Industry Trailblazers: Bill Nicolai, founder of Early Winters

Two weeks prior to his graduation from the University of Washington in 1968, Bill Nicolai said he dropped out, thinking, “If I didn’t graduate, I’d avoid becoming a businessman and, therefore, live an unconventional life." As the founder of Early Winters, a whimsical catalog for outdoor adventurers around the world that once featured a mini-submarine for sale.

Our “Industry Trailblazers” series, chronicling the exploits of the retail and manufacturing pioneers who helped develop the outdoor industry began as a feature the SNEWS® Outdoor magazine in summer 2006. It has now moved exclusively to the SNEWS website at Every pioneering story from our first issue through the last article in the 2008 SNEWS Summer Outdoor magazine will be appearing in the Industry Trailblazers section as we post them over the next three to four weeks. New pioneers will be featured as well on a periodic basis as we continue to pay tribute to the men and women around which this industry was founded.

Two weeks prior to his graduation from the University of Washington in 1968, Bill Nicolai said he dropped out, thinking, “If I didn’t graduate, I’d avoid becoming a businessman and, therefore, live an unconventional life.”


Free of academia, Nicolai headed to Yosemite to climb. “I was very engaged in climbing, first on rock and later in alpine mountaineering.”

It was on one of Nicolai’s alpine climbing adventures—a 1971 traverse of the Picket Range in Washington’s North Cascades National Park—that his life changed forever.

“My climbing partner and I had an A-frame tent that disintegrated on us in a bad storm and we nearly perished,” Nicolai said. “I was unemployed at the time, and after that misadventure, I decided to make an expedition tent that would withstand extreme conditions.”

Nicolai created the double-walled Omnipotent, which led to him founding Early Winters in 1972. His partner in his new business venture was Ron Zimmerman, a graduate from the University of Washington who had a degree in English and was interested in graphic design and writing copy.

“Ron urged me to get into catalog sales and direct mail. In 1974, he created a brochure that we handed out to people at the street fairs where we displayed and sold our tents.”

Early Winters’ big break came a year later when Nicolai met with W.L. Gore and Associates salesperson Joe Tanner. “No one in outdoor seemed very interested in Gore-Tex fabrics at the time, but I’d done some research on semi-permeable membranes and was intrigued. So I got some fabric and made up a tent and it proved to be a winner,” Nicolai said.

The tent laid the foundation for a whole line of Gore-Tex items and the first “real” Early Winters catalog in 1976 showing Gore-Tex sleeping bag covers, gaiters, parkas and tents. “Our sales grew exponentially from $75,000 to $250,000 to a million over the ensuing years,” Nicolai remembered.

The Early Winters catalogs gained a loyal following because they were, in Nicolai’s words, “whimsical, fun and irreverent.”

By 1984, Early Winters’ annual sales were $16 million and the company employed 200 people. “It was so ironic,” Nicolai said with a laugh, “for a guy who had always considered being in business as such a bad thing.”

That year, Nicolai sold Early Winters to Orvis, which in turn would sell the company to the White Group, which would sell it to the present-day owner, Norm Thompson.

Nicolai helped transition Early Winters to Orvis, and then set out on his own with Nicolai and Associates consulting. He worked with mail-order companies, like J. Peterman and Smith and Hawken. In 1992, he formed the Good Catalog Company, which he sold, after ramping sales up to $25 million, to Readers Digest in 1999. Today, he is a consultant with Lenser Multi Channel Marketing.

Aside from consulting, Nicolai became a born-again jock several years ago, focusing his energies into marathon running, Ironman triathlons and endurance bike racing. Today, he said he is now “in the best shape of my life and loving it.”

-- Bob Woodward

History can be a wonderful thing. It carries with it the lessons of yesterday and the foundation for tomorrow. And no history is complete without a recounting and recognizing of the people and pioneers who helped forge the stories that fill those history books. Back in the early 1990s, outdoor industry veteran Larry Harrison decided it was time to ensure the stories of those pioneers who were integral in the establishment and growth of what we now know as the outdoor industry were not forgotten. He began to bestow an honor upon anyone who had been in the outdoor industry for 20 years or more and was willing to fill out a questionnaire ensuring the names and records were recorded for posterity. Each recipient of the honor receives a pin, bearing the visage of a Woodchuck wearing a crown. Wearers of this pin are members of a cadre of individuals proud to call themselves Woodchucks. SNEWS is proud to be the official host of the Woodchuck historic archives and keeper of the Woodchuck roster. If you have been a member of the outdoor industry but have not yet received recognition of your Woodchuck status, click here to request your official Woodchuck application.



Industry Trailblazers, Part 2

By: Bob Woodward Inspired by the post-World War II generation of trailblazing outdoor gear and apparel creators, a new pool of design, manufacturing and retail talent emerged between the late 1950s and late 1970s. To a person, this second generation of pioneers strove to create more