OtterBox profits in providing protection

Fort Collins – Since 1995, Curt Richardson has been all about selling protection.

The founder and CEO of OtterBox understands how fragile personal electronic devices can be, and how attached their owners become to them.

Upon this knowledge he has built a $350 million (revenue) juggernaut, ranking No. 1 on the Mercury 100 list this year among companies with more than $19 million in revenue.

OtterBox reported revenue growth of 106 percent over 2010 and now employees 400 people compared to 257 last year. If its LinkedIn account is any indication (and it is), it is still very much in hiring mode. For a large company just emerging from a nasty recession, those are impressive numbers indeed.

But OtterBox has demonstrated a genius for targeting emerging products.

Today it offers a dizzying array of protective cases for mobile devices. All the biggies are covered: Apple’s iPhone and iPad, Blackberrys, Motorola,Nokia, Dell, HTC — as well as many more.

OtterBox’s ability to jump on the Next Big Thing has kept it out in front of the competition, and its near legendary warranty policy has won it loyal customers who will purchase nothing else. Forums and chat rooms devoted to PDA protective devices heap praise upon the company’s product design and its customer-centric warranty fulfillment.

Richardson’s tireless pursuit of emerging markets and his constant push to create new and better solutions continues to drive OtterBox.

Although he was officially recognized as a regional Entrepreneur of the Year winner by Ernst & Young last year, it is the success of OtterBox itself that offers the most compelling tribute to his product development and marketing insight.

When Richardson first entered the electronic device protection business in 1995, he did so while simultaneously continuing to run a viable custom manufacturing business.

But, as he told Inc. magazine last fall, he felt his products were too closely tied to the fortunes of his major customers. With personal electronic devices burgeoning, he envisioned a business that could tap into the much broader consumer market.

His first device was a waterproof case for electronic devices used by water sports enthusiasts. The marketplace responded with modest enthusiasm, so he officially launched OtterBox in 1998. And as PDAs began to spin out of Apple and its competitors, Richardson jumped in.

The iPod took OtterBox to a whole new level when it appeared in 2001. Richardson quickly unveiled a line of protective cases for the device, and OtterBox was truly off and running. As the mobile device market exploded, OtterBox kept pace with newer and better solutions. Although not the least expensive protective case maker in the marketplace, OtterBox has earned the reputation as “worth the extra money” from those who prize the integrity of their PDAs.

From an operations point, OtterBox has made several critical decisions that proved highly beneficial. Among them was Richardson’s call early on to outsource the manufacture of OtterBox devices. That freed up staff to focus on design and product marketing, greatly reducing overhead and adding flexibility on the manufacturing side. The company’s R&D department has been bulked up in another measure taken to stay ahead of the pack. Next on the agenda: global expansion, with particular focus on the explosive Pacific Rim markets.

But there’s perhaps nothing more critical to OtterBox’s continued success than accurately assessing the prospects of emerging products. Richardson’s team scored once again when it took a calculated risk and dove into production for accessories for the just-released iPad two years ago. Though admittedly that decision was somewhat risky, Richardson’s instincts were correct. Soon after, the company pulled out of the iPod market after determining that margins there were too slim compared to those in other mobile segments.

Two internal challenges as growth explodes are keeping up with demand and continuing to provide quality customer service, OtterBox President Brian Thomas told the Business Report.

“The more product you sell, the more customers you have to talk to about that product,” he said.

“Our goal is to maximize our value in that market need,” Thomas said.

OtterBox has not ignored its community as its fortunes have ascended.

In 2010, Richardson and wife Nancy (who came up with the OtterBox moniker) launched the OtterCares Foundation. Its mission is to invest in the community “by educating and empowering youth towards positive growth.”

If OtterBox keeps up its current positive growth pace, Northern Colorado can anticipate substantial philanthropic support from the Richardsons in the years ahead.