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The team at the Big Agnes company in Steamboat Springs, led by co-owners, from left, Rich Hager, Bill Gamber, and Len Zanni, are celebrating the 20-year evolution of their camping gear brand. The company is named after the nearby 12,059-foot elevation Big Agnes Mountain in the Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — Bill Gamber, co-owner, co-founder and president of tent, sleeping bag—and now, pack—maker Big Agnes, stoops over and picks up an empty Diet Coke can from a willow bush next to the bike path, just a block away from the company’s new headquarters. It’s a small gesture, really, but one that’s symbolic of his company’s role and fondness for the community, where it’s been based since its founding 20 years ago. 

We’re on our way to the skateboard park at the city-owned Howelsen Hill ski area, where he’ll watch Fritz, the youngest of his three sons, skate the ramp while, as usual, multitasking; he might as well also use the time to host an interview. When he takes Fritz to Steamboat Springs’ bigger skate park, he “watches” him while fly fishing his beloved Yampa River. 

Such multitasking, and that of his partners Rich Hager and Len Zanni, is largely what has led the company to celebrate its 20th anniversary this year, a milestone for any outdoor gear company, let alone one that has managed to remain in a ski town all along. Over two decades, the entrepreneurs have learned the fine art of work-life balance, juggling kid shuttles with supply chain issues, recreation with R&D efforts, and personal lives with P&L statements. Throughout it all, they’ve also all continued to give back to the community they love.

As with most outdoor companies, they had their hands full during the pandemic with everything from supply and labor shortages to shipping delays. “Everything took three times longer,” Gamber said, watching Fritz grind a rail. “Something you needed in 30 days took 90. The same held for transit times shipping. We never knew where anything was.”

But buoyed by people’s pandemic-fueled drive to get outdoors, business has been booming. 

“It was by far the hardest year in our 20 years, but in a good way,” he said, adding that orders have easily doubled year to date. “Demand is huge. The thing about the pandemic is that everybody’s camping now. Even with all the wildfires, people are still camping. We have zero inventory. Everything we bring in is sold. Our warehouses are empty. It’s just fulfillment at this point.”

Flash back two decades and no one could have predicted this kind of future for a company entering a market dominated by such larger players as The North Face, Mountain Hardwear, Hilleberg, Sierra Designs and more. And Gamber and company approached it much like they might a late-night lightbulb to go climb an alpine route the next morning. 

“We didn’t really have a plan,” Gamber said. “Since we launched with a loose plan written on the back of a beer-stained napkin we can’t say we thought things would go this well or for this long.”

Indeed, they have. Since introducing its sleeping system — an inflatable pad inside a sleeping bag — Big Agnes, like the nearby mountain it’s named after, has gone nowhere but up as it builds products to help people better enjoy the outdoors. 

His business acumen is Swiss Army knife sharp and Gamber is used to starting small and taking things as they come, solving problems as he would figuring out a climbing route. Starting fleece apparel company BAP! in college at Loch Haven, Pennsylvania, selling bike shorts to fund his triathlon habit, he moved to Steamboat in 1990, where he continued BAP! while competing in Ironmans, skiing, mountain biking, working construction and guiding rock climbing. 

Borrowing a name from the nearby Mount Zirkel Wilderness Area, Big Agnes was born with a simple line of sleeping bags with pad sleeves, reducing material and weight. Inc. magazine thought the concept interesting enough that it profiled the company its first year, but the article didn’t pull any punches. “A lot of people didn’t think we would make it,” said Gamber. “They thought the market was too crowded. But we saw it as an opportunity because there wasn’t much innovation. I was eating ramen and didn’t have kids, so it didn’t matter—I didn’t have to be successful.”

The company quickly proved its naysayers wrong. It took Big Agnes only three years to win its first Backpacker magazine Editors’ Choice Award, for its Insulated Air Core sleeping pad. The company now has 12 such awards from the publication, among dozens of others from other publications —including Outside magazine’s Best Places to Work list

“We hit a point a few years into the business where our customers, retailers and gear testers were all telling us that they loved our products, and would buy them and review them favorably,” he said. “That’s when the lightbulb switched on.”

And it’s never dimmed. Joining its top-selling Copper Spur and Fly Creek tents, other milestones for the brand include the release of its award-winning mtnGLO tent line, with an integrated lighting system. It introduced a clothing line in 2015, a camp furniture line in 2019, and, this summer, a heralded backpack line, taking it into a completely new category. 

“They’re definitely the local heroes, with great brand loyalty from all our customers,” said Murray Selleck of local retailer Ski Haus, who praised the company for offering “choices covering every budget range, with something for everyone — from ultralight to sleep in the backyard.”

Big Agnes Product Developer Jesse Anderson checks dimensions of a new Fly Creek bikepacking tent at the company’s headquarters in downtown Steamboat Springs. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

The company is particularly known for ultralight backpacking tents, but they also make tents roomy enough for family outings, said Ashley Vander Meeden of Colorado retailer JAX, which has carried Big Agnes products for 15 years.

“We love working with them,” Vander Meeden said. “Being born in the mountains shows in all of their gear. “

Big Agnes moved into its new 6,500-square-foot headquarters in downtown Steamboat Springs after renovating what had been a police station. It now employs more than 70 people between this location, a local repair center, Salt Lake City distribution center and contracts with three third-party warehouses in Kamloops, B.C., Hong Kong and Rotterdam, Netherlands. It has grown into one of REI’s top camping gear vendors and is in nearly 20 international markets, with strong growth most recently in Canada, Asia and Europe.

Of course, it’s only his partners, Hager and Zanni, who know that Gamber’s likely dealing with the company’s manufacturing facility in Hong Kong while watching his son ollie at Howlie (the nickname for his beloved Howelsen Hill).    

Contributions to the community

Everything about Steamboat is beloved to the crew at Big Agnes, which has tried to bring as much to its home town as it has to consumers of camping gear.

At the Steamboat Springs Chamber’s business retention and expansion meeting with the city’s Economic Development Council in August, it reported that Big Agnes’ economic impact on the town “is likely in the $15 million to $20 million per year range,” said John Bristol, the chamber’s economic development director. “That’s considering direct employment, salaries, secondary employment, and induced employment and spending.”

The company plays “a significant role in our local economy providing good jobs and bringing in new capital into our community,” he said. 

Steamboat Springs Deputy City Manager Tom Leeson agreed, calling Big Agnes a “powerful partner” and a leader in conservation efforts in the city.

He was referring to the company’s recent commitment to using 100% renewable energy to power its new headquarters and local repair center, where it has partnered with the city to purchase renewable energy from local utility provider Yampa Valley Electric Association through its Green Choice Program. 

The company’s owners and many of its employees volunteer for or serve on the boards of local nonprofits, from the United Way and Rocky Mountain Youth Corps to the newly established Yampa River Fund. Zanni recently joined the Colorado Outdoor Partnership steering committee and serves on Colorado’s Outdoor Recreation Industry Office (OREC) advisory council, along with Gamber, as well as the Routt County Recreation Roundtable. He’s also a former Colorado Fourteeners Initiative board member.

“Our management team, and all of our employees, are pretty involved in the community,” Gamber said. 

None of this is lost on the city. 

“To those of us living here, the folks at Big Agnes are our family, friends and neighbors,” Bristol said. “The community here loves Big Agnes and they reciprocate by embracing the community philanthropically, through volunteerism and community leadership. Outdoor gear companies like Big Agnes make our community more sustainable in the long run by diversifying our economy, providing quality jobs, and being socially and environmentally responsible.”

Staying in town

For Big Agnes, part of that responsibility is remaining in the town its founders and employees love. With its success, the company has become a bit of an anomaly in today’s profit-at-all-costs business world, steadfastly remaining in its mountain-based hometown despite the allure of a corporate sale or being able to run it more cost-effectively elsewhere.

Countless other companies in mountain towns have succumbed, moving onto greener, bigger city pastures. And Steamboat hasn’t been immune to this migration. The most recent casualty: Steamboat-founded Smartwool, which, after being purchased by apparel giant VF Corp. in 2011, finished its move to Denver last year. Smartwool now is under the same umbrella of such brands as The North Face, Vans and Jansport. The company made a parting gift to town of a new chairlift for the Howelsen Hill Ski Area.

“I think the town lost a big chunk of that with Smartwool leaving,” said Gamber, whose company picked up a few specialty employees who chose not to relocate. “It was also a big hit to the local economy.”

The “greener pastures” tendency surfaced well before Smartwool’s move. Whitewater kayak manufacturer Wave Sport, which was founded in Steamboat in 1986, moved to Greenville, South Carolina, after selling to Confluence Watersports in 1999. BOA Technologies, a shoelace-replacing ratcheting system founded by Steamboat’s Gary Hammerslag in 2001, moved to Denver before selling to Connecticut-based Compass Diversified Holdings for $454 million, one of the largest deals ever for a Colorado outdoors brand.

Gamber doesn’t see that happening  to Big Agnes anytime soon—even though it came close to that with Honey Stinger, another company he founded in Steamboat. Just two years after launching Big Agnes, Gamber, whose family is in the honey business back in Pennsylvania, co-founded the energy food company—with his father, Bill Gamber Sr., Bob Stahl and John Miller— and led its meteoric rise as well. 

In 2018, Honey Stinger did an investment deal with Factory, a private equity firm in Pennsylvania that specializes in consumer packaged goods. But the company stayed in Steamboat, largely due to the availability of Smartwool’s former headquarters at the former Steamboat Springs Airport terminal. 

“With both Honey Stinger and Big Agnes, we were at a point where we definitely needed some support,” Gamber said. “So, we brought in an investor for Honey Stinger and now everyone here at Big Agnes has fully separated from company operations. Thankfully, the current group running Honey Stinger sees the benefit of being here, which is great.”

There’s a bit of pride at play as well for Gamber being able to keep Big Agnes in Steamboat Springs — both of ownership and of being able to stay in his favorite mountain playground. “It’s super important for us to be here,” he said. “It’s who we are. The outdoor industry was started by companies like ours. When we got into it, a lot of outdoor brands were starting to go corporate and were moving out of the towns where they were founded. When you get the money people involved they try to make the business more profitable, which often means moving. We’ve proven you can make a profitable business in a mountain town.”

While Steamboat’s small-town community and atmosphere, as well as its access to the outdoors for testing grounds, are some of its biggest amenities, it also has pretty much everything else the company needs, from broadband capabilities to shipping infrastructure. 

In 2020, Big Agnes turned the former police station in downtown Steamboat Springs into its new company headquarters. (Matt Stensland, Special to The Colorado Sun)

“Even though we’ve grown, in a way running a company like this here is way easier now 20 years later than it was at the beginning,” Gamber said. “With the internet we have easier connection with our manufacturers, and the efficiencies of running a business in a mountain town have gotten better. COVID has also helped, as it’s made us come up with even better ways to communicate with our manufacturers. And we only have a few folks working remotely because they all want to be here.”

Still, there are a few drawbacks. Warehouse space is hard to come by, as is space large enough to be headquarters with 45 or so people. Travel, affordable housing and labor are also big issues, he said. 

“The more our business has grown, the harder it’s become to hire people with relevant experience, many of whom aren’t from Steamboat,” he said. “At the same time, here you can find bartenders with master’s degrees.”

Housing is perhaps an even bigger hurdle. Big Agnes is currently looking to hire a product design director and found one, Gamber said, but the candidate can’t find affordable housing. “He was super psyched to come here, but there’s just no housing,” Gamber said. “Professionals like that are looking to buy a place, which is hard here.”

Sustainability efforts on the rise

While the company can’t control those issues, it is putting its best foot forward when it comes to sustainability and preserving the environment. 

Its most recent innovations include a new line of solution-dyed fabrics tents, reducing water consumption by 50% and energy and chemical use by 80%; introducing 100% recycled insulation on many of its sleeping bags; and using new TwisterCane closed-cell foam, made partly from Brazilian sugarcane fiber, for its sleeping pads—all in an effort to reduce energy, wastewater and chemicals.

“We’ve been focused on incorporating more sustainable materials into our products for years, but this year marks a big change,” Gamber said. “We’re thinking about sustainability holistically – from where and how materials are made to what they’re packaged and shipped in. There are a lot more sustainable materials available now, so it’s an exciting time to be in the outdoor industry.” 

The company also joined the Outdoor Industry Association’s Climate Action Corps to help address climate issues and sustainability; is donating a portion of sales from its new chair prints to conservation organizations; adopted 75 miles of the Continental Divide Trail; and recently committed to using 100% renewable energy to power each of its three U.S. facilities, including its headquarters.

“Conservation and stewardship are very important to us,” he added. “It’s our responsibility to help protect and maintain the areas that campers are using. It’s a full-circle thought process – we need public lands that are maintained and protected for our customers to get out and use. We pride ourselves on walking the walk.”

The trail ahead

Despite pandemic pressures, the company hasn’t let up on product development, Gamber said.

Earlier this year Big Agnes introduced the Sidewinder SL and Camp sleeping bags, designed for side sleepers with a long, ambidextrous zipper that stays out of the way when rolling from side to side—products that won both Outside and Backpacker Magazine’s Editors’ Choice awards. It’s also reintroducing its first sleeping bag, the Lost Ranger, as well as the women’s Roxy Ann bag, with new three- or four-season versatility as either a summer bag or system. 

Bill Gamber, left, Rich Hager and Len Zanni, the owners of Big Agnes, fish the Upper Colorado River below State Bridge in June. (Eugene Buchanan, Special to The Colorado Sun)

In August it introduced a line of six technical backpacks, a first for the brand. With an all-new suspension and compression systems. The packs are made from 100% recycled nylon fabric. Each comes with a “Trash Can” accessory, aimed at reducing litter on public lands.

“It’s a big deal for us getting into packs,” Gamber said. “We have unique technology and experience on our R&D team and we’ve talked about it for years, but we didn’t want to just do it; we wanted to do it right, applying everything we’ve learned over our 20 years.”

So while he’s sure there will continue to be bumps on the trail ahead, the company is showing no signs of slowing down—or leaving its beloved Steamboat.

“We’ve had plenty of inquiries in the company over the years,” Gamber said. “There’s tons of interest, especially now that camping and outdoor recreation are so popular. But we’re pretty happy with the way things are. We make killer product and run a great business—and, frankly, are just too busy to think about anything else. We have learned a lot over the years and realize we have it pretty good.” 

The company’s milestone year was made possible by “crazy determination mixed in with some luck,” but that alone doesn’t explain its success, Gamber said. “As entrepreneurs we’ve learned that you need to keep your finger on the pulse of the business and pay attention to details but keep it fun at the same time.”

To that end, he watches Fritz grind one last coping rail at the top of the ramp before skating over. This weekend, he’ll take him up to Vedauwoo in Wyoming to go rock climbing. For now, however, even though it’s mid-July, Fritz has plans to soar high like his dad’s company. He has to skateboard over to the Howelsen lodge to wax his Nordic jumping skis for a grass-training session with the Steamboat Spring Winter Sports Club.

At just 10 years old, today is the first day he gets to jump the 70-meter—which is why he’s wearing his lucky pink flamingo long underwear and silver chain necklace. (His older brother, Bennett, a former member of the USA Nordic Team, had to give up jumping after suffering one too many concussions). 

Luckily, Fritz wears a bright orange helmet, so Gamber can simply look out the window of his office across the river downtown and see when he’s jumping. More multi-tasking — even if he has his manufacturer in the Philippines on the line.

“I just look for his helmet,” he said of his skateboarding and ski jumping son, who seems to be paralleling Big Agnes’s path, grinding it out and taking big leaps, but never getting in over his head. “I can see him making his way up to the start, getting ready to go and then jumping.”

Eugene Buchanan is an award-winning author, speaker, editor and reporter based in Steamboat Springs with more than 30 years of experience in the newspaper and magazine industry.
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