Tommy Knoll leaves C.A.M.P. to launch Earthwerx venture

After eight years heading C.A.M.P. USA, Tommy Knoll is back on his own, looking to launch a special acquisition company. The intent is to help small- to medium-sized brands succeed in the face of increasing competition and consolidation from large corporations. SNEWS sat down with Knoll for an exclusive interview and peek at what his plans are.
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As C.A.M.P. announced in its June 7 news release on SNEWS®, “U.S. Division of C.A.M.P. Acquired as Wholly Owned Subsidiary” (click here to read), Tommy Knoll’s eight-year run leading C.A.M.P. USA is over. Now, he’s seeking to launch a new business venture called Earthwerx.

For those scratching their heads and thinking the name seems a bit familiar, it is. Earthwerx is the name of Knoll’s company that ran the C.A.M.P. USA distributorship for the Italian-based C.A.M.P. parent company since 2002.

“I got involved with the Codega (family) in 2002 to help them clean up the U.S. distribution channels -- they were doing some things with Adventure 16, some with Lowe Alpine, some with Climb High -- into one, focused channel that C.A.M.P. controlled,” Knoll told SNEWS.

Once that task was completed, Knoll and his team began working to expand the dealer network from the 20 to 30 active dealers that he said the company had in 2002, to the over 300 active dealers C.A.M.P. USA enjoys today. It includes the likes of EMS, REI and Mountain Gear.

By 2008, he opened the company door to a direct-to-consumer e-commerce platform and launched that in 2009. While 1,000 customers is nothing to begin a Mardi Gras parade over, Knoll asserted it is a solid beginning that C.A.M.P. will continue to build upon with Jesse Mattner, the new managing director of C.A.M.P. USA. Mattner has served as director of sales and marketing for Knoll since 2004.

“When I started, I had three goals: to consolidate the business, establish direct distribution to the U.S. dealer base and expand into direct-to-consumer business,” Knoll said. “We achieved that, as well as being named one of the top-selling climbing hardware brands in the SNEWS Outdoor Retailer survey in 2006...so as we had always intended, the Codegas and I began talking about an exit strategy in 2007.”

However, while Knoll had set up the path for C.A.M.P. to own a profitable wholly owned U.S. entity, the recalcitrant economy delayed the Codegas from taking over and allowing Knoll to move on until earlier this year -- March 2010 to be exact.

Essentially, C.A.M.P. acquired the C.A.M.P. USA distribution from Knoll and his Earthwerx company, leaving Knoll free as he had always intended to utilize the company name in another venture.

“I am looking to reconstitute Earthwerx as a special acquisition company for small- to medium-sized outdoor brands between $2 million and $10 million in size,” Knoll told us. “I am looking to be up and running ASAP.”

Knoll is already engaged in discussions with some industry colleagues about joining his venture in various roles. “There are some very talented people who got into this industry for the right reasons and made a career out of it, and now they find they have to work without a good return for their efforts. They see Earthwerx as a means to get back to their beliefs and reason why they got into this industry in the first place, and see some equity return for their efforts,” Knoll said.

“We are soliciting investors and already talking to several specific companies about coming onto the platform,” added Knoll. “We have two already wanting to be flagship companies in the silos the business has set up -- camping, footwear, apparel and hardgoods.”

Knoll said he believes there is a nationwide trend of a dramatically widening difference between the haves and have-nots. Bigger companies and larger mega conglomerates are increasingly effective and successful; however, as a result, many outdoor consumers find themselves looking for new and fresh product, brands and companies that are iconoclastic, edgy, funky and fun. Companies they can identify with that are not large and overtly corporate.

“I think that the future of the outdoor industry lies within developing products and companies and brands that feed that iconoclastic nature of the outdoor consumer. There has to be a new generation of companies that will serve and inspire that consumer. Earthwerx is a platform for independent companies that have proven themselves to a certain extent, but now they need some resources to grow,” Knoll told SNEWS. “So the key to this platform is really identifying those innovative companies and giving them the legs and scale to grow and invest in R&D for the future.”

Then, once a company is strong enough to go it alone or becomes too large and successful for the nest, Knoll envisions selling or spinning it off as its own entity, freeing the Earthwerx silo to bring in yet another company fledgling it can help develop.

For more information, email Knoll at tommyknoll@gmail.com.

--Michael Hodgson

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