Sierra Designs co-founder George Marks remembers Bob Swanson

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Bob Swanson and George Marks co-founded Sierra Designs in 1965. Swanson recently passed away at the age of 83.

Sierra Designs founders Bob Swanson and George Marks

Swanson (left) and Marks in 1980 // Photo: Courtesy of George Marks

BOB AND I FIRST MET in late 1963 at The Ski Hut in Berkeley. I had just returned from a year in Antarctica (McMurdo Station), working as the logistics officer for the National Science Foundation. I had previously worked at the Ski Hut in 1961.

Upon my return, Allen Steck asked if I wanted my job back. Of course I did! I was quickly introduced to Bob. I didn’t know at the time that it was the most defining moment of my life and the beginning of decades in the outdoor industry.

In no time we became fast friends, going on outdoor trips with friends exploring the mountains and sailing on San Francisco Bay. On one trip sailing in Monterey Bay with some friends, one of which was David Buschman, the conversation got around to the obviously fast-growing outdoor industry. David suggested that we get into the business instead of just working at The Ski Hut. More tongue in cheek than serious, we replied, “We would if we had your money.” Soon enough, he put up $25,000 in seed money and we were on our way.

We set up in a small building in Point Richmond and went to work. When I look back, it’s hard for me to believe what we had done in the first six months: a complete line of tents, sleeping bags, garments and many accessories, built from scratch. We were so excited that we worked every day from morning to sundown. Before long, we had outgrown the small factory, so David bought us an old paint factory in Berkeley. Soon we had three buildings along 4th Street.

The day finally came when others wanted to buy the company. We ultimately sold to the CML group and that was the end of an era for us.

The Founders 1980

By this time, Bob and I were best friends. We had always wanted to have a great adventure together, but one of us always had to be minding the shop. Now that we were free I bought a small Fiat Spider, and scheduled delivery for Milan, where we picked it up.

It was the beginning of a memorable adventure filled with camping and eating and sightseeing throughout Italy, Yugolsavia and Greece.

By 1983, Bob was ready to leave the company and look for other opportunities. He had a short stint with a company called Shelter Systems, but then Bob and I came together again to start Walrus Tents. It soon became obvious that we could not compete with the other outdoor companies who had taken their orders off shore. We were approached to do the same thing, so soon I was on my way to Korea to watch over the production.

Walrus continued for 13 years and was ultimately acquired by REI. Bob went to work for them and was with them until the company was sold to MSR. At that point he left and was offered a position with Big Agnes where he worked for 10 years, up to his death.

 Bob working a trade show for Big Agnes // Photo: Courtesy of George Marks

Bob working a trade show for Big Agnes // Photo: Courtesy of George Marks

Throughout it all, Bob and I remained in close contact.

He was my great friend and inspiration. I could not have asked for a better partner or friend. I will miss him greatly.

George Marks

Co-founder, Sierra Designs

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