Boulder sports new travel gear manufacturer

BOULDER ? Sea to Summit USA, a Boulder-based manufacturer of backpacking and travel accessories, is on track for another year of hot-paced sales, on top of triple-digit growth in 2004.

Shelley Dunbar, co-principal of the company with husband, Andrew, attributes the company?s skyrocketing growth to an expanding network of dealers and an increase in the number of products sold through existing accounts.

She admits the company?s success so far has been beyond their ?wildest dreams.?

During the last 12 months, the company?s unit sales have exceeded 110,000. Sea to Summit offers more than 200 items through about 250 dealers at 600 stores, and Shelley adds that the company plans to introduce about a dozen new products each year.

U.S. distribution of Sea to Summit, a company based in Australia, began in 1998. The business is named after a ?sea to summit? expedition made by Australian alpinist Tim Macartney-Snape in 1990. Macartney-Snape, a company founder, climbed Mount Everest solo, traveling on foot from the Bay of Bengal in India to reach the summit.

After the expedition, Macartney-Snape joined forces with climbing friend Roland Tyson to build a business that made use of their knowledge of the outdoors to create outdoor equipment.

During the mid-1990s, Australian Andrew Dunbar, who is climbing partners with Tyson, was working at the Sea to Summit booth at an outdoor retailer trade show in Australia when he met Shelley, an American representing Verve, a climbing clothing manufacturer. The two started to date and later married. When the couple decided to settle in the United States, Andrew brainstormed about jobs he could do in America, and approached his friends about becoming a distributor for Sea to Summit in the states.

They started the company in Boulder with a line of silk and cotton sleeping bag liners. Shelley admits that it wasn?t much of a living, so she continued to represent outdoor companies to keep the couple afloat. In less than a year, they moved the business to Las Vegas so she could augment their income as a sales rep for Petzl and La Sportiva, which manufacture headlamps and footwear, respectively.

Sea to Summit eventually expanded its line to include stuff sacks, pack covers, microfiber towels and other accessories. By 2000, the company signed Eastern Mountain Sports as a dealer and achieved its first profitable year. In 2002, Sea to Summit sold 12,000 units. A year later, they nearly tripled this number with 35,000 units sold.

By 2003, Sea to Summit products were available through 100 dealers in about 250 retail stores. In 2004, the company added REI to its dealer roster and increased its total number of dealers to 200 with 500 retail stores.

At the end of 2004, they relocated the company?s headquarters to Boulder after deciding that Sea to Summit was successful enough for Shelley to leave her rep job. Although the couple considered other locations in California, Arizona and Oregon, Shelley says they chose Boulder for numerous reasons, including availability of affordable warehouse space. The company?s current warehouse is 4,200 square feet, up from its 2,300-square-foot Las Vegas facility.

According to the Boulder-based Outdoor Industry Association, one of Sea to Summit?s key markets is experiencing a decline in participation. The association reports that the number of backpackers has decreased from 13.6 million in 2003 to 13.3 million in 2004.

Yet, Michael Lee, the association?s marketing and communications manager, says the core group of the sport, who backpack about seven times a year, has remained constant at 1.8 million during the past two years.

?(Manufacturers) want to pay attention to the core backpackers because they are the ones who are constantly buying new products,? he says. And for that core group, accessories remain big business.

The association reports that pack accessories at chain stores generated sales of $51.5 million from Aug. 31, 2004, to Jan. 31, 2005. Specialty stores sold an additional $51.6 million in pack accessories during the same period.

In upcoming years, Sea to Summit has plans to acquire a greater slice of this multimillion-dollar market. Shelley says the company seeks to become one of the top three players for travel and backpacking accessories, although she is uncertain how long it will take to reach this goal.

?We believe that we?re on the right track,? she says. ?The main thing is to stick with our formula: being true business partners with our customers; help them make a profit; be a personable, fair and easy company for our customers to work with; and don?t stand still in terms of product and the merchandising to go with it.?

Sea to Summit currently has four employees, including the Dunbars, and eight independent sales representatives, located throughout the country.