By Eric Smith
Gregory Mountain Products has undergone numerous ownership changes in its 41-year history, most recently in 2014 when Samsonite International SA acquired the backpack brand from Black Diamond for $85 million.
The new ownership situation has been a boon for Gregory, according to John Sears, the company’s vice president of design and development. And he should know.
Sears has been with Gregory for the past 16 years, so he’s experienced many of the organizational changes firsthand. Sears started as a product designer and learned the business from company founder and namesake Wayne Gregory, but his passion for backpacks predates his career, having built a backpack for his college thesis at Georgia Tech.
At last month’s Outdoor Retailer Summer Market in Denver, CO, on the four-year anniversary—give or take a day—of Samsonite closing on its acquisition of Gregory, Sears spoke with SGB about how the brand has flourished ever since.
He said the transition was smooth, primarily because the first thing Samsonite asked Gregory’s leaders was where they wanted to be based.
“We said we want to live in Salt Lake City at the base of the mountains,” Sears said. “And they said, ‘Great, build yourself a design center and let’s keep this thing going in the right direction.’”
Sears said Samsonite provides Gregory with everything the brand needs, from the latest technology to the sharpest talent, from a global distribution plan to a multichannel marketing strategy. And those investments are clearly paying off. In Samsonite’s most recent quarter, the company reported Gregory sales grew 11.9 percent with 24.6 percent growth in North America and 28.9 percent growth in Europe.
“They bought Gregory because it was doing well and trending in the right direction—and it’s continued since,” Sears said. “You can see in the public numbers.”
Finding a quiet spot to chat at Outdoor Retailer can be difficult, especially late in the day when happy hour festivities commence. But thankfully Gregory’s booth had a room at the back where Sears was able to share some of the reasons beyond the numbers why the backpack brand has been so successful under Samsonite.
Sears and this SGB reporter spoke—over a pint of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, no less—about Samsonite’s responsiveness as a parent company, what’s driving growth for Gregory, what consumers demand in backpacks and what the future holds for the longtime brand.
Has Samsonite committed to nurturing the Gregory brand, and have they been a good, strong parent company for you? Yes. I think with all the consolidation happening in the industry, it’s hard to tell at first glance which parent companies are going to work well for which subsidiaries. It’s tough to judge a book by its cover. Samsonite is a really entrepreneurial company. They run lean and mean and really smart. And they have other premium brands such as Tumi, for example, so they understand the premium space. But they know what they don’t know about the outdoor industry and they let Gregory be Gregory. They have a really high level of respect for the brand and the niche premium products that we make. Honestly, they have a lot of respect for the brand and liked the outdoor industry, which is why they bought Gregory in the first place. They see that the pack and bag trend, and the outdoor health and wellness trend, continuing on a global scale.
Has Samsonite shown a willingness to invest in both technology and talent to ensure Gregory has the brightest and the best working there? Absolutely. We’re a growing company; we’ve got a full house out there in Salt Lake City. Honestly, the Samsonite group leaves that up to us, and it is a truly entrepreneurial organization where they say, “Hey, find the right talent; find the right people.” One thing that Samsonite believes in is investing disproportionately in the marketing and storytelling side of the business. Gregory was always a very product forward-facing company, and over the last couple of years we’re beginning to tell the real story behind the product and let people know what Gregory believes in and what we’re all about. You can see the changes starting to happen now.
Gregory has a great story. How important is heritage as part of positioning the brand? The heritage is super important to our history because we’ve been in a space where there are lots of small, new brands coming out of the woodwork, which we love to see because that’s a sign of a healthy industry. But with a company like Gregory, we have been around for 40 years and that’s a rare thing. In the context of trust, it’s an important part of the story to tell consumers. We’ve been through different ownerships, and I’ve been there through them for the last 16 years, and my team has been through a lot of these with us. One thing we always kept very consistent is the slow and steady and trusted product evolution so that people know when they buy Gregory, they’re still getting a super high quality product with all the priorities that our founder set in place and certainly ingrained deep in me when I was in my early 20s.
What’s driving growth for Gregory, and where is consumer demand in terms of features, size, fit and usage? You’ll often hear people talk about how big packs are trending down because people are going on shorter trips and have less time. I’ve been hearing that for 15 years and I’ve been hearing the lightweight story for 15 years. In 2018—some of this is weather dependent and some of it is the buying cycle—we have seen big packs soften a bit, but we expect them to pick up in the back half of the year. Day packs, hydration and travel are all strong categories. I think you’re seeing people make a shift right now to the experiential. That’s a clear trend in the space, which is great. Backpacks are something you need to go have those experiences, so we’re absolutely seeing those trends occur for Gregory. We’re happy to be providing product solutions that deliver an easy experience and approachable experience—one with lots of proprietary technology built into it, but technology that kind of disappears and lets you enjoy getting outside and traveling.
What are customers looking for in packs? Do they care about all the bells and whistles, the new materials and latest technology, or do they just want something that looks good and helps them travel or hike? The answer is both, honestly. Consumers are getting more educated and smarter and they’re placing value in technologies that affect comfort. That really does matter because that really impacts your quality of life when you’re getting out. But by the same token, I think there are new consumers that are coming into the space and, as an industry, we need to make sure we understand how to speak to them and not a talk down to them. We need to make sure the product is simple to use and approachable. At Gregory, we love engineering new textiles and suspension systems; we’ll always do that. But how do you find that balance? What you’re ultimately trying to deliver is a quality of life enhancement and a simpler, easier way to enable the outdoor experience. If we can do that, if we’re getting more people outside, if we have new groups of people outside, that’s a really good thing for everyone.
Where do you see growth for Gregory in 2019 and beyond? You brought up the four-year anniversary with Samsonite and Gregory—we’re the largest we’ve ever been on a global level and the largest we’ve ever been in North America. But I think we’re also the healthiest we’ve ever been, and we’re really starting to fire on all cylinders. What we see in 2019 is the industry as a whole doing a really good job of bringing in some new customers and new users into the space, into the outdoors. For Gregory itself, we expect another year of double-digit growth, and we expect to take some market share as well. That’s the plan.
Photo courtesy Gregory Mountain Products