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Yet another specialty company absorption into holding company

Black Diamond and Gregory are merged under Clarus Corp. Black Diamond's release is here.

Hopefully, both BD and Gregory will continue to produce high quality gear. But given the history of such things, I have to worry. The rumor is that Pete Metcalf was looking to cash out. But BD is employee-owned, so a lot of the stock is still going to be in employee hands, so who knows what will come of it?

Another one bites the dust. Hopefully some young, innovative people will start up something new to fill the void about to be created. These sorts of deals rarely work out all that well.

Being young I haven't seen any outdoors companies get chewed up by the corporate machine. I was hoping that the new company with lots of money and no operations to use it on would be used for research and development. It seems like if the stock holders wanted the company to do well they'd want the ideas and innovations of both companies to become even better and put money into developing even better products.

Judging by the tone of Bill and Alan it would seem to be a cause for mourning rather than celebration. What other companies have lost their way when they became a public company?

We could always wait for them to actually start sucking before we pass judgment...

C4B7 -

To name just a few:

Gerry, Holubar, Kelty (yeah, there are still packs made under the "Kelty"name, but ...), Dana Designs, Eddie Bauer, The North Face (they might be coming back), Frostline, Rivendell, Trailwise, Snowlion, Early Winters, ....

I could also add REI, since the present REI, now a yuppie clothing store, is so much different than the REI of even 20 years ago, or EMS, or Sport Chalet - these have the same names (as does Eddie Bauer), but their product line is so much different that they really are not the same companies they were. REI and EMS do not carry anywhere as broad a line of outdoor gear as they did 20 or 30 years ago. The climbing gear, for example, is far sparser, even in stores close to the major climbing areas. For the last two winters, REI has not carried telemark or randonee ski gear, or even in most of their stores, XC ski gear, with the selection of snowshoe gear very poor. Wannabe clothing sells well - the actual gear does not.

Johnson Worldwide, which has changed its name a number of times, was very much an outdoorsman's manufacturer and supplier, but now is more of a "car camper" and "RV-er" orientation.The founder (SC Johnson of Johnson Wax fame) started JWA by acquiring outdoor-oriented companies making products for the outdoor activities he was interested in. But somehow, the corporate management got away with itself. They did not want to let loose of the Silva name, for example, though Silva (Sweden), maker of the JWA compasses for decades, wanted to go on their own in North America. The companies broke off relations, with the JWA "Silva" compasses now being made in SE Asia and of noticeably poorer quality (the real Silva Sweden compasses remain very high quality).

It isn't so much that the companies became public companies, as being taken over by conglomerates. North Face is a good example - Under the founders (a group who had worked at the Berkeley Ski Hut), they produced top quality gear, well-suited to backpacking, climbing, and backcountry skiing. If you read the founder's book (some 25-30 years ago), you will find a realy excellent outdoor philosophy and way of running the company. Then TNF started acquiring other companies, including Sierra Designs (SD employees took their company back, though they are going the same route now). That proved problematic, so they became part of VF (which was originally the Vanity Fair lingerie and women's undergarment company, but became a huge conglomerate with many unrelated companies under their umbrella). To cut production costs, a lot of the work went overseas, with poor quality control. They did keep a line of high quality, well-designed gear, but the name was on a lot of inferior clothing.

Atlas Snowshoes was started by a grad student who did his graduate project under my next-door neighbor, an engineering professor at Stanford. Atlas was a huge leap ahead in snowshoe design. But Perry, being the brilliant innovator he is, got more interested in other things. So he sold the company to Tubbs, which became part of a large conglomerate, and the quality of both Atlas and Tubbs snowshoes is much lower than it was even 5 years ago.

I wonder how many people are aware that Abercrombie and Fitch, founded in 1892, was the top American outfitter for sporting goods for high adventure until the 1960s (customers included Teddy Roosevelt, Ernest Shackleton, and a number of early American climbing and polar expeditions). A&F of today bears virtually no resemblance to the original company.

The problem stems from the way public company boards and executives, and big conglomerates in particular view things. They are in business to make money, which means high salaries for the executive suite and payments to the board members, plus hopefully growth in stock valuations and maybe dividends for the stockholders (though dividends are not in style these days). This means cutting costs on the one hand, and boosting profits on the other, through raising prices if necessary. As far as the outdoor industry is concerned, most of the board members and executive suite are not outdoor types. So they do not see quality as an important factor (there are exceptions, of course - Chouinard is one of those exceptions, but Black Diamond has not been one of his companies since the liability suits of the 1970s and 1980s).

Cutting costs and raising profits are not bad in and of themselves, in my view, and can in fact be very desirable. But quality is important as well. For one thing, it builds customer loyalty and repeat sales. If you are a company exec and not a user of the product, then you aren't going to be as aware of what quality in climbing gear, a ski, a backpack really consists of. I think of a certain sock manufacturer who invited me into their booth at the ORShow to see that year's product "improvements" - which were "new colors" - give me a break! Who cares about the color of the socks when they are down inside the boots where no one can see them? Hey, we are missing the women's market! So let's make "women-specific" packs by making the fabric in pastel colors, especially pink, with flowery images all over them!

Bill, Remember the days when you'd get your Banana Republic catalog in the mail and it looked like the current Trader Joe's newletter? Cheap paper filled with stories of travel to far off places and colonial war surplus clothes and packs for sale.

Add to the list of companies that are no more, Fairydown and MacPac (NZ) which are now owned by some UK conglomerate. Sir Edmund used Fairydown gear on his epic ascent of Everest. I have a real MacPac sleeping bag from the mid 80's.

The same thing has happened in the ski business. K2 was sold to a company that made pools or something, which then changed its name to K2. Voile seems to still be independent, but many ski companies like Vokl are owned by big holding companies.

Moss tents disappeared when Moss sold the company. The name is still around, but not the tents. Walrus is gone, too, I believe.

REI has turned into the GAP (which bought Banana Republic years ago).

This is the reason I try to do business with cottage gear makers & small businesses as much as possible. The passion for the work, the quality, the direct involvement of the owner, and usually customer service is still top notch at that stage of many (not all) companies. With bigger companies like REI you get great return policies, true, but I love hand crafted gear made by someone who also uses it and understands the ins and outs of the items application and function. Once a company is forced to outsource production in order to grow, it would seem that the owners original passion & quality would get watered down.

I see that myself in my own industry.

I think lack of sales probably forced most of it. Most folks just are not willing to depart with discretionary income.

Usually it's a matter of an owner wanting to cash out his or her investment and along comes a much larger corporation with a lot of cash. This is true in every industry, not just the outdoors.

So many great names on that list; Class 5, CAmp 7, Alp Sport/Alpine Designs, Wilderness Experience, Yak Works, Jansport, Hine Snowbridge......

Hey Bill:
Remember Trailwise? I believe they were in Berkley. They made some of the best gear ever, innovative too. What happened to them. I own a 60/40 parka by their design, and thought it to be the best of its breed, period. Its still in great shape, but has been relegated to street use, since Gore-Tex provides better pro.

I still use my Trailwise internal frame pack from the early 1980s. Not as light as today’s designs, but then all of the current designs out there at 6000 + cu in aeren't as versatile. I did have to replace the rubberized plastic lashing patches with leather ones, however, as the synthetic ones rotted out. I use the bag exclusively on snow trips and it just keeps humping after hundreds of miles.

I also once owned a sweet Camp 7 down bag, but lost it to a wind storm in the mid 1980s that savaged our camp, shredding a tent and blowing away lots of other gear.


Trailwise was the name of the products made and sold by the Ski Hut. The Ski Hut is where it all began in the Berkely area, so many firms were started by people who worked there; The North Face, Sierra Designs, Class 5, Snowlion,...


Note that Trailwise (the Berkeley Ski Hut) is in the third line of my list of companies that have disappeared. To add to Alan's comment, a lot of the current "NEW INNOVATIONS!" actually appeared in Trailwise products in the 1950s. There was a lot of cross-fertilization between the NorCal, SoCal, Boulder, Seattle, and North Conway folks from the 1930s through the 1960s. And a lot of great ideas (and some crazy ones) from some very eccentric folks during that period - Bill Feuer (the Dolt, rest his troubled soul), Jardine (inventor of Friends, the first practical cams, and an early ultralight guru, still around, though less public these days), Stephenson (way ahead of his time), ... Fabrics and materials are better, but a lot of the designs are rediscoveries and repeats.

My first pack was a Trailwise frame pack as recommended by Colin Fletcher. I busted the frame, got it replaced NQA and the second frame is still hanging in the barn in VT. My first tent was a Trailwise Fitzroy II, then (mid-late 70s) one of the main alternatives to the North Face Mountain tents for winter camping. Still have that, too but the water proofing is pretty well gone.

My first tent was a Trailwise Fitzroy II, then (mid-late 70s) one of the main alternatives to the North Face Mountain tents for winter camping.

We used one on a trip to Denali in the early 1980s. One camp it blew like Hell, way more than anywhere I have ever been. It held like a trouper, albeit the side walls smacked us silly. That trip, unfortuantely proved that tunnel entrances were not snow proof.

I just read the BD press release and the CNN story written two years ago that is linked on the webpage. It is interesting that in that story, someone from REI said he didn't think BD would make a good public company-too thin a profit margin.

Clarus was a business software company that seems to have taken a hit from the recession. Its only assets now are BD and Gregory. There are some interesting articles about the deal on a couple of financial websites.

Several years ago I corresponded with a former Black Diamond designer and he mentioned that only a minority of products they sold made money, most did not. The profits were used to fund the more technical gear they make which doesn't have a large enough market to make it profitable to produce.

They are trying to expand the market for their products, but some things like climbing gear will never be a mass market item, which limits growth.

REI is an example. They aren't making money selling snow shovels and climbing gear-clothes drive their sales. Fine with me as long as they don't turn into The Gap.

C4B7 -

To name just a few:

Gerry, Holubar, Kelty (yeah, there are still packs made under the "Kelty"name, but ...), Dana Designs, Eddie Bauer, The North Face (they might be coming back), Frostline, Rivendell, Trailwise, Snowlion, Early Winters, ....

Fantastic post. It's a great pity to see the same pattern repeat over and over.

I would also add Burberry to the list. They outfitted Shackleton, Amundsen and even Mallory. I remember reading about Shackleton's satisfaction with the Burberry gear on one of his expeditions to the South pole. Today they are best known for selling ridiculously expensive tartan clothes. And so it goes.

..REI is an example. They aren't making money selling snow shovels and climbing gear-clothes drive their sales. Fine with me as long as they don't turn into The Gap.

Our local REI hasn't turned into the Gap, but it is pretty close to becoming another Banana Republic. (sigh)

November 28, 2020
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