On Oct. 31, 1993, Jack Gilbert and eight other employees of Sierra Designs left the company to launch Mountain Hardwear -- a brand that quickly established itself as a market leader.
This month Mountain Hardwear is celebrating its 10th anniversary, and will host a party at its California headquarters Nov. 16 for employees, reps and local industry friends. Planning is under way for an industrywide anniversary party at Outdoor Retailer Winter Market in Salt Lake City.
Of course, anyone associated with Mountain Hardwear has plenty to celebrate. The company, which took 17 products to its first Outdoor Retailer show in 1993, now boasts full lines of apparel and hardgoods that fetched more than $31 million in sales in 2002. In March, industry juggernaut Columbia Sportswear acquired Mountain Hardwear for about $36 million. This should allow Hardwear to grow significantly, without borrowing heavily. Columbia CEO Tim Boyle and Mountain Hardwear President Jack Gilbert agree that Mountain Hardwear could reach sales of $100 million in the next five years.
That goal isn't ridiculous considering the fact that Mountain Hardwear has made all the right moves in its first decade, steadily growing while maintaining it reputation as a company dedicated to core consumers and retailers. From the get-go, Mountain Hardwear benefited from the fact that it had a staff of industry veterans, including co-founder Paul Kramer and Mike Wallenfels, vice president of sales and marketing. Led by an experienced team, the company launched a series of highly successful products. For example, in1996 Backpacker Magazine presented Mountain Hardwear with an Editor's Choice Award for its Crazy Legs sleeping bags (Ed note: No longer sold following a patent-infringement settlement with MontBell). It went on to receive Editor's Choice awards in 1998, 1999 and 2001.
"When we started, we wanted to maintain the Berkeley tradition of outdoor product excellence that went all the way back to Trailwise, the early North Face and the Ski Hut," Gilbert told SNEWS.
To achieve this, Gilbert established a culture of creativity within Mountain Hardwear. "There were a lot of bright people who didn't want to work in a highly structured environment," said Gilbert. "We didn't just tolerate, but embraced, independent views. It was a decentralized environment and you didn't get laughed at for trying things that were unconventional or off-the-wall."
Mountain Hardwear found ways to inject creative thought into even the most trying projects, such as choosing color schemes. The company started a companywide game where in-house employees and reps would win goofy prizes by forecasting the color mix for all products in the line. "We found that the more people who played the game, the closer we got, and the combination of the best minds was better than any one person," said Gilbert. "In this business, you can have a good product, but if you don't have historical information and know how to analyze it and use good judgment about new colors, you can lose it completely."
While creative thought has contributed to Mountain Hardwear's success, the brand also was fortunate to enter the market at a critical point in time. "Frankly, it was a period of time when The North Face -- which was a market leader -- was in somewhat of a state of disarray. Not so much the brand or product, but the supply side, their delivery and distribution. We really benefited from that, and it allowed some new companies to grow rapidly," said Gilbert.
He said Mountain Hardwear also worked from the beginning to build relationships with specialty dealers. "I think it was a key decision when we held off going with REI for probably five years," said Gilbert. "When we did (finally go into REI), most people understood that it was time."
The move into REI signaled that Mountain Hardwear had reached the next level. Once again, the company is preparing to step up, this time with new product categories and European expansion. "It's not too big of a secret that we're working on a pack program to hopefully have ready for spring of '05, and we want to start shipping out of a European facility in spring of '05," said Gilbert.
SNEWS View: With solid leadership and Columbia's deep pockets, we suspect the folks at Mountain Hardwear are singing, "Ain't no mountain high enough." As for the pack program, we're still hearing late '04, despite Gilbert's assertions otherwise. In fact, several pack companies have told us they are already searching for reps since the Mountain Hardwear reps will soon have a pack line to sell and can't rep other lines that carry packs. Perhaps that means only that the reps will be showing Mountain Hardwear packs at the '04 Summer Market -- as we predicted.