By Eric Smith
April 1 marked the beginning of a new chapter for industry veteran Amy Beck and the company she now leads, Obōz/Kathmandu North America.
That’s the date Beck officially began her new role as president of both brands, though she had been appointed to the position in January. It also kicked off an ongoing succession plan that sees Beck take the reins of the companies’ North American operations from founder John Connelly, who sold footwear brand Obōz to New Zealand-based outdoor retailer Kathmandu in March 2018 for $60 million.
Beck, a former Smartwool and Lucy Activewear executive, is now relocating to Bozeman, MT, where Obōz/Kathmandu North American is based. And she is clearly finding her stride at both Obōz, which Connelly founded in 2007 and grew to become a major footwear player, and Kathmandu, which is still establishing itself in the U.S. after the acquisition.
Last week at Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Denver, CO, Beck made what amounted to her formal debut with the company. There, she was busy meeting with all manner of dealers, reps and media. And she also helped the industry toast the retiring Connelly at an Obōz booth event on Wednesday evening.
In an interview earlier that day, also at the Obōz booth, Beck told SGB that she has long admired both Connelly and Obōz, and is overjoyed at the prospect of taking over the North America operations of both his creation and the publicly held company that acquired it.
She is now charged with continuing Connelly’s mission—nurture the well-established Obōz brand while growing the Kathmandu brand’s labels in the U.S. The majority of the retailer’s sales are Kathmandu-branded products, including outdoor apparel, packs, sleeping, tents and camping accessories.
Though Connelly was supposed to join Beck for this interview, he instead let Beck take the spotlight—or handle what some view as an unenviable chore. But earlier this year, he said, “I am delighted to welcome Amy Beck to Obōz. Amy has successfully demonstrated throughout her career her ability to grow businesses and build up authentic brands in the North American outdoor specialty channel. I look forward to seeing Amy bring Obōz and Kathmandu to their next stage of growth in North America.”
As for Beck, here’s what she shared about her new venture, including the impact Connelly has had in the past three months, the goals for growing each brand and how she expects to measure success at Obōz/Kathmandu.
What have you learned from John and how has the leadership transition been going? It’s been fantastic because of John’s footwear background. His passion for footwear is incredibly contagious, and he’s built a strong culture around that passion for great-fitting and quality footwear. I worked in footwear, but it was 20 years ago, so I’m trying to soak up as much of his experience in the business as possible. The relationship piece is one of the reasons why John and I really clicked. That’s what gets us out of bed in the morning and drives both of us. I’m learning about how he approaches business relationships and also realizing how many mutual friendships we have despite our different work histories. It’s been a real pleasure.
Now that you’ve been on the job three months, what is your take on how the businesses are operating one year into the acquisition? For John, the culture of the business and the tenets that the business was built on are so important. Kathmandu was John’s second customer, and he’s had a long relationship with them. So when he was approached by Kathmandu, I think he felt very comfortable that it’s not only a partnership but a friendship that’s been formed. He trusts them, he trusts their business model. As I started to dig in, which included a chance to visit with the team in Christchurch to learn more about their brand, I discovered both brands are built on authentic pillars around sustainability and encouraging folks to get outdoors. The Obōz marriage was great because while Kathmandu does its own footwear, Obōz has really been taking off as a brand. It’s been a great journey these last 90 days.
As you think about the translation of a non-U.S. brand into this market, what’s your approach for telling the Katmandu story here? I think you hit it right on the head: it’s a story. It’s about finding the white space and then bringing the brand’s story and authenticity to the marketplace. We don’t need another brand in the U.S. just selling fleece and rain jackets. I told Xavier [Kathmandu CEO Xavier Simonet] when I interviewed that you’ve got to be disruptive and bring a unique value proposition to the table. I think a lot of that comes from storytelling. Kathmandu is based in travel and exploration and adventure seeking, but they do all that with a purpose. There’s some real value in that based on what’s happening within our market right now. Because of what they stand for, I think we can bring something really unique.
What’s been the reaction from dealers that you’ve talked with at the show and is that story resonating with them? We’re still formulating the exact way we’re approaching this, but there’s definitely a need and a desire for differentiation within the specialty market. Our brand and the story are resonating with people, and then the product comes after that. They make great product, but right now we’re having lots of conversations around the “why” before we start talking about the “what.”
What are some of the business needs at the Obōz/Kathmandu NA headquarters that you’ve identified? Because they’re run as two separate entities, two P&Ls, two completely separate teams, Obōz’s needs are very different than Kathmandu’s, which is being run as a one-man band right now and needs just about everything. I just posted a marketing director role for Obōz, and then as we look at how we scale and grow, all departments are going to need some level of support on the Obōz side. For Katmandu, as we narrow in on the distribution strategy, the positioning and the storytelling, we’ll see what resources we need.
Is there a U.S. retail footprint in the future? I have not put that on the table. Katmandu is interested in telling their story through retail partners, and for Obōz we do not have that anywhere on our radar. So no brick-and-mortar stores are planned—but I’m not going to say “never.” I’m not that naïve [laughs].
What are your goals for the brands and how are you going to measure success beyond just the numbers? People/culture/team is first and foremost because I feel if you support and grow and build that, then the numbers follow. The Obōz brand has purpose, positioning and personality, but we haven’t documented it, so building that while the founder’s still here is a really unique opportunity. For Obōz, it’s about how do we continue to service the customers we have but also bring them more products and more experiences? It’s the same for everyone here [at Outdoor Retailer]—how do we bring more customers into the conversation? Even if we feel like we’ve saturated some parts of the market, we haven’t begun to scratch the surface with how many people we can tell the story to. For both Obōz and Kathmandu, we will also measure our success by promoting sustainability. For example, we plant a tree for every pair of shoes we sell and we have carbon offsets. It’s part of the DNA of both brands and is a great connector with each other and with the marketplace. I think we’ll start to elevate those conversations and make both brands better as we go forward.
Photo courtesy Obōz/Kathmandu North America