Columbia Sportswear (Nasdaq: COLM) said all sales, marketing and service functions for Montrail, a manufacturer of trail running and hiking footwear acquired by Columbia in 2006, will be realigned under the management team of Mountain Hardwear, starting May 1. Mountain Hardwear was acquired by Columbia in 2003.
Montrail product sourcing functions will remain under Columbia's corporate management in Portland, Ore., and U.S. product distribution and shipping will continue to be processed through the company's Kentucky facility.
Mike Wallenfels, president of Mountain Hardwear, will be responsible for overseeing operations of the Montrail brand from Mountain Hardwear's Richmond, Calif., offices. Montrail will be represented by Mountain Hardwear's existing rep force
"The Montrail brand is a natural extension of Mountain Hardwear's growing performance apparel categories and both brands will work together to share retailers, athletes, events and promotions," Wallenfels said.
"To the consumers, Montrail and Mountain Hardwear will continue to be two separate brands. To the retailers, it will be clear that Montrail is an extension of Mountain Hardwear that will be serviced and represented by a dedicated team that understands the needs of the specialty market."
Wallenfels acknowledged that his team will face initial challenges in restoring faith in the brand among many retailers. He said he believes that one of the most pressing needs to meet this challenge will be taking the management and sales force for Mountain Hardwear and reaffirming the Montrail brand with those retailers who have been loyal to the brand. Then, Wallenfels added, his team has to acquire space both physically and emotionally with retailers to ensure that Montrail garners mind share and demonstrates to retailers the brand is relevant in outdoor specialty stores.
Mountain Hardwear and Columbia will work closely on product direction and development using the Montrail footwear team now under the direction of Mark Nenow, vice president of footwear for Columbia. Nenow joined Columbia in May 2007. Nenow certainly knows footwear we were told, with experience at both Nike and Brooks, most recently as vice president of global footwear merchandising for Brooks. Wallenfels said Montrail would certainly benefit from Nenow's running background, noting that he was a professional track and field athlete and held the 10,000-meter American record from 1986 to 2003.
"Certainly, one of the challenges for Mountain Hardwear is we are not a footwear company. However, we get to utilize the expertise of a very talented team up in Portland and work with them to ensure we are properly developing products that are in a family," said Wallenfels. "By spring 2009, you will see more of the Mountain Hardwear apparel on the running side aligned with the Montrail brand, giving retailers a sense of being able to offer a collection that's easier to merchandise."
Internationally, Wallenfels pointed out to SNEWS® that Mountain Hardwear and Montrail already share resources for sales management in key markets such as Europe, South Korea and Canada. Service and sales operations will formally transition after May 1 internationally as well, and it is expected this move will further streamline operations around the globe, Wallenfels told us.
SNEWS® View: Finally. Columbia has placed the Montrail brand in competent hands that understand that outdoor specialty market. It is a move Columbia should have made when it first acquired the brand. Montrail has, as evidenced by our SNEWS® surveys in 2006 and 2007, experienced the fastest exit from the "best company to do business with" list of any company in the history of the survey. Issues with communication, retailer support, product development, product delivery -- you name it -- plagued Montrail since Columbia took over. Now, to be fair, not all of Montrail's challenges can be laid at the feet of Columbia, as product development is a 12- to 18-month process at best, meaning product Columbia was working with in 2006 and 2007 was not developed by its team entirely. But the vast majority of the issues retailers complained to us about were all on Columbia's watch.
Now, there is hope. Mountain Hardwear understands service and communicating with dealers. The company also has a great rep force, although we do suspect there will be a tiniest bit of shaking out in the month or two to come as a number of agencies will be faced with having to choose between keeping the existing footwear brand or brands they are selling and keeping Mountain Hardwear. Mountain Hardwear made it very clear, we've been told, that if you're selling Montrail, that is your footwear brand.
For consumers, Montrail still has a strong (though nowhere near as strong as it was two years ago) brand reputation among ultra runners and outdoor athletes. We would expect that in tandem with Mountain Hardwear, the brand should and will regain its strength. Working in Montrail's favor is the fact that no one brand has any lock or stranglehold on the footwear market on the competitive side. The North Face, Salomon and even Vasque are recognized names, but a quick look at the feet of runners at any given trail race reveals dozens of favorite brands.
If Montrail can restore itself to retailer favor by delivering on time, delivering innovative product, ensuring its products offer the superior fit that was expected of Montrail, and ensure that communication from company to retailer and back is efficient, then Montrail should find retailers willing to devote shelf space.