Often racked with storms, Alaska's Mount Fairweather is a horribly named, brutal place that can seriously test climbers and their gear. When Mountain Gear owner Paul Fish spent a month on Fairweather this spring, he relied on a backpack that was an unusual choice. It weighed 5.5 pounds and was made of 1,000-denier Cordura -- nothing too weird there. But, Fish made the pack himself -- almost 30 years ago.
"I think it carries as well as anything out there today," Fish said, very proud of the pack that hails from his days as a "living room manufacturer." His relationship with the outdoor market began in the late '70s, when he started designing and building custom backpacks and climbing harnesses. Then, in 1983, he opened the Mountain Gear outdoor specialty store in Spokane, Wash., and in the early '90s added a catalog to the business.
Celebrating its 25th anniversary this summer, Mountain Gear is a thriving company that employs more than 100 people and posts double-digit sales growth nearly every year. There are many reasons for the company's success, but catalog and Internet sales have perhaps made the greatest impact.
Fish said the catalog portion of Mountain Gear began in the early '90s. "It was not something we originally planned," he said. "It was very organic and grew on its own." In those days, Mountain Gear carried the usual brands, but many customers would call the store to request products from smaller brands that were not as well known. That evolved into a phone order business, and eventually a catalog. With a successful store and an expanding catalog, Fish was so pressed for time that he stopped constructing his own products in 1992.
"We put our first website up in 1995, and that's when (catalog) sales really started taking off," said Fish. "That was the first year that mail order was bigger than retail." Now, about 10 percent of Mountain Gear's sales come from the brick-and-mortar store, while 90 percent of sales come from the catalog and website (www.mountaingear.com).
While Mountain Gear's sales have shifted dramatically, the company has also made a bold move toward being more environmentally friendly. In 2006, Fish moved the Mountain Gear headquarters and warehouse into a facility that has a Gold LEED (Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design) certification.
"We've always talked about being a sustainable business, and that meant sustainable growth -- growing within our means," said Fish. "And then we realized true sustainability means you have to have more than just respect for your environment, you have to be active. Having a building with the least impact possible seemed like a fit with our business model. It's good for our business, good for our future and good for our customers."
Fish has always been the type of person who enjoyed the challenge of solving puzzles. In his early years, he explored this passion by designing and piecing together his own gear. Now, he enjoys solving the puzzle of building a company that serves its customers and employees while also reducing its impact on the Earth. Granted, Fish says business conditions are tougher than they were 25 years ago, and the move toward sustainability poses many challenges. But Fish said that a business is either changing or dying. "Change is opportunity," he said. "Figuring out what you're going to run with -- that makes life interesting."
Fish said the focus on sustainability "has been huge" for Mountain Gear. "We learned how much our employees appreciate it, and that developed into a sustainable employment initiative, treating employees as a sustainable resource, helping them grow." Fish said that the joy and challenge of transforming his company is "what makes going to work fun after 25 years."
Of course, he also gets a kick out of traveling to pleasant vacation spots such as Mount Fairweather, where temperatures plummet to minus 50 degrees F. This, no doubt, also makes life interesting. Especially when you're shouldering a pack you made in your living room 30 years ago.