When Bo and Renate Hilleberg started Swedish-based Hilleberg the Tentmaker in 1971, it was with a vision to make the best and lightest tents possible without compromising safety and comfort. Thirty-six years later, the husband and wife team have turned the daily operations of the Hilleberg company over to son, Rolf, and daughter, Petra. Rolf heads up European operations and oversees the company headquarters, while Petra directs U.S. operations and oversees all business that is non-European from her Seattle-based office.
For Petra, now 33, running the Hilleberg business in the United States was something she set her sights on at an
Rolf and Petra Hilleberg
early age. "I don't know why I said I was going to sell tents in the U.S. to my parents when I was 12. Maybe I had seen too many cute movies about the U.S.," said Petra. "It was just one of those things I never really thought much about. It was just something I knew I was going to do."
Of course, her plan did not go entirely as envisioned.
"I was in university in my last year, and my family and I decided that I would graduate and set up the business gradually over the summer of 2000," Petra told SNEWS®. "I was creating a business plan for the Hilleberg U.S. business as part of my senior project. (My parents and I) decided to run an ad in Sierra magazine -- the July/August issue.
"Unfortunately, while July magazines don't go to subscribers or appear in stores in Europe until July, I learned that in the U.S., July magazines actually appear in June -- who knew?" she said. "Suddenly, the magazine was out with our ad and I was scrambling, trying to complete my senior project, find office space, meet with lawyers and accountants, and graduate."
Suitable office space was virtually non-existent at the time, but Petra managed to secure an old storage unit in an office park that had no water or bathroom.
"I graduated on June 10, opened the office on June 13, and on the 14th, our first tent went out -- to someone in California," said Petra. "I never had the time to think about it, or hesitate, or wonder if what I was doing was smart."
Since those humble and somewhat frenetic beginnings, Petra has moved offices twice and overseen phenomenal growth for a company that sells tents for a premium. And she continues to do things in a very methodical and, as she likes to put it, Swedish manner.
Take the company's distribution plan, for example. When Hilleberg launched in the United States, selling direct to consumers was the business plan to a great extent, simply because that is how Hilleberg conducted business for its first 20 years in Europe.
"We were selling tents through retailers in other countries, that is true," said Petra, "but we sold direct to consumers in Sweden. However, here in the U.S., we didn't really have a strict plan in place, and certainly, I was not going to say no to the right retailers as they came along."
If Petra has been surprised about anything, she said it is that customers for Hilleberg tents have no trouble at all plunking down many hundreds of dollars for a tent, sight unseen, simply based on the company's reputation. "I would hear often, early on in our business, 'I have heard you are good and I have not seen one of your tents, but here's $1,000 and please send it.'" While one might surmise that returns must be a problem, Petra told us that Hilleberg's return rate is less than 1 percent -- likely she said a result of the Hilleberg customer typically conducting a lot of research before making the investment.
As of the end of 2008, U.S. sales make up approximately 20 percent of Hilleberg's gross sales. While Rolf oversees all sales in Europe, the U.S. offices are responsible for all non-European sales. "We work with Chilean, Japanese, Korean and Hong Kong distributors, and we also conduct direct sales to both New Zealand and Australia," Petra told us. "I am going to start working on a distribution network in Australia, and likely also China, this year."
Of those sales, 40 percent are now from direct sales to consumers and 60 percent through hand-picked specialty retailers. Sales jumped an astonishing 57 percent for the U.S. office in 2008, thanks in large part to strong retailer and distributor support.
"We handpick our retailers and have 15 retailers right now and only work with smaller specialty stores that come to us because they really want to sell our tents," said Petra. "A retailer needs to have someone on the staff who is really knowledgeable and enthusiastic about product for them to sell it. It's reality that the Hilleberg tent will be harder to set up in the store and display -- after all, you can have three racks of jackets in the same space as one tent. It really requires a commitment."
We asked Petra about international growth plans and if she is worried about expanding too quickly.
"We have our own production in Estonia. Every single tent is set up and checked before it is sent out. As a result, we only have so much capacity and we know that, so we are very controlled in our growth plans," she said. "For example, we just started working with Lippi in August of 2008. They bought around 35 tents, which is more than I expected. They are very enthusiastic about the product."
Petra plans for growth simply by bumping up orders from the year before by approximately 30 percent, which varies depending on anticipated new business for the year. The company only makes so many tents each year and Petra told us that by October 2008, the U.S. office was completely sold out of all tents.
If Petra has any frustrations, she said it's the fact that because Hilleberg tents don't change very much year to year, it gets very challenging for Hilleberg to garner much attention from the media.
"Our tents have not changed much over the years. We do not make changes just to make them. If a model like the 1981 Keron is good enough for NOLS because it works and it is still the top choice for North and South Pole expeditions, why would we change it?" said Petra. "And yet, in this country, most magazines will only do reviews on new tents, and if it is not brand new, they will not even look at it."
That's not to say things don't change up significantly at Hilleberg when appropriate. Since November 2007, Hilleberg has been housed in a real warehouse space with offices and bathrooms, as well as heat and air conditioning. While Petra misses the old rustic warehouse atmosphere -- though not so much wearing coats to work in the winter -- she's enjoying digs appropriate for a company with an international distribution network, she told SNEWS.
Hilleberg will also be exhibiting at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2009 for the first time, primarily because it wants to support the SOG Scandinavian Village, also a first for Winter Market. Petra is, not surprisingly, serving as a coordinator along with Dieter Tremp and Martin Koessler, for the SOG and is quite excited about it. "It will not be quite as grand as what we have in Europe, but it's still very special."
Located next to Mountain Hardwear at what is becoming known as the main hall's "elbow," the SOG will house seven Scandinavian companies around a central area with a bar in the middle that features coffee being served in the morning and beer in the afternoon. There are also bar tables where retailers and manufacturers can hang out over a beer or coffee to
Bo and Renate Hilleberg
relax or meet.
Though her dad, Bo, and mother, Renate, turned over control of the business to Petra and Rolf last year, Petra told us that all four still own the company equally. And she added that Bo and Renate are not exactly sitting around idle, though they are both working less.
"They are still very involved. Mom is no longer doing all of the prototypes and all of that. She does special projects. Dad is still the chairman and still very involved in product development and sourcing and procurement," said Petra.
Looking back, Petra realizes she has the opportunities she has in large part because of her parents.
"Mom and dad could have retired many years ago and lived very happy. Because Rolf and I wanted to take over the business, they had to work much longer and keep the company strong," said Petra. "It was never required that we take over the tent business… only if we wanted to."
Sometimes, with a little help from family and friends, the dreams of a 12-year-old girl do come true.