Outdoor Research celebrates its 30th birthday in 2011, a year that might also mark a step toward the brand's maturity.
Throughout the past year, the Seattle-based company best known for its gloves, gaiters and outdoor accessory products, has been making top-level hires to help strengthen its administrative team and expand the brand in the United States and Europe. Overall, Outdoor Research has grown its employee base by 20 percent since March 2010 -- now employing 230 people.
The additions are long overdue, said Alex Kutches, vice president of sales.
“The company has been experiencing strong growth but we needed more horsepower,” Kutches told SNEWS. Outdoor Research has quadruped its annual sales since Dan Nordstrom bought the company in mid 2003, company officials said, although the privately-held firm doesn't release specific financial figures.
Part of the growth stemmed from the company's entry into apparel in 2007, plus a boost of goverment dollars buying its outdoor products for the military, which now accounts for about 25 percent of sales. But the expansion came at a time of economic recession, where it confronted corporate themes of belt-tightening.
While the company increased its debt 30 percent from 2006 to 2007, it turned around to reduce its debt by 30 percent from 2009 to 2010, Outdoor Research chief financial office Audrey Hicks said. The result was few new hires, depite the growth.
“The burnout level of the staff got to a point where it was affecting things,” she said.
Furthermore, Outdoor Research is finding a tough crowd of competitors in the outdoor apparel market. While it quickly rose to the rank as the No. 8 top-selling brand of outerwear in specialty stores by dollars in 2010, according to Leisure Trends, it still admittedly faces a challenge to get retailers and consumers to see the brand as much more than a leader in hats, gloves and gaiters.
Outdoor Research was outgrowing its existing infrastructure, Kutches said. So in late 2010, the strategy shifted to not only grow the company’s headcount, but also grow its knowledge base by hiring top-level employees with experience in managing larger companies.
It began with the Sept. 2010 hiring of Jordan Wand, as a new vice president to head up product and marketing. Wand brought 20 years of experience with larger brands such as Nike and Polo Ralph Lauren.
Outdoor Research then turned its attention toward giving its director of development Ammi Borenstein more support. The seven-year veteran had his plate full managing most of the company’s growing product lines. So responsibilities were split up to create more dedicated focus by sector.
In April 2011, Outdoor Research hired Jason Duncan as its new product manager for technical sportswear, and in May 2011, it added Meghan Martens its new product manager for handwear. Duncan brings experience from Mountain Equipment Co-op in Canada, and Martens was previously with Burton and The North Face. Outdoor Research is in the process of hiring another new product manager position to head up shelters, storage and gaiters. Borenstein will oversee the new managers and continue to head up the company’s government contracts.
Jeannie Wall, well known for her work with Patagonia for many years, also entered the mix in 2011 as a product and marketing consultant for the company’s alpine, climbing and rock segment. Among other things, she is tasked with incorporating more athlete feedback into the development cycle.
Beyond the new hires for product, Outdoor Research has added expertise to better covey the brand’s story.
“We haven’t done a huge job telling our story,” Kutches said “By in large, consumers don’t know who 'OR' is. We’re moving back toward an emphasis on ‘Outdoor Research.’"
Part of the tale told will come through retailers, so in April 2011, Outdoor Research hired Andeaux Borunda as its new visual merchandising coordinator to help the sales team and dealers build the brand’s presence in stores.
And in June 2011, the company hired Cherie Appleby-Lannan, previously with Columbia, Yakima and Nike, as its new director of customer sales and service. On the technical side of things, John Prince came aboard as the company's new director of management information systems. He previously worked with ConocoPhillips, Washington Mutual and Getty.
Outdoor Research also is expanding its administrative staff in Europe, where just a year ago it opened its first office there, in Winterthur, Switzerland, outside of Zurich.
Maurice Brenninkmeijer, the new director of sales in Europe, was “an army of one,” Kutches said. “We thought we could get by with one guy for two years, but a year into it, there will be four people based in Europe, and at least five by 2012.”
Martin Haldner will join Brenninkmeijer on July 1 as operations manager, along with two customer service reps, and likely a marketing manager in 2012. And Outdoor Research recently added a new distributor in Poland, in addition to its exisiting distributors in the United Kingdom and Norway.
In total, Outdoor Research has hired 29 non-production employees companywide since March 1, 2010, Hicks said. Another 16 production employees were added at the company’s U.S. manufacturing facility, which handles all government orders.
It plans to continue to grow organically, officials said, with no immediate plans to achieve growth through acquisitions nor by selling itself, officials said.
The changes and additions at Outdoor Research will be evident to retailers starting with spring 2012 product, Kutches said.
“For many retailers and consumers, we’ve been designated as an outdoor accessory company,” Kutches said. “Many are waiting for us to break out more in apparel. Our apparel performs well, it has value and versatility … and moving ahead they’ll see better innovation, better colors and better fit.”
Outdoor Research will have to woo retailers, like Steve Kennedy, manager of Gearheads in Moab, Utah. He was one of several retailers SNEWS spoke with that carried Outdoor Research’s hats, gloves and gaiters, but not its apparel.
“We like their apparel, but they’re battling some big players like Patagonia, Marmot and The North Face, and there’s only so much space on the floor,” Kennedy said. “What they do, they do really well, so I’m confident they do their apparel well, but they have to come out with a piece that really wins the consumer, either on innovation or price point.”
The challenge begins at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2011, in Salt Lake City, where Outdoor Research will debut its new spring 2012 line.
“We used to look at ourselves as the biggest of the smallest companies in the industry,” Kutches said. “Now we’re competing as one of the smallest of the biggest.”
-- David Clucas