Mike St. Pierre Q&A: Ultralight and made in Maine helps keep a start-up thriving

Hyperlite Mountain Gear CEO Mike St. Pierre talks to us about the latest trends in ultralight gear and how domestic manufacturing is paying off.
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Throughout the next month, SNEWS will recap its coverage of Outdoor Retailer Summer Market 2013 with select stories from the O.R. Daily we published at the show July 31 – Aug. 3. It’s an opportunity for you to catch up on stories you might have missed in O.R.D., and for us to update and upload the articles to our searchable archives

Ultralight gear that’s comfortable and durable is the product holy grail of the industry.

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Companies like Hyperlite Mountain Gear keep advancing the frontlines with Cuben fibers, and its founder and CEO Mike St. Pierre tells us he and his peers are winning over consumers.

But it’s no easy task. A commitment to domestic manufacturing and founding the business several years ago during a recession has presented challenges. Find out how this newcomer has survived.

What are some of the latest trends in ultralight gear at Summer Market?
Innovation and crossover acceptance. Hyperlite Mountain Gear and our competitors in the ultralight space are continuing to push the envelope on materials and design. The result is gear that is lighter, more efficient and, importantly, gear that is able to meet or exceed the level of durability and performance expected from heavy, traditionally constructed gear. The fact is, lighter gear can benefit almost every user, no matter what their level of experience, age, physical condition or chosen outdoor pursuit. Ultralight gear means the user will be able to travel farther, faster, higher and more efficiently, with less wear and tear on the body. That message is reaching a broader audience. Ultralight isn’t just for the elite, hardcore athlete any more.

What led you to pursue domestic manufacturing for your products? What have been the advantages and challenges?
All of HMG’s products are designed and manufactured in Maine, USA. And we even source our raw materials primarily from North American suppliers. We believe, and we prove every day, that American manufacturing is second to none. Manufacturing at home also allows us to keep a very close eye on quality control and it allows us to be nimble when it comes to design changes and product development. HMG is able to take a product from concept to consumer much more rapidly than if we were dealing with outsourced, overseas manufacturing. But it's more than just a business decision, I feel that American companies, selling to American consumers have an obligation to the American worker. We have our production line in a recently revitalized mill complex in Biddeford, Maine. We’ve brought manufacturing back to a place where American workers were manufacturing more than century ago. I’m proud of that.

Hyperlite recently worked with the Telluride Venture Accelerator. What did that experience provide?
Unlike other incubator or accelerator programs, the TVA is specifically focused on the outdoor industry. Participating in the program allowed HMG access to some real industry heavyweights who helped us develop and hone our business. I believe that participation in the TVA program helped me drive HMG forward faster and with more focus. And Telluride is a great town for anyone who appreciates the outdoors. So it wasn’t too tough an assignment to spend some time there.

You founded the company in midst of some rough times in the economy — how did the company navigate financing? 
From a funding perspective, HMG has always been operated conservatively. The tough economy made this a necessity. No wads of easy start-up funding and no smoke and mirrors here, just good old bootstrapping and lean spending. Starting a business during an economic downturn is a risky endeavor, but if you survive, you’ll be prepared for anything. Because of its heritage, HMG has that lean mindset baked into its approach. I think that will serve us well even as the economy begins to grow again.

--David Clucas

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