The Struggle To Stay American Made

Bozeman Backpack Company Opts Not to Outsource

TALK TO THE FOLKS at Mystery Ranch Backpacks for a few minutes and you’ll know where their target market lies.

“Basically, we build tools as opposed to toys,” says Dana Gleason, who, along with Renee Sippel-Baker, founded Mystery Ranch in 2000. Headquartered in the sprawling outdoor hub of Bozeman,Montana,Mystery Ranch is one of the leading backpack companies that manufactures in the United States.

The company sells a fair amount of packs to your average weekend warrior, but their biggest buyers are those who need high-volume, technical packs that can handle heavy loads. Hunters (who often need to haul out 150 pound loads after kills), mountaineers and backcountry skiers all fit the bill. According to Andrew Crow, a Mystery Ranch employee, Gleason’s pack designs excel at keeping weight on the hips and off the back, largely due to the company’s patented straight-frame system (in contrast to shaped internal frames that distort with weight). Mystery Ranch is not on the ultralight bandwagon, a subtle criticism of which seems to run in the company’s blood. Performance and durability are a priority over ounces.

In 1985, Gleason and Sippel-Baker were coowners of Dana Design, the well-known predecessor of Mystery Ranch. The company was successful and sales reached $6 million a year, but the founders sold the name to K2 Corporation in 1995. With the K2 sale came more growth, but Gleason’s heart wasn’t completely in tune with the new direction that things went, and he parted ways with K2 after four years.

“The only thing I regret is not being more of a cast-iron son-of-a-bitch with K2 in the early years,” Gleason said. But a year later he was back in charge, starting up Mystery Ranch with Sippel-Baker. The young company had its growing pains, most notably the need to outsource production overseas, an event Gleason calls “a real pain in the ass, but an educational pain in the ass.” In 2002 the company received a great reason to terminate its outsourcing contracts and return production to Montana: a big U.S. military order. The Navy SEALS, who had experimented with a Dana Design pack in the early 1990’s, contacted Mystery Ranch and had Gleason design a prototype. The SEALS approved it and made a massive order for “Big D’s Special Blend” (complete with a coating that cannot be detected by infrared). Regulations require federal military gear to be manufactured in the U.S., something many American outdoor gear companies, such as Liberty Lake’s Intergral Designs, have benefitted from.

The SEALS order stands out in the minds of a crew that loves taking part in production. “Everyone that works here sits down at a sewing machine every day,” said Andrew Crow, a Mystery Ranch employee.

Gleason’s entrepreneurship was not inspired as much as a vision for huge profit but from a desire to build quality gear. Three decades ago, after one year of community college, he left Boston and hitchhiked to the Rockies, climbing and skiing along the way. One day he caught a lift from the owner of a chain of outdoor stores, and the ride became a job.

Somewhere along the way, his wife taught him to sew, and by 1975 Gleason had started Kletterwerks, his first company, in downtown Bozeman. Sippel-Baker joined him shortly thereafter, providing the “pragmatism and business management abilities” that Gleason lacked, according to Crow. Gleason’s Christian name still imprints packs in retails stores across the country, but he no longer feels connected to the company that has shrunk to be smaller than his up-and-coming Mystery Ranch. According to Crow, business is nearly doubling by the year, and the company faces the only half-bad problem of keeping up with demand without taking production overseas again.

Their solution is to stop selling to retail stores by the end of the year in favor of only selling directly to customers via phone, internet, and their Bozeman showroom, channels where their margins are roughly twice that of wholesale. By retreating from wholesaling their packs the company is taking a gamble that they can find a direct-sale home for every pack they have the capacity to make.

The packs are not selling well enough in retail stores, where specialized gear is not what customers are looking for, Crow said. Apparently folks in Spokane are a little different, however, as Mountain Goat is one of the top two retailers for Mystery Ranch in the country. The packs have sold well in Spokane because of a large population of backpackers and skiers who find the packs to be very “sport specific,” said Matt Cuseck, a clerk at Mountain Goat. Mountain Goats plans to replace the Mystery Ranch with a new line, that they are confident will please Mystery Ranch fans. Mystery Ranch’s direct-sale approach carries risks. They will have to market their product differently to compensate for their lack of presence in stores and they might find it dificult to ever go back to retail outlets after pulling their line, a move that’s likely to alienate some store owners. But if they pull it off they just might create a different business model for American outdoor gear makers.

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