Agnes bags big business

Steamboat outdoors company expands reach with sleeping bag made in China

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— Growing up in Pennsylvania, Bill Gamber never imagined himself pulling off business deals in Guangdong Province, China. But that was before he met Big Agnes.

Gamber is well known in Steamboat Springs business circles and among outdoor sports enthusiasts for the outdoor wear, particularly fleece, made by his company, B-Wear Action Products, or simply B.A.P. Now, Gamber and partner Brad Johnson have started a new company that is quickly becoming known outside Steamboat. The company is called "Big Agnes" after a prominent mountain peak in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area north of Steamboat.

Big Agnes has brought an innovative line of sleeping bags to market that incorporates the all-important sleeping pad into a sleeve in the bag itself the benefit is that it's virtually impossible to roll off one's pad in the night, only to wind up sleeping fitfully on cold, stony ground.

The sleeping bags and other big Agnes products are made in Guangdong Province.

Gamber, 37, credits Johnson, 50, with carrying out the "big thinking" that brought the Big Agnes bag to reality through a thoughtful business plan. He also credits his partner with giving him the courage to step off a plane in Hong Kong and step onto the boat that took him to the teeming cities of Guangdong.

"I'm a grass-roots guy," Gamber said. "Brad has the greater vision. I was just blown away by the experience of China. I wasn't the little Pennsylvania kid any more."

Gamber had owned and operated B.A.P. for 15 years before he met Johnson. He got his start selling bicycle shorts out of a trunk that he dragged around to races.

Today, B.A.P.'s headquarters, including both its sewing room and its tiny retail store, are headquartered in a funky little red house on Oak Street.

It's the kind of place you'd expect to encounter in a mountain town management is clad in hiking shorts, posters depicting extreme skiing and climbing adorn the walls and there's a perpetual bag of tortilla chips open in the lunchroom. Even if dogs aren't allowed downstairs on the retail floor, they certainly have the run of the corporate offices under the eaves of the house.

Gamber said he's determined to keep B.A.P. the way it is, a small niche company operating in a small-town environment. At the same time, he and Johnson have lofty dreams for Big Agnes. The company's sales this year their first in production are expected to reach into six figures, and the factories in China say they can crank out as many quality sewn sleeping bags as the company can sell.

Gamber and Johnson met almost by chance. Johnson had a corporate background with the giant catalog retailer, Lands End, and a talent for designing products. More recently, he worked for a manufacturer of technical outdoor clothing called First Light, which became defunct. Upon leaving the company, Johnson acquired a significant amount of unsold product.

Johnson approached Gamber and asked him if B.A.P. would be interested in helping him liquidate the unsold inventory. Gamber agreed and the sales went very well.

"I'm a businessman, whether I like to admit it or not," Gamber said almost sheepishly.

Johnson had observed other companies that had attempted to incorporate sleeping pads into sleeping bags, but both men agreed they could do it better. They used the sales of First Light products to bankroll prototypes for Big Agnes.

At first, the experience of developing quality samples to show the wholesale market was an exercise in frustration. Gamber spent four months working with one large factory that had filled contracts on behalf of several large brand names including North Face and REI. But the company's enthusiasm for filling a very small order for a fledgling company was minimal.

With the deadline approaching for a major outdoor retailers trade show last fall, Gamber and Johnson turned to a group of sewers in Grand Junction who Gamber knew had done contract sewing for another sleeping bag company. They rapidly turned out some quality product samples and the two men were on their way.

At the same show, Gamber and Johnson made appointments with representatives of factories in China that did work for the U.S. outdoor industry. They received an encouraging reception. Johnson, who had done some product sourcing on the Pacific Rim before, had to convince his partner they needed to go to China to have their products manufactured at an economic price point. Gamber says he had a strong bias to keeping manufacturing in the U.S., but his experiences with the two large factories here changed his mind. Before he knew it, he was on a fast plane to China.

He felt lost at first, and was bewildered by the Chinese way of doing things. But he felt reassured when the factory owners he met with spoke English, the result of American and Canadian educations.

Gamber has visited the factories where his products are made and is comfortable with the working conditions there. He's also impressed with the ability of the Chinese to turn out high quality work on time.

Big Agnes ordered 1,540 sleeping bags and 2,500 sleeping pads from its suppliers this year. Already, it has had to reorder sleeping bags.

"We borrowed money to get us through our first year," Gamber said. "Now we've got cash flow and it's really positive. Big Agnes sells direct through its Web site, and at one time, Gamber and Johnson considered limiting their company to direct sales. Now, they have confirmation that wholesaling will be the biggest part of their future business. "Our wholesale numbers are above our projections and the future is without a doubt in wholesale," Gamber said.

Big Agnes currently has 50 dealers and sales reps in seven different territories across the U.S. The only regions in which they currently lack representation are the mid-Atlantic states, and the southern plains states, including Texas.

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