Our View: Smart wool, wise moves
July 2, 2011
When the sale of Steamboat Springs-based Merino wool clothing company SmartWool to Timberland was announced in 2005, a small rumble of dread went through the community.
The company was doing $40 million in sales in 2005 and adding talented young veterans of the clothing industry to its workforce. Timberland was based in a small city in New Hampshire but had a global presence with offices in London and Asia. Would it really keep its new acquisition in a remote ski town?
Six years later, we can say that the answer was "yes," and if anything, the 65 jobs at SmartWool have become even more important to the local economy during that time.
Now an even larger company, VF Corp., has acquired Timberland as part of a $2.2 billion deal. So it was especially good news to learn last week that the city of Steamboat Springs and SmartWool officials are continuing talks, not just on a new long-term lease at the city's airport, but also on providing more room for the company to grow here.
Officials of Timberland, VF Corp. and SmartWool have been careful to say that it's too early to comment definitively on the future of the company. But the fact that city officials and SmartWool have a long-standing business relationship is reassuring.
SmartWool and Steamboat are a good fit. Call it brand synergy. Steamboat's outdoorsy population epitomizes SmartWool's ideal customer base. And our lifestyle that affords noontime cycling, Nordic skiing and fly-fishing sessions helps attract the young professionals who help SmartWool grow.
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But the mutual benefits go beyond a nice payroll that turns over in the local economy. Visit the SmartWool website, click on "history" and you'll see an image of the iconic More Barn in front of the slopes of Steamboat Ski Area. Click the "partners" link and you can jump straight to the ski area's website.
Steamboat's brand is amplifying that of SmartWool, and vice versa.
Throughout the years, SmartWool's lease payments have helped the city carry the bonded indebtedness on the former airport terminal that recently was retired.
Ultimately, we can't ensure that the company will continue to base its top executives in Steamboat. But we can remind ourselves that SmartWool, founded in 1994 by Peter and Patty Duke, is homegrown, like a number of smaller outdoor companies still prospering in Steamboat and contributing to the economy.
The Dukes moved on years ago and have started their own outdoor sock company, Point6. Add that name to the list of outdoor companies incubated right here that includes Spiffy Dog Pet Products, Kent Eriksen Cycles, Moots Cycles, Honey Stinger honey-based nutritional foods, and Big Agnes tents, sleeping pads and bags.
All of those companies represent valuable jobs in a time of high unemployment. And all of them have taken years to develop.
Although our city leaders are wisely intent on negotiating a new lease with SmartWool, we'd do well to touch base with the principals at those other companies to ask how we can help them grow.
Next on the list: let's ask ourselves if the next homegrown business success story is already in the pipeline and how we can identify and nurture it.