Jack Gilbert is the president and founder of Mountain Hardwear.
A long-time industry veteran, Gilbert created MH in late 1993 after attempting an MBO of Sierra Designs, a company he had run since 1989. Columbia acquired Mountain Hardwear in April 2003 in a deal worth $36 million.
Prior to SD, Gilbert was the first publisher of Outdoor Retailer Magazine and was instrumental in establishing the first Outdoor Retailer Summer and Winter Markets.
Mr. Gilberts first job in the outdoor industry was as the VP of Sales and Marketing at The North Face where he helped to develop the look and feel of the brand as we know it today. He held this position from “sometime in the early 70s” until 1988, when TNF was sold for the first time.
BOSS: What first attracted you to the outdoor lifestyle and industry?
JG: I started young, with family trips to the Sierras, and then I was a Boy Scout for years. I went on to make some long trips into the back country in High School, but basically someone got me into it when I was young, and that is the real key if you develop a love for the outdoors at an early age, you will keep it for the rest of your life.
BOSS: So do you think that maintaining this love for the outdoors is a competitive advantage in this industry?
JG: Twenty years ago it was. Today there are some people, and I wont name any names, who are only running it by the numbers. Thats not to say in the early 70s we werent trying to make money. We took the business very seriously, but making great product was always number one.
BOSS: Several companies have told BOSS that they would like to be where Mountain Hardwear is in terms of size, sales and distribution. What are some of the key achievements that have given you this reputation?
JG: We are very good at what we do, and everybody in this industry knows who is a straight shooter and who isnt. We also have a great group of people here. Mark Hrubant, Mike Kramer, Paige Boucher, and Mike Wallenfels all have a lot of credibility in this industry for what they do.
BOSS: While Mountain Hardwear products have always been used by SnowSports enthusiasts, you recently launched a SnowSports-specific line. How have retailers received this?
JG: I wouldnt really call it a new product line; its more of a line extension, but it has been very successful. We opened 70 to 80 new dealers for fall delivery. Sales of our soft shells are really growing, and SIA04 was a great success.
BOSS: So, while soft-shell sales are growing, are they cannibalizing hard-shell sales?
JG: They arent cannibalizing all hard-shell sales, really just the high-end. People are realizing that all they really need most of the time is a middle layer that is very breathable, wind proof, and highly water resistant. Then they go for a very basic hard-shell, without all of the bells and whistles, for bad weather.
BOSS: Are there other new markets you are looking at?
JG: There has been a lot of talk in the industry about our new pack line, and we have some very revolutionary new packs under design right now. We had hoped to be ready for OR (Summer Market), but there is a lot of technology going into this line. Also, theyve got to be good.
BOSS: The bolting on process seems to have gone very smooth for both Columbia and Mountain Hardwear. In your view, what did the two companies do to make this work, and has the corporate culture at Mountain Hardwear changed at all since Columbia acquired the brand?
JG: The culture really hasnt changed at all. I really commend Columbia for giving us the freedom we need in the areas that matter brand building, product development, and distribution while at the same time they have helped us build finance, warehousing and sourcing efficiencies, particularly the warehousing in Europe.
BOSS: How is the European expansion going?
JG: We have really only started. We have some very good relationships with distributors in the UK, Scandinavia and Spain that we will be keeping. The big change is that we will be shipping direct to retailers in Italy, Germany, Benelux, and France.
BOSS: Do you think the consolidation of the outdoor industry is just getting started, or winding down?
JG: I dont think there is a whole lot more room for consolidation. I mean there will always be a small company here or there, but right now youve got VF Corporation, American Rec., Salomon, and Columbia of course. While Nike isnt really in the market, they are still a player. Even with all of these big companies there is always room for a small innovative company to break in, like a Cloudveil or a GoLite.
Really, I think business is much tougher. Ive been in the industry for over 35 years, and before you would always have one company really doing well, while another was falling off. Now you really have everyone hitting on all cylinders. The consolidation has led to more professionalism, I think, and more sophisticated management and better financing. Before, there were a lot of good companies that got into a lot of trouble for not watching their finances.
BOSS: What about the consolidation of your customers?
JG: While there has been some consolidation of our customers we are so specialty focused it hasnt really done much. I am biased towards specialty for some very sound reasons. When you are building high-end technical merchandise you need an educated, articulate sales person. Training is crucial, and when you look at the big-box self-service packaging, it is impossible to get the service required.
We see our growth coming from the specialty market. Right now we have somewhere in the 10% to 14% range of market share for apparel, and we will grow that. We will selectively broaden our distribution over time, but the big-box game is all about price, and were not very good at making cheap products. Honestly, we dont see the reason.
BOSS: What role do politics play in the industry? Does this need to change in any way?
JG: I am probably going to upset a lot of my colleagues by saying this, but I actually think we get very little help from politicians and tax dollars. There are very few genuine environmentalists among our political leaders. We have relied for a long time on federal programs for inner city parks, trail building, conservation, and it has always been a big disappointment. I have no expectations that the government is going to show any interest in growing the recreation industry. Contrary to some of my friends, I think that it is up to us to grow this business and build excitement.
That being said, everything is still cyclical in this business. People get excited about something and then it goes away. You cant advertise your way out of a cycle – when the time is right for backpacking to pick up again, it will happen.