From socks to apparel: A tough transition, SmartWool president says

For Mark Satkiewicz, president and general manager at SmartWool, one the toughest challenges he’s faced has been expanding the well-known sock company into apparel. He shared his insight with MBA students at the University of Colorado Thursday evening.
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For Mark Satkiewicz, president and general manager of SmartWool, one the toughest challenges he’s faced has been expanding the well-known sock company into apparel.

“We are really good at socks,” Satkiewicz told a crowd mostly of MBA students at the University of Colorado, in Boulder, Thursday evening. “But we’ve really spent the past 12 years trying to figure out apparel. We’re making considerable strides and moving in the right direction.”

The dream for many sock companies is to add apparel, he said.

“The sock business can be something great, but apparel really defines a brand. It’s out in front of the consumer. You can’t see socks when someone is wearing them.”

But sock expertise doesn’t automatically translate to apparel expertise, Satkiewicz said. “The desire was there, but if we couldn’t find an solution to a problem, like our socks presented a solution, then we weren’t going to make it. You have to stand on your own merit in apparel.”

Satkiewicz, said both the merino sock and apparel markets have become more crowded — a trend he welcomes.

“The more brands that gravitate toward merino, the better,” he said. “It validates what we already know and drives us to innovate.”

Satkiewicz came to SmartWool from Nike in 2006, and was promoted to president in 2009. Since 2008, despite the recession, the company has doubled its sales, he said. His top advice to students wanting to start a business was to be open and clear in communication.

“Ambiguity and a lack of communication is lethal to company,” he said. Between the time that VF Corp announced its intention to purchase SmartWool along with its parent company Timberland in June 2011 and when the deal completed in October 2011, Satkiewicz said he sent an email to staff every Friday at 2 p.m., no matter where he was in the world, with updates on the transaction, even if there wasn’t anything concrete.

SmartWool is still based in Steamboat, Colo., where it was founded in 1994. Selling and promoting the “active mountain life” is a primary goal, he said. “But it’s also about reaching the guy who is in Manhattan that runs 50 miles a week and perhaps closes his eyes and dreams he is on that trail back in Telluride, Colo.”

Another challenge ahead for SmartWool — and for the entire outdoor industry — is reaching younger generations, he said.

“We associate the millennials more with the performance product side of the business,” Satkiewicz said. “They bounce around brands more than the boomer generation. Everyone has to innovate to keep up, and be genuine. If not, you will hear about it in a hurry.”

Satkiewicz’s talk, moderated by Outdoor Industry Association President and CEO Frank Hugelmeyer, concluded the first year of the lecture series co-sponsored by OIA and the CU Leeds School of Business. Officials said they hope to continue the event, which is free and open to the public, next school year.

--David Clucas

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