Industry Trailblazers: Paul Kramer, creator of the clip system for tents - SNEWS

Industry Trailblazers: Paul Kramer, creator of the clip system for tents

A member of the outdoor industry since 1970 with Sierra Designs, Paul Kramer's path to design fame began with office politics. “The company was in a sales slump and I was making a bit of noise about the direction product was going. So a couple of management people who wanted me out said, ‘Why don’t we put Paul into design?’ They figured since I knew very little about it that I’d fail and get fired.” What they didn’t know was that Kramer, via his retail background, had a great feel for what customers wanted. Using that knowledge, he set about designing a line of synthetic-fill sleeping bags. They were a hit, and within six months, Kramer was named director of design.
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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 www.snewsnet.com/outdoorhistory. 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.

On graduating from Cubberly High School in Palo Alto, Calif., Paul Kramer said he “followed a girl to UC Berkeley where she promptly dumped me.” Not long afterward, Kramer would dump his plans to be a chemist and geologist to major in business. He graduated in 1970.

“On graduating, I needed a job quickly and rode my bike down to The Ski Hut on University Avenue where the store manager, John Slouber, told me, ‘Come back tomorrow.’ I did, and he told me the same thing. So I decided to ride down to Sierra Designs at the corner of Fourth and Addison streets where their store manager Don Evers told me, ‘Come back tonight.’ I did, and when I arrived, he introduced me at a staff meeting as the new employee.”



Kramer assumed it would just be a great summer job. But he got to know the employees, many of them bright university grad students, and started to feel at home in the comfortable store atmosphere, so he stayed on.



As the years passed, he became assistant retail manager, and then headed up purchasing before getting back to running all of Sierra Designs’ retail operations.



Then a bit of office politics changed his life. “The company was in a sales slump and I was making a bit of noise about the direction product was going. So a couple of management people who wanted me out said, ‘Why don’t we put Paul into design?’ They figured since I knew very little about it that I’d fail and get fired.”



What they didn’t know was that Kramer, via his retail background, had a great feel for what customers wanted. Using that knowledge, he set about designing a line of synthetic-fill sleeping bags. They were a hit, and within six months, Kramer was named director of design.



That was followed by what he considers the major turning point in his career.



“We had the Terra tent line, which featured heavy fiberglass poles—28 of them of one length and four of them in another length. The line sucked. So one night at a bar in Oakland’s Jack London Square, reps Peter Burns and Doug Nunn and I were trying to figure out what to do with the tent line when I got this idea about using clips. I went back to the office that night and made a tent with external clips clipping onto the tent poles.”



That led to the design of the Clip Domicile, Clip Sphinx and Clip Flashlight tents. They were an immediate success. Sierra Designs went from selling 1,000 tents a year to selling 9,000 tents a year.



“I knew we had a winner with the Clip tents when Richard Kelty of Sierra West came by our booth at a trade show and said, ‘Congratulations, these are the best tents I’ve ever seen,’” Kramer said.



Later, Kramer, with the aid of several other designers, started working on more outerwear offerings. But the company was floundering as its strong Japanese business faded and owner CML sold it to The North Face. Many thought The North Face made the buy to simply get rid of a competitor, but once it looked at Sierra Designs more closely, it began to consider it a niche player that should be kept.



Kramer was made president of Sierra Designs, a position he held for a year until Bill Werlin was named president and he went back to heading up design and production.



Then Bill Simon bought The North Face and Sierra Designs. “We were down to about $2.8 million from $10 million in sales, but under Simon, we really got to do what we wanted to do and soon had sales back up to $5 million.”



In 1989, Bruce Hamilton was ousted as The North Face president and Bill Werlin moved over from Sierra Designs to replace him. Kramer was once again president of Sierra Designs.



A year later, Jack Gilbert, a former The North Face vice president, fresh from stints at Outdoor Retailer and in commercial real estate, was named Sierra Designs’ president.



“Jack and I worked together so well. He was the best manager I ever worked with,” Kramer said. “The relationship must have worked as annual sales rose to close to $17 million.”



As things improved, Kramer and Gilbert started talking about buying Sierra Designs from Simon’s Odyssey International. At a summer Outdoor Retailer trade show, JanSport’s Skip Yowell brought a young man named John Cumming by to meet Kramer and Gilbert, introducing him as a former Mount Rainier climbing guide and potential investor.



Gilbert and Cumming talked at length during the show. Later, Cumming’s father, and a Forbes 400 list member, got involved. Shortly thereafter, the Cummings told Kramer and Gilbert they would help them “buy Sierra Designs or start your own company.”



After repeated rebuffs from the asset administrators of the now-bankrupt Odyssey, Gilbert resigned as president of Sierra Designs on Halloween Day 1993. Upon his resignation, he also presented a letter from Kramer, in Hong Kong at the time on business, declaring his resignation.



Free of his obligations, Gilbert went back to Sierra Designs’ facility and asked any and all employees if they’d like to work for a new company he was founding with Kramer. Thus, Mountain Hardwear was formed on the fly on a Friday and was open for business the following Monday in offices on Berkeley’s Gilman Street close by The North Face headquarters.



Kramer served as Mountain Hardwear’s vice president of design and production until 1996 when he was made senior vice president, a position he held until April 2006 when he retired, three years after Columbia Sportswear had acquired Mountain Hardwear. Ironically, years earlier at an SIA SnowSports trade show in Las Vegas, Columbia President Tim Boyle told this reporter, “Paul Kramer is the most outstanding individual in the outdoor business. I’d do anything to get him to work for us.”



About the same time Kramer retired, his wife of 36 years, Bonnie Ng, whom he met at Sierra Designs shortly after he started there, retired from her job as a landscape architect for the city of San Francisco.

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Today, the Kramers backpack together and love to spend time at their Sonoma County ranch. On his own, Kramer fly-fishes, still plays a mean game of tennis and is involved in a high-tech company called CDI (Catalytic Devices International) that he said hopes to one day debut product at an Outdoor Retailer trade show.

-- 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 the logo you see at the top of this form. 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.

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