Schaefer Outfitter finds a home in Steamboat

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— Schaefer Outfitter was always meant to be based in Steamboat Springs. Now the wholesaler of rugged clothing for cowboys and cowgirls has returned to the Yampa Valley.

Eighteen months ago Rick and Lynn Grant acquired the company that had its earliest beginnings here and relocated from Golden to a modest suite of offices and a small warehouse in the Copper Ridge business park. Schaefer Outfitter designs and wholesales a tight line of leather-trimmed canvas jackets and dusters, wool vests and classic western shirts in denim and brushed twill. All of the garments are American made, custom ordered from sewing factories in Texas and Colorado.

"It's tough maintaining that "Made in the U.S.A." label, but I'm not supporting imports," Schaefer said.

Schaefer Outfitter had its genesis in Steamboat Springs in the late 1970s by a different name. Rocky Mountain Featherbed was a local institution with its down vest for skiers that featured a full leather western yoke. That was an era when

the ski instructors at Mount Werner still wore cowboy hats, and the vests were part of the local scene.

Founder Cub Schaefer moved to Jackson, Wyo., and established Schaefer Outfitter. The young company hit a growth spurt in the 1980s when full-length western dusters became outrageously popular among urban cowboys.

When the company fell on hard times a group of investors based in Steamboat and Houston purchased it from a bank in Idaho and brought it to Steamboat under the umbrella of the successful Soda Creek brand.

Grant was hired to come to Steamboat to redesign the Soda Creek catalogue and was subsequently hired to rejuvenate the Schaefer Outfitter brand in 1990.

"I was starting from scratch, but we gradually ramped it up," Grant said.

Grant gave the company some fresh momentum with new marketing collaterals, and Schaefer improved its track record with retailers by filling orders more dependably. But the line still wasn't over the top.

"The overhead was high and we weren't selling enough to create positive cash flow," Grant said.

He left the company in 1995 and went to work for the Australian Outback Collection based in Evergreen for two years.

When he left that company, he vowed he would always work for himself in the future.

Rick and Lynn formed a company with the unassuming name of IFX Apparel, Inc., and began marketing western apparel and embroidered western style ball caps to special event promoters.

They provided custom embroidered "turnkey" products like vests and jackets to companies associated with the National Finals Rodeo, Cheyenne Frontier Days and the National Western Stock Show. For example, the Gold Coast Hotel and Casino in Las Vegas has relied on IFX to provide it with a custom vest for the National Finals Rodeo for almost a decade.

"It's a major impact on our business," Grant said.

The Grants were approached 18 months ago to buy Schaefer Outfitter. Rick was ready to make the move and felt certain some strategic moves would turn the company around.

"To this day, I still underestimate the strength of the brand name. It's amazing," Grant said.

"But hey, we were losing their identity in a tough market. The line was too big to fill the demand even if it did happen. When you don't deliver on time, orders get canceled, and you don't get the benefit of reorders."

Rick and Lynn's plans involved trimming the line to its core of cowboy outerwear and vests, then focusing intently on serving their wholesale customers. Rick was determined to improve business practices so that when customers placed orders, they would be promptly filled.

He calls it, "filling the pipeline."

"The brand is 20 years old," Grant said, "but the pipeline was never filled."

Grant is breaking with the traditions of the apparel industry to achieve his goal. To understand, it's necessary to learn some of the lingo of the business.

When apparel wholesalers place an order for a shipment from the factory they say they are making a "cut." It's a reference to cutting fabric.

The rule of thumb within the industry is that on average you cut a specific garment three times in a year.

Grant is aiming for much higher turnover, cutting some of the items in his product line up to eight times a year. By making smaller cuts, he is able to be more responsive to shifting demand for certain products.

Grant's strategy is in part an adaptation to a shift in the landscape of the western apparel business.

"In the old days you could count on doing one third of your business at the markets," he said. "In the last few years that's changed dramatically."

No longer can businesses like Schaefer fill large orders at major buying shows, then multiply times three to project annual sales. Instead, they have to be ready when buyers place smaller orders.

"My approach to product is my approach for the first time," Grant said. "Apparel is a tough business. You have to be responsive to sales. We cut year around. Turns are the key."

The Grants are running a three-person company. Together with one employee, they perform all of the functions of a national apparel company.

Lynn tracks finances and orders and Rick designs products and does the marketing. He pays careful attention to the production of catalogs and print ads.

The company has relied for many years on the work of local photographer Dave Holloway to establish Schaefer's brand identity.

The Grants believe their clothing line can achieve modest growth over the coming years and Steamboat is the perfect place to establish the credibility of a line of cowboy clothing.

"Routt County is a melting pot of equine, ranching and destination resort communities all in one," Grant said.

"These surroundings create a perfect environment for product development and marketing of new styles."


To reach Tom Ross call 871-4210 or

e-mail tross@steamboatpilot.com

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