of Premana. Though remote, it was an ideal location due to its proximity to iron mines. He primarily made products for the local mountain people (fences, locks, cow bells, etc.) and ornate ironwork for the local church.

By 1920, his son Antonio was running the business and looking for ways to branch out. An uncle who had served in the alpine troops suggested that he try his hand at ice axes. So Antonio produced six ice axes that he took to Brigatti, a famous sport shop in Milan. This ultimately led to an order of 3,000 ice axes for the military and the seeds of mountaineering were planted. However, after the initial order was filled, the company returned to its roots making wrought iron products.

The companies' climbing connection was revitalized around 1950 when Riccardo Cassin, already a legend and the manager of a climbing shop in Lecco, came to Premana looking to have ice axes built to his designs. An initial order of 50 ice axes eventually led to a steady demand for climbing products. Eventually, the company changed its name to Costruzioni Articoli Montagna Premana, better known by the abbreviation: CAMP. And the four sons of Antonio were running things.

While known in Italy, CAMP was largely unheard of elsewhere. But that changed after a meeting with Yvon Chouinard at the Trento Film Festival in the 1960s. Himself a blacksmith and climber, Chouinard was looking for a company to produce ice axes with curved picks (a design from the 1930s no longer made) that would swing better into ice for the new style of climbing.

The Chouinard-Frost piolets and Lost Arrow pitons produced in Italy became famous in North America. (Today, CAMP still makes Lost Arrows for Black Diamond.) While the ice axes were great in their day, wood shafts were an undeniable weakness. CAMP/Interalp was the first company to produce ice axes with aluminum shafts (CMI, a second-generation company, was the first in the United States), though it took almost a decade for this to become the industry standard.

While CAMP was becoming a recognized name in the U.S. climbing market on its own, the next partnership with Americans made the company world famous. After Jeff and Mike Lowe showed up in Premana with prototypes for modular ice tools, ice climbing gear was forever changed. The Hummingbird ice tools, and soon after Footfang crampons, led the way to a revolution in ice climbing. The Lowe Tricam, which all bore the CAMP logo, also found its way onto the racks of most rock climbers; the smallest four sizes remain favorites of many.

However, the long, downward spiral of Lowe Alpine, which eventually abandoned climbing hardgoods, also seemed to drag down CAMP. Some truly dreadful products (such as the Woodpecker ice tool and Superfang crampons) left many wondering if CAMP was becoming a dinosaur.

New Blood

While CAMP is still run by three of the four sons of Antonio (the fourth brother has retired), the next generation of eight siblings and cousins is making its mark. Under their influence, the company is modernizing and expanding its horizons into other markets.

In 1993, CAMP became one of the first climbing manufacturers to achieve ISO 9001 certification for its quality control system. Though it has not gone for "green certification" (ISO 14001), keeping its environment clean is paramount considering everyone lives in a small town (just 2,000 people) located in a narrow mountain valley.

The factory, too, has been upgraded with modern technology for efficient production and quality control. Of course, computer-aided design and a test lab are essential for any climbing company these days. Yet CAMP is one of the few brands that heat treats metal in-house. It also installed a computerized vertical warehousing system that allows orders to be shipped within 48 hours.

Production of carabineers occurs at a subsidiary, Aludesign, which also manufactures for other brands. This is one of the few product categories from CAMP that is not actually made in Premana. Molding of plastics, such as helmets, is farmed out.

All of this investment has begun to pay off. When CAMP introduced the Startec helmet several years ago, it rocked the status quo by delivering what consumers really wanted -- style -- and now it is a dominant player in the market. After hiring the former designer from Charlet Moser, who was responsible for the Quark ice tool and other innovations, its ice tools are becoming competitive again; take the Awax, for example.

While CAMP had already expanded beyond forging metal into sewn webbing (harnesses, runners, etc.), which is produced in the original building Nicola used for blacksmithing, it has also made a big push into outdoor softgoods. The line of packs, sleeping bags, tents and shell clothing is produced in Asia and designed for the European market. Unlike some brands, CAMP readily admits its products aren't suited for American tastes so it doesn't try to push them over here.

The most recent expansion is the rescue equipment market, which is a natural extension of its climbing heritage. Since CAMP is already a widely recognized brand in Italy, the prevailing opinion is that this should be a relatively easy entry.

CAMP is currently distributed in 55 countries and remains one of the most recognized brands in the climbing world. The company has established its own distributors in the United States and in France -- two of its largest markets outside of Italy. While many European companies have looked across the pond and expected unobtainable growth in the United States, CAMP recognizes the importance of a long-term track record with dealers and consumers.

Completing the Circle

It was Riccardo Cassin who helped turn CAMP into a full-time climbing company back in the 1950s. Yet Cassin and CAMP eventually went their separate ways and became competitors in the marketplace offering similar product lines.

But with Cassin getting on in years (he's now 96) and his family showing little interest in taking over the reins, the decision was made to sell the company to CAMP. Since they were only an hour from each other and had many commonalities, this was a practical move for both brands.

Today, Cassin is run by Eddy Codega, the son of Orazio who is president of CAMP. From the start, it was decided to keep both companies distinct from one another despite the considerable overlap.

Nearly all of the production for both companies is done in Premana. However, the products are designed by different teams. Distribution and marketing are also handled independently. Here in the United States, for example, Cassin is distributed by Climb Axe in Oregon, while CAMP USA has its own warehouse in Colorado. To help improve brand recognition, CAMP USA has also hired a marketing firm (Red Point Creative).

Since both brands offer ice axes, crampons, protection, harnesses, helmets and softgoods, the lines appear almost identical at first glance. However, the focus of Cassin is on cutting-edge technical climbing products such as the new line of crampons that rival, and some feel even surpass, the best from Black Diamond, Grivel and Petzl. Meanwhile, CAMP concentrates on lightweight mountaineering and general outdoor products. This dichotomy isn't complete but should become more pronounced as new products emerge from each brand.

Ringing in the Future

The future bodes well for CAMP. With the new generation revitalizing the brand, yet maintaining realistic goals, the company appears poised for steady, sustainable growth. The company claims a 60 percent to 70 percent market share in Italy and is well established in the rest of Europe. Though it's had its ups and downs here in the United States, it at least hasn't bounced around through different distributors like some other brands.

The great grandkids of Nicola also recognize their heritage and the changing global marketplace. While Premana is certainly off the beaten path, the lifestyle of the small mountain town, where most of the 70 or so employees grew up, is important to everyone. While the production of scissors, the town's other claim to fame, is facing serious competition from Asia, CAMP has stayed sharp.

Acquiring Cassin assures the factory will remain busy and offers numerous economies of scale, while diversifying the product line ensures year-round cash flow, an ongoing struggle for many climbing companies.

Another part of the family tradition continues as well. Unbeknownst to most climbers, CAMP continues, as they have for 80 years, to make a full range of high-quality steel cow bells. The bells ring in six styles in as many as 26 sizes from 1- to 10-inches high. From the beginning, the Varrone bells have been designed to give a resonating, musical sound and are much prized in alpine countries.

With its deep roots and modern thinking, CAMP appears well poised for its second century. The Codega family is understandably proud of its achievements, and home, yet isn't resting on its laurels.

CAMP: www.camp.it/ukhome.htm

Cassin: www.cassin.it/uk/home.htm

Varrone: www.varrone.it/ukhome.htm

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