2005: Going Global
by Kelly BastoneTECHNOLOGY LETS STEAMBOAT COMPANIES CONDUCT BUSINESS WORLDWIDE
##image1-right-Betsy Seabert, director of international business for Steamboat-based SmartWool, checks product combinations##
Once upon a time, running an international business from a mountain town such as Steamboat Springs would have been nearly impossible. Imagine business trips via stagecoach and ship, and snail mail that really did travel just about that slowly. Even 20 years ago, a Steamboat-based global endeavor might have been almost as difficult, with conference calls on "party" lines.
But Steamboat's global business climate is far friendlier these days. With the development of various communication technologies, international industries can operate from the Yampa Valley and readily remain connected to the world of commerce.
That's why SmartWool and TIC Holdings – two companies that started in Steamboat – remain here even after growing to become global players. Sure, mountain snowstorms cause occasional travel hassles, but weather delays affect Chicago and New York, too. What those cities can't offer is Steamboat's quality of life – and that's precisely what keeps these business owners and their employees rooted in the Yampa Valley, even as their reach extends around the world.
##image2-left-Tricia Foster, Chris Hahn, and Glen Buchan meet at SmartWool##
NEW WORLD WOOL
Steamboaters Peter and Patty Duke founded SmartWool in 1994, after they'd figured out how to transform grandma's scratchy stuff into wool that didn't itch or shrink. The secret? Silky New Zealand merino wool. SmartWool socks proved to be just what the world's feet were longing for, and now the company boasts annual sales of $30 million and distributes socks and athletic clothing throughout 17 countries and the U.S. The company has become the single largest branded purchaser of New Zealand merino wool; in fact, SmartWool recently closed on a seven-year, $30 million deal that guarantees fair prices for Kiwi growers and a steady supply of the world's finest fibers for SmartWool.
The Dukes sold SmartWool to existing shareholders in 2003, but the new owners never considered relocating the company to an urban center. "We see being in Steamboat as a strategic advantage," explains Gardner Flanigan, SmartWool's communications manager. He describes Steamboat's well-educated, athletically active workforce as an important company asset. "People here are really passionate about the outdoors, and that passion is what's driven this brand from day one," Gardner says. "Plus, we get immediate product testing—everyone who works here is our customer."
SmartWool recruits the industry's best candidates from around the country. Gardner admits that while prospective employees are sometimes discouraged by the region's relatively high housing prices, the Steamboat location also acts as a screening process to ensure that those who do join the SmartWool team are truly committed to the company.
About 50 employees work from the company's Steamboat headquarters, while a handful more work from Chattanooga, Tennessee, not far from where SmartWool products are produced. To coordinate the two locations and to maintain contact with New Zealand suppliers, SmartWool operates its own e-communication just isn't as effective as face-to-face interaction, and some SmartWool employees travel 50-60 days a year. The company typically has little problem scheduling flights out of Yampa Valley Regional Airport in Hayden, but weather-related cancellations do happen, which is why some SmartWool people prefer to drive to Denver to catch their business flights. The regional air service is also more expensive. "It affects our bottom line," Gardner says. But he adds that SmartWool's mountain location enhances the company's image within the outdoor-clothing industry.
"There's also a tremendous pride among Steamboaters that this company's here," Gardner explains, describing how residents routinely buy SmartWool for out-of-town friends and family. "We make a good product, and people seem to think that makes a great town even better."
Ron McKenzie and several associates founded TIC - The Industrial Company in 1974, completing construction projects for regional mining operations before moving on to build facilities such as power plants and other industrial facilities nationwide. Today, TIC Holdings Inc. encompasses several heavy industrial contracting companies, with combined 2004 revenues of $1.1 billion. One of those companies, TIC International, won Colorado's 2004 Governor's Award for Excellence in Exporting, an honor that recognizes the positive impact this global company has on the statewide economy.
##image3-right-TIC workers consult on a project##
With clients throughout the U.S., Canada, Mexico and other parts of the world, TIC Holdings couldn't possibly choose a headquarters convenient to all of them, so Steamboat works as well as any location – and even better, if you ask company employees. "They enjoy the many recreational opportunities, the small-town atmosphere, and that it's a good place to raise children," explains Gary Bennett, corporate relations director for TIC Holdings. "There are no big-city gridlocks during our commute to work, and we drive through some of the most beautiful scenery in the world."
Transportation is one of the biggest challenges the Steamboat location presents for TIC Holdings, which employs about 180 people in its Steamboat office in addition to regional or subsidiary operations in Houston, Atlanta, Denver and other cities in the U.S., Canada and Mexico. The company relies primarily on commercial flights at the Yampa Valley Regional Airport, but also uses private air service. "There have been times when we go to Hayden only to find we have to rent a car to catch a flight in Denver," Gary recalls, "but weather happens. You do what you have to do."
The company also finds that savvy use of technology makes it less travel-dependent. By utilizing WebEx, a software program that allows individuals to examine drawings or other documents in online meetings, TIC Holdings eliminates the need for those individuals to always meet face-to-face. "From Steamboat, we can hold day-long training meetings with participants from all over the company, and it's all done remotely," Gary says. "These days, people can be in a lot of different locations and still communicate well."
With today's technology letting people work right where they play, no one at TIC Holdings or SmartWool seems eager to move away from the mountain community of Steamboat Springs.
BEYOND THE BOUNDRIES
SmartWool and TIC aren't the only Steamboat-based companies that operate beyond the boundaries of the Yampa Valley. Plenty of local businesses conduct their affairs across the country and around the world from their company headquarters in Steamboat Springs. A few of these companies include:
ACZ Laboratories – Since 1980, this environmental monitoring lab has analyzed water and soil samples for national and international clients, from Alaska to South America.
B-Wear Action Products – Bill Gamber founded his outdoor clothing company, BAP!, in 1987; later, he developed Big Agnes (camping equipment) and most recently, Honey Stinger (energy snacks). All three Gamber enterprises are based in Steamboat, with products distributed internationally.
Moots Cycles – Moots founder Kent Eriksen started building off-road bicycles shortly after pedaling into Steamboat Springs in 1975. The company has grown to become one of the world's most respected bike manufacturers, and its famous titanium frames are still built by hand right here in Steamboat.
Australia Steamboat Connection Inc. – Jacquie Lewis started her import/distribution business when she moved to Steamboat in 1993. Now with 14 employees, the company markets brands from Australia, Israel and the U.K. to American retailers like Crate and Barrel and Nordstrom.