By Eric Smith
When Jay Getzel moved to Colorado 19 years ago to work at a gear shop in Boulder, he figured he’d ski bum for a few winters before eventually moving back East to find a “real job.”
But like so many who spend a season or two in the mountains after graduating college, Getzel got hooked on the outdoor lifestyle and decided to stay. By then, of course, Getzel knew Colorado was home to many outdoor brands, so he abandoned his goal of becoming a teacher and instead pursued a career in gear sales.
Getzel landed a job at Kelty, then spent time working with Timberland and Camp USA before joining Golden, CO-based backpack brand Mountainsmith in 2008 as its national sales manager. He later was named director of sales and marketing and in 2013 was promoted to president.
His five-year anniversary as president and 10-year anniversary with the company are happening on the cusp of another important milestone—Mountainsmith turns 40 in 2019. So Getzel knows it’s a good time to celebrate Patrick Smith, who founded the company in 1979 and named it after a moniker his parents coined to distinguish him from their other children whenever he wrote home. “Look, honey, we heard from the mountain Smith,” they would tell each other, knowing their son was in Colorado for good.
Getzel’s similar tale of staying put in the mountains eventually led him to Mountainsmith, where he is now charged with honoring the brand’s roots while also ensuring it moves forward and adapts to the next generation of explorers.
“I think that the company still has a lot of the same DNA that it had back in 1979,” Getzel told SGB. “The brand was founded on an idea of technicality and durability, and I think that’s what our brand continually strives for. The brand is always looking to employ the best quality materials and the best quality craftsmanship. Our ‘forged for life’ guarantee ensures that no one who currently owns, or has ever owned, our product will be left hanging should they have a bad experience or failure with our gear. The tenets of technicality and durability for getting outdoor adventurers into the backcountry are still true to the brand’s origins.”
Joining Getzel on a recent call with SGB was the brand’s marketing manager, Torie Palffy, who added that whenever employees are creating product or a marketing campaign, they ask themselves, “Who do you want around the campfire at 11:30 p.m. passing around the flask or telling stories? Those are the people that we want to do business with and the people we want to hang out with. Those are the people that we want to market to. They’re definitely not afraid to get dirty. But the definition of an outdoorsman is growing and becoming much more inclusive, and we certainly want to be inclusive as well.”
Here is the rest of what Getzel shared with SGB, including something even more important than turning the Big 4-0, a shift in the company’s relationship with Amazon and where Mountainsmith hopes to head in the next four decades.
Turning 40 is a milestone that people celebrate, but what does it mean for a brand to turn 40? It’s not only about our age, but our independence. A lot of peers that are our age are considerably larger than we are, but they’ve gone through transitions where they’ve turned a bit more corporate or are owned by some gigantic, publicly traded parent company. Mountainsmith has stayed small and progressively growing for all of these years. We are not a large player in the outdoor space, but we’re a tenured and iconic player, and we’re doing it with a small team (the company recently grew to eight employees). Everything that we do—whether it’s social media marketing, lifestyle imagery for our catalogs or product design and development—is very much a team effort. Mountainsmith has always been this size. When Patrick started it he was using a network of home sewers throughout the Front Range. It was less than 10 people making this brand what it is, just as it is now. And I think that’s the thing that we’re most proud of—we’ve slowly, methodically grown this company at a rate that just barely outpaces the growth of the industry as a whole.
Has the Mountainsmith target customer changed over the past 40 years? Mountainsmith was founded in the backcountry, and that’s where we still expect our customers to go play, but certainly there are front country applications for our brand and front country applications for some of our gear. While our product is applicable to even the “let’s get to one mile in the scenic overlook, take our Instagram shot and turn around” person, the DNA of this brand is certainly that grittier “I’ve got some duct tape on my ski pants and I’m pounding a PBR in the parking lot” person.
Where and how is Mountainsmith making an impact in the marketplace? We’ve got longtime Mountainsmith fans, as well as new people that are being turned on to the brand. As we turn 40 and continue on from there, I think that the privately owned structure of the company allows us the flexibility to not go chase unrealistic sales goals. There are some gigantic players out there, and I think it’s cool that as you walk through the floor of Outdoor Retailer and see us smack dab in the middle of the show, we’re in the same place we’ve been inhabiting for 40 years. We’re doing what these big guys are doing. But we’re doing it with a shoestring budget, a grassroots effort and an entrepreneurial spirit, so the fact that we can win market share at a clip that’s beyond the pace of the outdoor industry as a whole is a testament to how gritty and tough our brand is.
Being a smaller player in that space—even one that’s gritty and tough—can sometimes bring challenges. Have there been bumps in the road along the way? Patrick Smith sold Mountainsmith in 1997, and 1997 to 2007 was a period of time that the company changed hands about three times. Our current group has owned Mountainsmith since 2007, but I think that period of flux between 1997 and 2007 put a little bit of a question mark in the eyes of some outdoor industry peers of ours about who was Mountainsmith and what direction were we headed. Luckily, with 11 years under the same ownership, we’ve been able to redevelop the story, redevelop a consistency and redevelop a trajectory that our reps and retailers and consumers trust. We would rather focus on the 10 or 11 years that we’ve had together now where we’ve essentially doubled the size of the brand in the last 10 years. That’s something that we’re all really, really proud of.
How does being a smaller brand affect your channel strategy? Are you strictly outdoor specialty, shifting to e-commerce, omnichannel? We’re in the midst of that transition right now. Mountainsmith in the fall of 2017 took a plan to our ownership and pretty much said we cannot continue to compete in the race to the bottom that exists on platforms like Amazon. Selling direct on Amazon is something that works for Rubbermaid, Kellogg’s and these huge consumer products companies. We believe our future is in an engagement with the specialty outdoor world and the specialty outdoor consumer, you know, shops where people—like me 20 years ago—say, “The hell with my college education; I’m going to go mount skis because I really love the outdoors, and I’m going to throw my career to the side for a while to live this life outside.”
So, no selling on Amazon? The dealers that we’re trying to push forward with are on that specialty side. And in the spring of this year, we canceled our direct selling relationship with Amazon and instead moved our focus to finding about a half a dozen core outdoor specialty partners that have a savvy for selling on Amazon. That’s how we’re going to continue to be present on that platform. We’re choosing a way to do it that’s more responsible in the protection of margin and brand and authenticity.
What are some challenges facing outdoor brands and retailers? Direct-to-consumer is a big elephant in the room right now when you talk to new outdoor specialty retailers. Nothing drives an outdoor specialty retailer crazier than being on an email marketing list for a brand and seeing 20 to 40 percent off coupons come through on a day-to-day basis. So we’ve maintained a pretty clean presence as far as our direct-to-consumer behavior goes because we don’t want to compete with our retail stores. I’ve often said that if you buy something from Mountainsmith.com, you’re a pretty horrible online shopper, because we hold MSRP and we don’t really promote our website. Our website is a selling tool, a branding tool and a conduit to learn more about Mountainsmith. Ultimately, you should go buy our products at your favorite outdoor specialty store or your favorite outdoor specialty online retailer. We’re trying to maintain a very clean presence in that regard and be a better partner for our outdoor specialty retailers.
Is the company already thinking about the next 40 years? The mid-1990s was the heyday of the brand. You walk into a retail store these days and 75 percent of the pegs on the wall of the backpack department have Osprey packs on them. That was very much the level of penetration that Mountainsmith had in the outdoor gear market back in the mid-90s, and we’re slowly climbing our way back to a place like that. We owe it to ourselves to align with the right ambassadors and the right retailers to get this highly durable, well-thought-out, functional gear into the hands of thru-hikers, peak baggers and backcountry skiers across the country. We’re going to continue the focus that we’ve had for the last 11 years under our ownership, further shove that 10 years of unrest into a little footnote in our backstory and progress the growth that we’re currently experiencing.
Photo courtesy Mountainsmith