Boulder Valley serves as natural laboratory

BOULDER — Open space, the foothills and mountains surrounding the city of Boulder provide a natural laboratory that draws outdoor companies here, according to industry leaders.

Whether it’s creating “barefoot” running shoes such as those made by Newton Running Co. Inc. or Xero Shoes, both in Boulder, or creating boots for winter sports, such as Apex Sports Group LLC and Scarpa North America Inc., also both in Boulder, that outdoor laboratory is important.

The heads of those four companies and others participated in an Outdoor Industry CEO Roundtable on June 11 organized by the Boulder County Business Report.

“We have a super great laboratory … and it exposes people in Colorado and Denver to a little more of an insider’s view to the industry,´ said Kim Miller, chief executive of Scarpa. “(Whether) it’s watching the trends and being on the street, in the dirt, at the trail, or wherever it is that your activity happens, it’s not talking, it’s trying to listen and observe.”

Having unique “barefoot” running-shoe technology that no one else has is “a blessing and a challenge,´ said Jerry Lee, chief executive of Newton Running. Sometimes people don’t understand running-shoe technology, Lee said, which can create a challenge. In general, “barefoot”-style shoes encourage runners to use more of a forefoot strike or a mid-strike rather than a heel strike as they run.

Newton has 65 employees in Boulder and operations in Asia and Europe. Its shoes are sold in about 600 retail locations in the United States and slightly fewer than 600 other retail locations around the globe, Lee said. The company was started, in part, because of Lee’s and friend Bill Reynolds’ passion for running, Lee said.

Steven Sashen, chief executive of Feel the World Inc., doing business as Xero Shoes, was making the sandal-style shoes for friends, when he realized there might be a market for sales. Sashen said he’s sold about 45,000 pairs of shoes, mostly on the Internet.

The region is a mecca for outdoor events such as the Bolder Boulder 10K running race and bike races because of outdoor industry leaders here as well, some participants said. If the city had a conference center, it could be used to draw in more outdoor industry events, said Barry Siff, co-owner of 5430 Sports Corp., an event-management company based in Boulder.

For example, the Bolder Boulder brings in nearly $11 million annually over Memorial Day weekend every year, according to a recent economic impact study, said Cliff Bosley, race director.

Bolder Boulder race organizers also mine their database of runners for more detailed data – finding out, for instance, that 93 percent of runners this year plan to participate again next year, Bosley said.

That’s music to the ears of sponsors, Bosley said including this year’s presenting sponsor, Niwot-based shoemaker Crocs Inc., (Nasdaq: CROX). Newton Running also was a sponsor for this year’s race.

“We’re very strong in terms of sponsorships and demographic with the Denver metro market and the active lifestyle,” Bosley said. “(Sponsors) want to be part of that sweet spot, and also endurance sports.”

When it comes to popular race events, the seven-day USA Pro Challenge bike race held in Colorado every August may come back to Boulder next year, said Siff, who was a co-organizer of the volunteer group that brought the Pro Challenge to Boulder in 2012. This year, the race route will skip Boulder.

Companies such as Trek Light Gear LLC and Apex Sports Group are based in Boulder because of their owner’s passion.

Seth Haber, chief executive of Trek Light Gear, said he started out selling hammocks on the Pearl Street Mall and local events such as the Boulder Creek Festival. Haber said he continues to grow by throwing profits back into the business, while looking for more investors.

Haber said sales come when passionate customers tell others how great his hammocks are. At the GoPro Mountain Games event in Vail last weekend, numerous customers came up to his booth raving about how the hammocks are their favorite outdoor gear in the world, for example, Haber said.

“That, for me, was the best possible feedback. It’s that face-to-face, word-of-mouth interaction that works,” Haber said.

Denny Hanson, founder and president of Apex, is well-known in the ski industry for creating a rear-entry ski boot. He’s now building a snowboard-style soft inner boot that goes with an open, rigid chassis frame fitted to skis.

“A lot of my friends quit skiing, they said because their feet hurt, so I started Apex,” Hanson said. “You’ll still learn more from the consumer than you will internally, so get it out there, and accept what happens.”

The CEO Roundtable is conducted in collaboration with sponsors Ehrhardt Keefe Steiner & Hottman PC and Berg Hill Greenleaf & Ruscitti LLP, both in Boulder. Tuesday’s roundtable was held at EKS&H in downtown Boulder.

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