STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — When Smartwool announced plans to leave its founding headquarters for Denver in 2018 it left a lot of people scratching their heads. Not from the company’s merino wool, but for the conundrum it created for its workers in this thriving but remote corner of Colorado.
Cue the Clash tune: “Should I Stay Or Should I Go.”
Some followed Smartwool parent VF Corp as it consolidated all its brands in the big city. But in the end, many stayed in the mountain town they loved and fought for a new livelihood.
Credit goes to the power of place. Many people are deciding that where they live is more important than their career path.
Luckily, Steamboat is a community bustling with options. It has a well-established track record of nurturing entrepreneurs, especially in the outdoor industry. Companies like Big Agnes, Honey Stinger, Boa Technologies, Point6 and Moots all got their start here, seeding opportunities for those choosing to remain after Smartwool’s departure.
Smartwool honed sharp workers and fostered an entrepreneurial spirit, leaving an indelible mark on the outdoor business climate in the Yampa Valley. With a supportive business incubation community, chamber and mentors galore, Smartwool refugees opted to stay in the town they adored and start new companies or join others serving the outdoor and other markets. All this has enabled both the community and the workers left behind to weather the departure of an economic heavyweight.
“There are lots of fantastic former Smartwool folks in town,” says Jay Lambert, Smartwool’s former senior manager of supply and inventory planning now working for both kids outdoor apparel startup Town Hall and adventure luggage brand Eagle Creek. “And I’d say that most everyone who was impacted by the job loss from the move is doing well — finding jobs that are a good fit, starting businesses, or taking the opportunity to step back and reassess priorities. It was an emotional time and many people’s lives were temporarily upended — many, myself included, anticipated spending the rest of our careers at Smartwool. This community has opened doors we otherwise wouldn’t have explored.”
Apparel giant VF Corp. bought Timberland for $2.2 billion in 2011, bringing Smartwool under the same umbrella of brands as Vans and Jansport. In 2018, VF Corp. announced plans to relocate its headquarters to Denver, a move that included Smartwool.
It was not an easy decision for workers to choose place over pay. Smartwool paid well.
According to a Steamboat Springs Chamber analysis, the average wage Smartwool paid its 70 employees was $80,000, almost double the county’s average. This payroll also helped indirectly employ another 56 people in the county who benefited from the resulting business.
John Bristol, now executive director of the Routt County Economic Development Partnership, had Luis Benitez, the head of the governor’s outdoor recreation office, visit with county leaders and business owners the day after the Smartwool announcement that is was moving to Denver. The community wanted explanations about the $27 million incentive package the state provided to VF Corp to lure the company from North Carolina to Colorado as it sought a new headquarters for its consolidated brands.
Eventually the Colorado Economic Development Commission added Routt County to the state’s Rural Jump-Start Zone program, which offers tax breaks to incentivize rural business.
But in the wake of the announcement, economic development cheerleaders in Steamboat got busy educating Smartwool’s employees about their options.
“We put a transition plan in place to retain as many employees as possible in town,” says Bristol, who was at the time working at the Steamboat Springs Chamber at the time. The transition plan, he says, included working in partnership with Smartwool leadership to host seminars on options — such as remote work, education, state programs and how to buy or start a business.
The former employees at least had history on their side. Several other former employees had left over the years, including Smartwool founders Peter and Patty Duke, who left after it was first sold and founded sock company Point6. Former Smartwool and Point6 executive Betsy Seabert also went on to found merino wool sleepwear company Chill Angel in 2016.
“That’s what you want to facilitate,” Bristol says. “You have people who work at a bigger company like Smartwool who meanwhile are also tinkering at home on their own ideas and eventually launching out on their own. That’s what these outdoor businesses like Smartwool create; it helps avoid having all your eggs in one basket.”
The bottom line is that those who stayed did so to stay in a community they love, showing that location trumps vocation and the power of place beats out the power of a paycheck.
Here’s a snapshot of who landed where after Smartwool decamped for the Front Range.
It’s 10 a.m. on a snowy, cold winter morning in Steamboat. Robin Hall, the founder of sustainable outdoor kids clothing maker Town Hall Outdoor Co., is surrounded by kids playing in the snow. It’s her focus group, local groms field testing her apparel and giving her feedback on everything from colors to zipper styles. Come summer, some of the same kids will also become her distribution chain, delivering clothes to local retailers on bike.
“They’re great,” says Hall, who founded Town Hall after 11 years at Smartwool, most recently as its director of sustainability. “They give more honest feedback than any other field testers I’ve ever worked with.”
Starting from scratch was difficult, Hall says, especially during the pandemic, but she wanted to stay in Routt County, loved the outdoor industry and loved kids. And she had a great idea for a product line: sustainable kidswear. “Most companies have always treated kids’ gear as an afterthought, like shrinking and pinking it for women,” Hall says. “And today’s kids care about what we’re doing to the planet.”
To that end, Town Hall uses 98% recycled materials in its products, Hall says, “everything except zippers and Velcro.”
Hall got her business going with help from such state resources as the Rural Jump-Start program and says she and her co-founders, Jay Lambert and Joe Solomon, didn’t start the company to earn fast and go big. “We started it because we love this community, want to give back and keep jobs here, and help teach kids about the environment,” she says. “Not many American companies are doing pure kids play. And Steamboat is home to some 21 outdoor gear brands, so this is a hotbed of innovation, sharing and collaboration.”
Lambert also works at adventure luggage company Eagle Creek, which former Smartwool President Travis Campbell bought from VF Corp. after it announced plans to retire the brand. Former Smartwool controller Kate Burleson also works for Eagle Creek.
Campbell stayed with VF Corp. when Smartwool left, serving as general manager for The North Face’s operations in the Americas. But balancing travel obligations with his family still living in Steamboat was tough, and when the chance came to bring Eagle Creek to Steamboat, he jumped on it.
“A ton of stars aligned to make it happen,” Campbell says. “My joke is that I bought a company so I could have a job in town.”
While he admits it’s more difficult running a bag and luggage company in Steamboat than it might be in Denver, he feels the benefits outweigh the difficulties.
“Like many mountain towns, Steamboat struggles with affordable housing for workers and also availability of commercial space, both office and warehouse,” he says. “Wages need to be higher so people can live here. We’re a global business and traveling in and out of Steamboat can be both expensive and complicated. But we have a strong pool of talent here and a lot of great people spread throughout the local business ecosystem when Smartwool left. And the access to the outdoors here is awesome.”
Lambert is thankful he landed at Town Hall and Eagle Creek, joining Campbell as Eagle Creek’s first employee in September 2021 as vice president of operations and supply chain.
“I stayed for the sense of place and home for me and my family — including friends, neighbors, community; good schools, art and music scene; outdoor recreation access; and involvement in local nonprofits,” he says. “I’ve met a lot of great people during my time here and those relationships have helped.”
Eagle Creek is his full-time job while Town Hall ebbs and flows. His role in both ventures is similar, he says, “requiring a startup mindset, proactive thinking, and entrepreneurial energy.”
The experience he gained at Smartwool is invaluable for both companies.
“It provided me with a broad understanding of how a global supply chain functions, and to continue doing this work in Steamboat is fantastic,” he says. “We’re very happy with our decision to stay.”
Hanging their shingles
Others went the consulting route. Former Smartwool digital marketing manager Greer Van Dyck stayed in Steamboat with her husband, daughter and two dogs to launch Windrose Coaching, offering executive brand coaching to the outdoor industry.
“We moved here a year before I took the job at Smartwool for the slower pace, mountain environment and close proximity to what we love to do for fun,” Van Dyck says. “That choice was intentional; my husband and I never even talked about moving to Denver with Smartwool. We had lived here for about 10 years, so we were going to make it work to live out the ‘live where you love and the rest will work out’ mentality. Jobs come and go, but there’s nothing that matches loving where you live.”
As far as launching her leadership development venture, she adds it wasn’t very hard. “I was so passionate about the work that it felt like a great and fun new challenge,” she says. “I’m so happy with what I’m doing and I can’t imagine doing anything else right now. My business fills my cup and I’m grateful to be able to do it remotely.”
And like Lambert and Hall, Van Dyck’s time at Smartwool helped. “Being with Smartwool through its transition of moving to Denver hugely influenced my work now regarding organizational health, change and psychologically safe work cultures,” she says. “I was humbled by how honestly and vulnerably Smartwool navigated that difficult transition and it evoked a big passion for helping organizations with this.”
Finding other homes
Other former Smartwool employees found work elsewhere, both in town and out.
After leaving her longtime home in Steamboat to follow Smartwool and her global communications director position to Denver and, shortly later, head up corporate communications for VF Corp., Molly Cuffe succumbed to the “Yampa Valley Curse” and returned to Routt County. She is now working remotely for W.L. Gore & Associates, the creators of Gore-Tex outerwear.
Smartwool Art Director Erin Horn went on to found her own design firm. Becca Diede and Simon Fryer, who both worked in sourcing at Smartwool, found a new home at Steamboat-based Dynamic Foam, which makes custom foam and rubber insoles. Fryer serves as the company’s director of materials and product development and Diede as its operations coordinator.
Another company that benefited from Smartwool’s departure was outdoor gear maker Big Agnes, which was founded in Steamboat in 2000. Three former Smartwool employees — Eric Einfeld, Summer Muir and Tim Leroy — all landed there.
“When Smartwool left, some really talented and experienced folks decided not to move to the big city,” company founder and president Bill Gamber says. “Those who chose to stay and commit to the mountain town lifestyle were ideal candidates for us. Our company culture is rooted in mountain sports and testing gear so close to home, so finding like-minded people is true to our mission.”
The fact that they all gained experience at an outdoor brand like Smartwool was a bonus, Gamber says. “Their positions are focused on demand planning, dealer service, sourcing and sustainability — areas critical to our business as our global demand is huge right now.”
Muir said the decision to stay in Steamboat was easy, though she was nervous where she might land. Jobs with similar pay and work culture would be hard to find, but she and her family are rooted in town. “Our priorities will always be living a lifestyle we want rather than following a career or the salary that comes with it.”
She worked remotely in a similar job for a Michigan-based company for a year. “But I never was able to build any sort of connection with the brand or my co-workers,” she says. “Then a position came up with Big Agnes that fit my strengths, so I went for it. I had outdoor industry knowledge, worked for a similar department and brought some new ways of looking at things to the table.”
Honey Stinger, an energy food company founded by Gamber in 2002, also benefited from Smartwool’s departure — to the extent that some people now refer to the company as “Honeywool.”
Five former Smartwoolers have joined the company in its Steamboat headquarters at the converted Steamboat Springs airport, which, ironically, used to be Smartwool’s headquarters. “We’re a proud member of our Steamboat community and we’re fortunate to have such a great local talent pool to draw from,” Honey Stinger VP of marketing Wendy Mayo says. The new employees include Sarah Mallicote, who was hired as the company’s CFO, and Kim Kourkoules, its senior director of operations.
The power of place
For Marla Bailey, who worked for Smartwool for 14 years in four different roles, most recently as director of strategic planning, it was love of place that kept her home.
“What brought me to Steamboat in 2008 was a goal — a need, rather — to make life work in a mountain town,” she says. “I wanted to find a career that would fuel my passion for living an outdoor lifestyle without compromising earning an income. I did everything a person can do to get a foot in the door in Smartwool and the outdoor industry, and after accepting a 70% pay cut to make the change, I still look back on it as being the best career decision I ever made.”
It came down to choosing between making more money and being able to hike, bike and ski out her backdoor.
“It was never even a decision on whether I’d choose my corporate job over this amazing place I call home, a place with an ironclad community fabric,” she says. “I’ve experienced firsthand the benefits of infusing your life passions — skiing, biking, hiking, river rafting — into your work, for which I’ll forever be grateful. So, when any mountain-town business is unwilling to prioritize community and outdoor proximity as core principles to its culture, it’s the kick in the shorts to recalibrate the career — the ‘who do I want to work for and why.’”
Bailey was lucky in that during the Smartwool move, Dan Abrams, the founder of outdoor apparel maker Flylow Gear, approached her asking for part-time help in supply-chain planning. With offices in Denver, Tahoe City, California, Jackson, Wyoming, and now Steamboat Springs, Flylow embodies the mountain town life-work balance.
“Dan recognizes and values the importance of living the product that we make in its target environment. We make what we do and we do what we make,” Bailey says. “It’s as refreshing to my career as being able to escape to the mountains everyday.”
David Harms, who left Smartwool in January 2020 after 18 years, most recently as its materials manager for apparel and accessories, feels the same way. “Our family loves Steamboat — the beauty, the recreation opportunities, and the community,” says Harms, who moved to Steamboat with his wife in 2002. When Smartwool announced its move, the Harms family decided to stay in Steamboat long enough for their middle school-aged son to get through high school, even if it meant taking a different job.
With Harms’ knowledge base of merino wool textiles, it was his managers at Smartwool who convinced him to start his own consulting business.
“I was nervous as I had always been a stable paycheck kind of person and not the entrepreneurial type,” he says, “but I was also very fortunate.” In January 2020, he negotiated a consultant/contract position with the Südwolle Group, a family-owned wool yarn supplier based in Germany with spinning mills in Europe and Asia. The company supplies the yarn used in much of Smartwool’s apparel and Harms had worked with them as a customer for 15 years.
“It utilizes my expertise and keeps me in both the industry community that I love,” he says of his new role managing the Smartwool account for Südwolle. “My old manager is now my customer; it’s the same people at the table, I just sit on the opposite side now.”
The upcoming coal hole
The power-of-place argument will likely come into play in the future as the coal mines and power plants in nearby Hayden and Craig begin to shut down their operations, leaving hundreds of additional workers weighing the advantages of staying put or finding jobs elsewhere. It’s analogous to Smartwool’s departure, with one exception.
“Smartwool’s exit was announced and moved forward relatively quickly,” says Bristol, of the Routt County Economic Development Partnership. “The coal transition is on a much longer timeline, which can be both helpful and harmful. But it helps the community plan for impacts to the tax base such as sales taxes or property taxes, and it also gives workers more time to plan their next moves — which are typically to stay with the company and move, stay in town and find a new job, or leave town and the industry altogether. It’s tough choices all around regardless of if they have to be made fast or slow.”
If those in the coal-based industry are like Brie Neppl, it will be a fast decision. Neppl was with Smartwool for 14 years, most recently as its retail marketing coordinator. But the power of place easily beat out the power of a paycheck. After taking a “severance mom break” to spend more time with her two girls, now 12 and 10, she and her husband got entrepreneurial and bought the Steamboat Carpet Shoppe in 2019. They had been through the same routine before. Her husband worked for The Industrial Company when the commercial construction company packed up and moved to Denver in 2010 after being purchased by industrial giant Kiewit.
“We never contemplated moving then, either,” she says.
While she says her retail experience at Smartwool has helped in their new enterprise, one advantage she wasn’t expecting was her experience with merino wool. “It turns out we sell a lot of wool carpet,” she says. “So my experience there actually helps a lot. And with all the construction going on, it’s a good time to own a flooring store in Steamboat.”
Devon Dalzell, Smartwool’s former art director, landed a position as head of marketing and creative for Buderflys, working remotely for a Denver start-up that makes earbuds. She, along with her husband and two boys, 11 and 13, was one of the few stay-behinds who was actually on board with moving to Denver. They had been in Steamboat Springs for 20 and 30 years, respectively, and thought a change might be good.
Then the pandemic hit and caused them to re-assess.
“We were committed to moving to Denver and were willing to try something different,” she says. “But that got derailed because of COVID-19. A lot of factors weighed into it, but in the end, we realized this community is so valuable to us and it would be too much of a sacrifice. I wasn’t planning to go back to work for a company so I could have more flexibility with the kids, but then this opportunity came.”
While she enjoys the creative freedom her new position gives her, she says the community trumped all.
“It’s so hard to leave a community like this,” she says. “You just don’t build such great relationships like that in life too often.”