Going on four years as CEO of Simms, Casey Sheahan, 65, took the helm to spearhead its wader, outerwear and technical fishing apparel and accessory lines out of its 80,000-square-foot facility in Bozeman, MT. A lifelong angler and conservationist, Sheahan served as Patagonia’s CEO for more than nine years, seeing its business triple. 

SGB Executive caught up with Sheahan for his take on the fishing industry, manufacturing in America, surviving the pandemic, and its new brand mission, Fish It Well, crafted to inspire the world to fish.

How did Simms fare this past year during the pandemic? Despite all the craziness, we had a record year. Last March, we thought we’d be down 30 percent or more. We had a couple of rough months, but sales went Richter off the charts as soon as summer came, and they’ve maintained that for the past ten months. I think it’s the COVID effect of people seeing fly-fishing as a socially distanced sport that’s safe and outdoors. You’re not going into a bar or bowling alley.

Any products moving exceptionally well? Products for newcomers have been flying off the shelves. Our CX line is also doing well. It’s a new series that’s younger-looking and bad-ass, a new approach to rainwear. Our wader and outwear business is again doing great, up 50 percent to 70 percent since the pandemic, and so is our new Flyweight line, which is more athletic with nimble materials for those who want to hike in far and get away from it all. We launched it not knowing COVID’s fishing effect would be so dramatic; it’s the luck of the draw that we launched it when we did.

Simms is Made in Montana. How hard was it to fill retail orders during the pandemic? Any products more challenging than others? We shut down entirely for a couple of months, making PPE for hospital workers, which helped keep everyone employed. Then we shifted back. It slowed our ability to get ahead on inventory, especially with demand up 70 percent for our waders and boots. We’re scrambling to get it all done, so it’s tough to keep up. Bozeman’s also become a trendy place to live, meaning the cost of living has gone up, so that’s also a challenge to adjust to for our employees. It might be that we need to open a new facility, but maybe in a less expensive town like Great Falls, Livingston, Billings, or somewhere else. We’re still exploring options.

What’s your take on the year’s fishing growth. Is it good for the industry and environment? A story in the New York Times called “Pandemic Crowds Bring ‘Rivergeddon’ to Montana’s Rivers” captured that for me. We need to take care of and respect this environment, or people will be turned off. We need to welcome newcomers but spread the message of how to take care of the resource. One pet peeve of mine is people holding fish out of the water for an Instagram post that stresses the fish. We’re all in this together, and it starts with not showing the grip-and-grin shots. We need to tone it down and keep the fish in the water.

I’m concerned about the overuse of the resource, but it’s hard to tell people not to come to enjoy the sport when we’re benefitting from it financially. But this summer, I think there’s going to be a big group of people like they’re shot out of a cannon coming to our nation’s rivers.

This brings us to Simms’ “Fish it Well” initiative. What does it entail? It’s a rallying cry for our brand and the sport. It has a product component with an emotional lifestyle connection and a conservation and healthy lifestyle element. Fishing is a great sport that doesn’t hurt the environment, but it does have the opportunity to be more inclusive. We can enhance its diverse elements and promote its connectedness to nature and the community of like-minded people. It’s an emotional rallying cry and purpose.

How important is conservation to Simms, and what are some of your projects and partnerships? It’s so important to protect our rivers, especially the more urban ones. Here in our backyard, we’re spending $150,000 with Trout Unlimited for stream enhancements on the Gallatin, with our employees pitching in. We’re trying to make it as good a river as it can be. We love the Gallatin, and it’s important to take care of it. And when the water warms up, we need to take care of the fish. It’s a limited resource. We want to become a role model and example for other companies to help protect the rivers in their backyards.

Which ties into your position on sustainability. What are some of the efforts in that regard, and are the brand’s repairable waders part of the program? It’s important to build a high-quality product that will last a long time and repaired if needed. Gore laminates deliver on that promise. We look at everything through the window of sustainability, from re-doing all of our packaging, so it’s less harmful to the environment, to using recycled base fabrics and more natural fibers. It’s a constant, never-ending quest.

Is doing so at Simms different than at Patagonia? We’re not nearly as big a company like Patagonia, but we’re doing what we can. We’re more of a ‘Let my people go fishing’ brand. But we have a similar passion that resonates at an equivalent level. Another difference is that we live in the middle of trout nirvana instead of Ventura, CA, which isn’t the same kind of place. We’re coming at the issues of conservation and sustainability without getting quite as polarizing in our approach. Our saying is, “United We Fish.” We’re trying to get all stakeholders together to protect our habitat, and there’s more to be gained by unifying on the needs of our sport and habitat. We want everyone who fishes to have a quietly stated competence and be reasonable and effective in helping protect the resource.

Do you have time to fish? I fished a lot last summer but missed the whole steelhead season last fall. I like going to Canada but couldn’t last year. I’m heading to the Oregon coast next week for steelhead and hope to get out this spring and summer more.

What’s one thing retailers can learn from trout? Keep your head down until it warms up. Trout are precious, sacred creatures, and we need to take care of them and do everything we can to protect them. As David James Duncan said, trout can’t speak for themselves.

Photo courtesy Simms/Casey Sheahan