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OR Report 3: A Little Face (and Tent) Time with Unconventional Thinkers

Want to learn about someone? Share a tent with them. Want to really get to know them? Pitch your tent someplace odd—like downtown Salt Lake City, on the main exhibition floor of the Salt Palace Convention Center where the annual summer Outdoor Retailer trade show is going on. And do it while cracking jokes with a late-night security crew that has been caught off guard.

Folks, meet my tentmate, Bill Gamber:

• Founder of Big Agnes gear and Honey Stinger energy foods.
• Cyclist, skier, climber, past Ironman Triathlon competitor who, after 4 knee surgeries, keeps a souvenir piece of 1 kneecap.
• A father of 2 whose off-the-grid home in Steamboat Springs, Colo., uses only solar and wind energy. No pink flamingo here; Gamber has a wind turbine in his yard.
• An original in the outdoor industry, part of a healthy crop of independent thinkers who reassuringly infuse OR’s glossy sea of 1,100-plus indoor exhibition spaces with an earthy, blue-sky soul.

By introducing unconventional products (e.g., sleeping bags with no bottom-side insulation, just slide-in slot for pads; honey-based performance foods), Gamber has enjoyed success as a businessman without compromising his affection for the outdoors or crimping his impish inclination for fun.

Gamber, 46, turned to his Big Agnes sidekick, 77-year-old tent-designing icon Bob Swanson (the long-ago founder of Sierra Designs) after a 20-minute drive to the convention center for our campout. Even after sunset, it was 86 degrees. “Feel a little warm, Swanson?” he inquired.

When Swanson said yes, Gamber pointed to a glowing amber icon on his vehicle’s dashboard: “Heated passenger seat: ON.”

Swanson and Gamber both howled. “Man, I thought I felt hot,” Swanson said. Gamber: “Yeah, my kids pull that on me all the time.”

Big Agnes Jetboil 019.JPGNot surprisingly, Gamber leapt at my invitation to spend a night camping inside the convention center, a ceremonial nod to my belief that, despite some uptown appearances, the outdoor industry at its core is guided by lots of innovative people who love the outdoors and got into the business primarily to share their ideas for enjoying it more safely and comfortably. That would describe the people behind Jetboil and Kuhl, described later in this report, REI and, without question, Gamber of Big Agnes.

The late-night security detail inside the Salt Palace apparently did not get the memo that the 3 not-so-wise men prearranged a convention center campout. Gamber and Swanson wisecracked their way through the wait, at one point pressing forlorn faces against the locked convention doors.

“It was supposed to be a sleepover,” Gamber intoned. “Now it’s a break-in.” Swanson recalled how he once spent 24 hours at the airport in Paris. “Like Tom Hanks in ‘The Terminal,’ ” he said.

We’re finally escorted to the Big Agnes display area by 4 still-wary security staffers and told we cannot leave the Big Agnes rectangle, not even for a restroom break, without an escort. Gamber and Swanson respond by charming the room, seemingly all 515,000 square feet of it. Gamber tells one security member, “Don’t look at me when I sleep—I sleep with my eyes (he invokes Hannibal Lecter) WIDE OPEN.”

We’re soon deemed harmless and left to ourselves. Gamber breaks out a laptop rolls through hundreds of digital photos captured during this year’s Tour de France (Lance Armstrong is endorsing Honey Stinger products) and then pays a stack of bills a little before 1 a.m. while reflecting on what led him to his station in life.

Some fun facts I learned about Gamber:

• He camped in cars and slept under parked trucks during his first three Outdoor Retailer conventions after starting Big Agnes. In recent years he rents a house.

• This year he packed 7 staffers into a house, only it came with a signed posted on the front, identifying it as an illegal rental. The Big Agnes crew shrugged stayed. Gamber, who mockingly chastised other staffers for not joining Swanson and him for the convention center campout, seriously thought about punking his group by altering police that a scruffy bunch from Colorado was camping out in an illegal rental. Just for laughs.

• The official Big Agnes office is a converted family residence known to staffers as “The Little Red House." It relies on wind-power credits for energy and just received for a state grant to install solar panels. On some days it is occupied by as many as 31 workers, many of them competitive performance athletes.

• He maintains an open-door policy with his employees. “Because his office doesn’t have a door,” Swanson says.

• He concedes he probably contributed to the end of one staffer’s marriage years ago when a Thanksgiving Day cross-country skiing outing he organized became an endless post-holing nightmare. Gamber told companions that the trip would be finished around noon. It didn’t wrap up until after 2 a.m. “I said ‘around’ noon,” Gamber recalls.

• He offers employees (most of whom have no titles on their business cards) growth potential and an annual $500 wellness benefit that staffers can apply to any physical activity. Chris Tamucci, a former box-packer who now manages international sales, says he uses his to buy his annual ski pass. Tamucci says Gamber lets him store about a quarter of his personal possessions in his house: “He didn’t want me to have to pay for a storage unit. That’s just how he is.”

• Ralph Gamber, Bill’s grandfather, was a major honey producer and the inventor of the bear-shaped honey squeeze bottle—a brainstorm he conceived (but never patented) with the hope that it would popularize honey, not generate a personal fortune. The elder Gamber hoped its duplication would put more honey on more American tables.

Bill Gamber is an effective but stealthy salesman, says John Miller, a Honey Stinger co-owner identifies himself as “brand authenticator and village idiot.” (Miller owns 12,000 bee colonies and transports them to California, Washington and North Dakota for pollinating duties via 36 semi-trailers.) “He’s so good at selling you don’t know he’s doing it,” he said, looking me in the eye. “Suddenly you find yourself sleeping with Bill and you don’t even realize it.”

Gamber and I slept side-by-side in one of several new tents Big Agnes is rolling out for this fall and 2011, the Fly Creek UL 3. (Beneath the full-moon glow of overhead lights, we drifted off to lulling drone of distant vacuum cleaners.) A new 2- and 3-person tent style, the Jack Rabbit, will debut as well, and every down bag in the Big Agnes line will utilize a design feature that Big Agnes has championed—vertical baffles (“Down Flow Technology”), said to promote head-to-foot heat retention and focusing more warmth on the body’s core.

Gamber enjoys having input on product design (even though the company’s tent setup area, the yard of The Little Red House, is beneath snow 6 months a year). He values BA’s reputation as an innovative brand and is pleased to call the Big Agnes footprint “pretty light,” but acknowledges that a company such as Patagonia has eco-ambitions much closer to its core purpose.

Big Agnes Jetboil 028.JPG“Do we feel we’re changing the world? No. Are we responsible for ourselves? Yeah,” Gamber says. “Every single company that’s in every booth here needs to be profitable to be productive. To make an impact, you have to be fiscally responsible.

“I don’t know if I ever want to get on a soapbox and say you should do it this way. But we have a real standard for ourselves. Ultimately what really matters are relationships, and getting outside.”

Even if it means camping inside one night during OR to reinforce that point.

Jetboil

Jetboil, the crafty, compact cooking system (said to resemble Russian nesting dolls), is the product of the imaginations of 2 cousins from New Hampshire: Perry Dowst, the current CEO (in photo), and Dwight Aspinwall.

Big Agnes Jetboil 042.JPGBelieving no innovations had occurred in backpacking stoves since the introduction of the MSR Whisperlite in the 1980s, the 2 engineers sought to make the backcountry cooking experience simpler. The original PCS (Personal Cooking System) model, refined into the Flash model of today, was an instant hit for its ease of operation, quick boil time, fuel efficiency and compactness.

“Based on feedback, we knew early on that we struck a chord with ease of use,” Dowst said Tuesday on the OR exhibition floor. “That was the sort of affirmation we were looking for. It resonated, and that gave us decent motivation to keep working on it.

The 2 cousins are still working on it. In 2011 Jetboil will roll out 4 new products:

• The Sol, in aluminum (10.5 ounces) or titanium (9 ounces) designs. Offering a regulated burner, both are designed to produce consistent heat output to 15 degrees F.

• The Zip, a low-frills model (no heat indicator, no piezo starter).

• The Sumo cup, a large-capacity container (1.8 liter) chiefly designed for melting snow during winter or high-elevation excursions.

• The CrunchIt tool, a canister-puncturing device that will empty steel butane canisters and make them eligible for recycling (though individual recyclers must still choose whether or not to accept them).

Dowst declined to divulge specific sales numbers, but called Jetboil the “category leader in the narrowly defined group of single-burner, gas-fired cooking stoves.” Lasting rewards, he said, come from other sources.

“Financial success is important because it allows us to do what we want to do, which is innovate,” Dowst said. “It’s a necessary byproduct, but it isn’t the goal.

“It’s hearing from people or watching someone on the trail using the stove,” he said. “I’ll wander over and ask, ‘How’s that working for ya?’ Hearing people say it’s made things easier for them is nice. It’s the satisfaction of innovating in a way that makes a difference in the end-user experience.

“A business writer I admire, (the late) Peter Drucker, wrote that a company’s mission is to make a customer, not to make a profit. Profit is just what you use to continue to innovate to make a customer. A customer-focused business is the one that’s going to do the best.

Kuhl

Don’t hold your breath, says Kuhl sportswear co-founder and president Kevin Boyle, waiting for Kuhl-branded sunglasses, boots or gloves.

“We’re trying to be the best in one category, sportswear, instead of dabbling in 50 different categories and be good at none of them,” said Boyle, 46, who launched Kuhl with climber Conrad Anker and another friend.

“We’ve had offers for licensing our name for footwear and all kinds of silly things,” he said. “You can only do so much and be great at it. A mistake I see in brands is that they’re trying to be everything, and I think you can’t be great at everything.”

Boyle believes Kuhl sells distinction, a mindset that percolates through its company lifestyle and is reflected in its clothing.

“America wants a giant cup of coffee the size of a Big Gulp, and they want it as cheap as they can get it,” he said. “If you look at the European mentality, and the mentality of most affluent Americans, they don’t want a giant cup of coffee with all-you-can-drink refills. They just want 1 great cup of coffee. That’s how we try to approach every product we make. If it’s not great, if we can’t create differentiation, don’t bother.

A key new product for 2011 is a line of pants Boyle calls the Slacker. “We’re going after that khaki market,” he said. “It’s all business up front and all party in the back -- a khaki up front with a jeans style in the back with this beautiful Italian-style fabric. It’s wonderful.”

As with Big Agnes and Jetboil, the outdoors is a core component of company activity. After one European trade show, Boyle and his travel mates stay on the continent for three weeks of skiing.

Kuhl picks up the tab for R&D for the entire trip,” Boyle said. “We’re all skiers and climbers. We like enjoying the lifestyle that got us all into this business. We’re independent, and we like our autonomy.”

Photos:

Big Agnes Jetboil 032.JPGBill Gamber (white shirt), Bob Swanson (black shirt) and T.D. Wood negotiate their way into the Salt Palace Convention Center and finally make camp in the Big Agnes exhibition space.

Posted on at 10:12 PM

Tagged: Big Agnes, Bill Gamber, Bob Swanson, JETBOIL, Kevin Boyle, Kuhl, Outdoor Retailer and Perry Dowst

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englishsteel@121 Staff Member

Nice piece Terry! For those of us who don't attend the show it's nice to get an inside view. Keep up the great work!

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HikerGirl30

Okay, how much do I want to meet the owner of Big Agnes? He sounds like a riot!

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