The creation of an outdoor recreation industry office established Colorado as a leader in one of the nation’s most critical economic segments.
By Tim O’Connor
The most striking thing about Colorado’s outdoor recreation manufacturers is how interconnected they are. Snowboard maker Never Summer shares its manufacturing facility in Denver with ski company Icelantic. Likewise, knife company Spyderco, located in Golden, Colo., teamed up with Never Summer to create a limited edition snowboard and knife set aimed at firefighters.
It’s not uncommon for local manufacturers to do business with one another, but Colorado is finding new ways to foster these kinds of symbiotic relationships. Two organizations – one public and one private – are leading that charge.
Something Independent is a group that combines leadership, lifestyle and commerce by promoting interconnections between companies and celebrates achievement. The organization is perhaps best known for its Wright Awards, an annual event that honors Colorado entrepreneurs who developed inspired business ideas. From his vantage point as the organization’s co-founder, Chuck Sullivan has witnessed how mashing different industries together in the same room can start a conversation and lead to greater business connections. “Little things like that can spark big opportunities,” he says. “Colorado is on the cusp of something that has been here for a long time.”
The “something” Sullivan is talking about begins with the allure of the outdoors spirit that has made Colorado the second-fastest growing state in the country, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates. As more people flock to Colorado’s mountain peaks and hiking trails the demand for supporting businesses has grown. The state is a natural home for manufacturers of outdoor supplies, gear and fashion, and companies are finding ways to further cement the outdoors and conservation into their DNA.
Eco Brands Group, parent company of Green Guru Gear, turns recycled materials such as wetsuits from SeaWorld and discarded banners from events such as the Democratic National Convention into backpacks and cycling gear. Spyderco workers take their lunch breaks at the top of an adjacent mountain peak and when the company rebuilt its manufacturing facility in 2015 it designed the building to let in more natural light. Fishing reel maker Mayfly Outdoors is leading a cleanup project on the Upcompahgre River as part of the development of a new business park centered on outdoor-focused companies.
The outdoor lifestyle ingrained in those businesses gives life to a fiercely independent mindset. Many of companies started out as small businesses and take pride in high quality over high volume and sleek marketing. You won’t find big-name athletes like Shaun White on Never Summer boards. Instead of investing in marketing, the company directs its dollars to its materials and facility. “Never Summer always focuses on putting the best materials in the world in our products,” Director of Manufacturing BJ Slater says.
Never Summer’s commitment to quality is one of the reasons Icelantic chose it to manufacture its skis. The relationship helped establish Icelantic as one of the top ski designers in Colorado and the company opened its first retail store last summer, expanding its offerings into clothing and accessories.
Similarly, Spyderco prides itself on making high-quality knives that will never go out of style. “When we’re cloning people on the moon we’ll still need knives or some kind of cutting tool,” owner Eric Glesser says.
The availability of support manufacturers is a critical draw for startups. When bag and pack maker Topo Designs was ready to expand beyond a two-man operation based in Fort Collins, Colo., it was not necessarily looking for a manufacturer in the United States. But it found a capable partner in Axxes Industries Sew Shop, located in nearby Louisville, Colo. Topo is now Axxes’ primary customer and the two businesses are growing together. “We see the advantages of it,” Topo co-founder Mark Hansen says. “We like what we sell and we like the ability come here and check on it.”
The kinds of connections being formed among Colorado manufacturers are representative of national growth in outdoor recreation. The Outdoor Industry Association estimates that outdoor recreation generates $646 billion in consumer spending and accounts for 6.1 million jobs across the country. Recognition of the rising importance of the outdoor industry led Congress to pass the Outdoor REC Act in December, which instructs the U.S. Department of Commerce along with the Department of the Interior and the Department of Agriculture, to analyze the contributions of the outdoor recreation industry and account for those jobs as part of the nation’s gross domestic product. The bill was designed to put outdoor recreation on equal footing with other major industries.
The push that led the federal government to recognize the outdoor industry as a key contributor to the nation’s economy began in states like Colorado. In 2015, Colorado became the second state to establish an outdoor recreation industry office, following Utah in 2013. Luis Benitez, an outdoor enthusiast who has climbed Mt. Everest six times, was chosen to head the department an advocate on behalf of the state’s outdoor businesses.
Since then, Benitez has worked to capture industry innovation in the state and ensure Colorado is represented in the larger conversation around outdoor recreation. “My goal is to change how the trades are seen both in our community and the country,” he says.
Among his first acts as the director of the Colorado Outdoor Recreation Industry Office was to travel across the state on a listening tour. Benitez learned of the hurdles faced by large and small businesses alike in securing financing and finding qualified employees, but he also saw how parts of the outdoor industry were segmented. Companies that had the potential to work together in Colorado didn’t know about one another.
“Unfortunately a lot of what happens in our industry happens in a silo,” Benitez says. “That’s the hard part.” So Benitez began to focus on silo busting. The Colorado Outdoor Recreation Office created a network and database of outdoor related businesses and manufacturers to help companies find each other.
Benitez is also tackling the other hurdles to growth for outdoor equipment makers. The Outdoor Recreation Office is working with Colorado Mountain College to develop education programs to fill skills gaps, such as an associate’s degree for cut and sew or snowboard shaping, that better reflect the experience of people entering the industry’s workforce. Likewise, the Colorado School of Mines is developing education paths for 3-D printing and metal work. “A lot of people in our industry chose an outdoor education. They chose not to get a four-year degree, they chose alternative apprenticeships,” Benitez adds.
Talent is the backbone of a budding business’ reputation, but it also needs financing. An upstart company designing the next great snowboard of bicycle out of a garage often relies on organic funding from friends, family or fans. Taking the businesses to the next level and mass market can be financially prohibitive without proper backing.
Benitez is working with banks and on the state level to push for programs that will offer funding to outdoor recreation businesses. In December, the Economic Development Council of Colorado indicated interest in pursing the idea, Benitez says. “We’re working really hard to shift that paradigm so they [outdoor recreation businesses] can have access to funding,” he adds.
Having a statewide perspective on the industry enables Colorado to be more strategic in how it creates economic development. In the past, individual towns have competed against one other to lure manufacturers and create jobs. That might be a win for a local community, but it’s a zero-net economic gain at the state level.
Benitez doesn’t believe competition for existing jobs is the way to build the industry. Instead, by looking at outdoor recreation from a state and national level he says government can create better policies and incentives to drive overall growth. “The outdoor industry is potentially bigger than the auto industry and the pharmaceutical industry combined,” Benitez explains. “We can’t do the shell game. We need to deepen the footprint across the country.”
The success of the outdoor recreation industry offices in Colorado and Utah has more states taking notice. In early 2016, Washington became the third state to establish the department and 11 more are considering similar positions, including Montana, Wyoming and Oregon. The expansion of state-level offices will undoubtedly cut into Colorado’s advantage, but Benitez contends the competition will only help Colorado as it lifts the entire outdoor recreation market. “I believe the more states we have the more of a voice we have,” he says.
As the outdoor industry becomes more entrenched at the state and national level, Benitez says it will be important for his colleagues to share their strategies to help set each other up for success. “There needs to be a willingness from all the states to build best practices,” he explains.