By Eric Smith
Soon after Dave McDonald was appointed as the new chief operating officer for Cascade Designs, his son called to remind him of the Therm-a-Rest sleeping pad that McDonald had given him in 1994 prior to a father-son backpacking trip.
McDonald, who described his former backpacking days as “bare bones” and therefore never hauled such luxuries as a self-inflating mattress into the woods, hadn’t remembered the sleeping pad he bought his son, but he was nonetheless happy to hear that the Therm-a-Rest brand had been, in some small way, a part of his family for decades.
Fast forward to 2018, and it’s McDonald who is now a part of the Therm-a-Rest family. Its parent company, Cascade Designs, named McDonald as the COO not only of the longtime sleeping pad and sleeping bag brand, but of its entire well-known portfolio, which also includes MSR, Platypus, SealLine and PackTowl.
“These brands are part of great sales and marketing company and the brands, and I believe in that,” McDonald told SGB by phone from Reno, NV, the company’s second largest operation after its Seattle, WA, headquarters.
McDonald, whose background is in operations and supply chain management at a number of large, non-outdoor companies, said he is the right person for this job because he is an executive whose down-to-earth approach is the same no matter which rung of the organization he is working with. In other words, he is as comfortable in the warehouse as he is in the boardroom.
Now, he is bringing his track record of building operational excellence to a company that manufactures in the U.S. but, like any brand in a competitive market, is looking for ways to differentiate through improved processes and workflow, such as ramping up “lean” practices in production.
“You’ve got to have good sales and marketing, but there also has to be a balance between sales, marketing and operations, or you won’t be able to deliver on the product,” he said. “I’m here to help us to get positioned for more growth.”
To meet his goals, McDonald understands it will take the entire Cascade team, from Seattle and Reno in the U.S. to the company’s European operation in Ireland. “You’ve got to get the support of the people,” he said. “I can’t do it alone.”
McDonald—who will go by Dave at Cascade since the chairman of the board is David Borroughs—plans to work primarily out of Cascade Designs’ Reno facility but will also spend much time in Seattle, especially as he gets up to speed on the company’s processes. McDonald said he’ll have a “foot in both places” as he spearheads Cascade Designs’ entire operation.
Here is the rest of what McDonald shared with SGB about his appointment, including how he plans to elevate Cascade Designs’ operational efficiencies and his take on the most important element for any company.
What attracted you to Cascade Designs and this position? Three reasons: One, they have really good brands and great sales and marketing. Two, they needed help and in the area that I’m good at. And three, (CEO) Jerry Heinlen and I worked together at Fortune Brands and I’ve known him for about 18 years. He has helped me along in my career, and we’ve tried to work together three or four times, but every time I’m zigging, he’s zagging, and we just never were able to connect until this position. He convinced me to come out and join the company, and that’s why I’m here.
What do you bring to the company? Historically, I’ve gone in to help companies get better. That’s what I’m going to bring. I’m going to help us accelerate on the technology side of manufacturing, get more modern, implement what we’re calling CCI—Cascade Continuous Improvement—because the “lean” word has a bad connotation. But basically, it’s driving out waste in the process, getting people involved, helping them to see the waste. What I described to Jerry is, “It’s a simple concept, but it’s not easy.” I have a gift for going in and making companies better and positioning them for growth. That’s what I do. That’s what I’ve done. I was president of my last company, but it was a smaller company. I like operations; that’s my first love, and this is an opportunity to be able to do that.
Looking broadly, how can companies grow their bottom lines through lean manufacturing practices and processes? You’re able to get your inventory down so you can invest more money in the brand. You’re also able to reduce lead times so you can ship faster and better to your customers. You’re able to perform the “miracle cycle”—you reduce costs and you improve your operation, which allows you to fund more growth; as you fund more growth, that’s more opportunity for everybody. You’ve got to have a healthy balance there. If you just put it all on marketing and sales and you don’t work on the operations, you will under-deliver on your promises and eventually that catches up to you. Except for two companies or divisions of companies that I’ve worked for, they’ve all been the No. 1 or No. 2 brand in their markets. They just needed help to get the operation shored up so they could continue to be No. 1 or No. 2. I’ve been here before, and I think I know what to do.
Is this an area where the company can truly differentiate, and how does that show up in production, distribution, channel partnerships, etc.? Operating a lot of brands adds complexity, so as we de-complexify the operation and make it simpler, we deliver better; we’re able to roll out new products faster and better, and we have the funds to do that by freeing up cash from inventory. We leave the competition in the dust. There’s a kind of a JIT (just in time) philosophy on some of this stuff, but we have to mesh our international sources that we buy components from with our USA production and do it really well to stay competitive.
Do the lean and supply chain principles that you learned working for non-outdoor companies apply to a company like Cascade? Everything in manufacturing and distribution is more alike than different. I spent a short time in a chemical company before coming here, and I had never built chemicals before then. You have to manufacture the product; you have the package the product, so absolutely they carry over. Some of the brands that I’ve worked at have been consumer brands like Louisville Ladder. Consumer products are a little different than industrial products. I think there’s a little more leeway in the industrial products on a service perspective, but on a retail product, you have to be a great servicer to your customer. You have to be able to deliver quickly and accurately and on time, or you will help your retailer lose business. And we don’t want that to happen. We want them to gain business.
What advantages does Cascade have as a company that’s vertically integrated? I’ve seen a lot and done a lot in three weeks, believe me, and one of our competitive advantages is that vertical integration. We have processes that are proprietary that allow us to stay ahead of the competition. Otherwise, a lot of this stuff can just be shipped overseas. We have a great technology group that builds the machinery, combined with a great engineering development team that works hand in hand to put these processes together. I think it’s first and foremost in the industry. I know there’s a lot of cheap imports coming in, and the product quality that we have is superior. We can change our technologies and stay ahead of them. And that’s what we have to do.
What else should our readers know about you and your new role at Cascade? The people in the company have a passion for the product. Most of them are like me; they use the products continuously and have a passion for the industry, especially on the sales and marketing side, which is vital to making a good product. As for our production, our supply chain, our distribution, everyone here has a real strong passion for the business. I think David and John Borroughs built a wonderful company, and the people are passionate. Without that, nothing works. A lot of people say that kind of stuff, but I’ve been at some companies that weren’t people-oriented, and it’s like a prison. This company is really plugged into its people, and it’s very, very respectful culture. I love it, and I’ve only been here three weeks. That makes all the difference. We can do anything if people have the right attitude.
Photos courtesy Cascade Designs