Ed Schmults Q&A: Wild Things CEO talks customization

After years in the outdoor business, Ed Schmults is now the CEO at Wild Things. He shares with us the technical military and outdoor apparel firms goals to expand the customization business in the outdoor industry.
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After years in the outdoor business — with a stint leading a company specializing in another kind of play, FAO Schwarz — Ed Schmults is now the CEO at Wild Things.

The technical military and outdoor apparel firm recently launched a line of customizable apparel for men and women, and is set to tackle custom packs next.

Schmults predicts that all serious technical outerwear companies soon will be following in those bespoke footsteps, and notes that customers in the booming Asian market particularly appreciate the ability to make garments their own.

Can you tell us a little bit about your background in the outdoor industry, and how you came to run Wild Things?
I worked at Patagonia from 1990 to late 1997 doing a variety of things, from strategic planning to running the Patagonia Japan business to serving as chief operating officer. In the spring of 2009, I was the CEO of FAO Schwarz (and on the board of directors of REI) and was trying to raise money to buy the company from the hedge fund that owned it. One of the private equity firms that I spoke to was not interested in FAO Schwarz, but liked my outdoor background and asked if I would be interested in running Wild Things, a company they had just purchased.

How has your military and tactical business help advance the company’s reach in the alpine category?
Military business helps alpine business. We trade product concepts across both markets. Often product design is based on the same “platform,” but the fabrics and feature sets are different. Military and alpine users both value high-quality, durable gear that is lightweight and functional. A significant percentage of our business is to the Special Forces community.

Tell us how you are managing to produce mass-customized products, and if there are any key logistics developments that have helped it go from dream to reality.

We utilize some different manufacturing techniques, including pre-cutting parts and creating some subassemblies to allow the product to be produced in a timely fashion. I don’t want to go in to too much detail here for competitive reasons. The key technology is on the front end — the 3D visualization capability is crucial to allowing the customer to see their product as they build it.

Your business model for customization relies heavily on web technology. What kinds of developments do you see coming on that front for the next five years?

I see big advancements in the configuration technology (improvements in visualization, seeing your creations on your image and with other garments you already own).

You’ve partnered with retailers on the launch. How do you educate them on the best way to sell your products?
We have a web-based sales effort. All the information on our fabrics, design features and products is on our website. The current retail store effort relies on this information.

Where in the world do you see your biggest growth potential? How do the U.S., Asian and European markets differ for your goals?
The biggest growth potential is still in the U.S. for us, followed by Asia and Europe. I would give Asia and Europe equal weight, as I think our mass customization has a particular technology and personalized style appeal for the Asian customer.

What advice would you offer fledging entrepreneurs in the outdoor space?
Try to be different. To be successful you will need to be better and different. There are a lot of brands doing the same thing in the outdoor world right now.

You mentioned that a lot of outdoor brands are doing similar things right now. What do you think the industry needs to do to grow going forward?
Significant improvements are important to really grow the market. Product geeks love incremental improvements, but the overall market needs to see significant improvements in functionality, sustainability, weight, bulk and price. One other thing, I think EVERYONE will be doing mass customization in five years. At least all serious technical outerwear companies.

And have you yourself gotten any great piece of advice in building the business that you’d like to pass along?
Kris McDivitt, longtime CEO of Patagonia, had a sign over her desk. It was a quote by Winston Churchill “Never, never, never, never give up.” I think that pretty much sums up a good entrepreneurial credo.

--Megan Mulligan

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