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The C-Spot | Smartwool’s new president, Travis Campbell

Smartwool's president, Travis Campbell, talks about the big industry challenges, Smartwool's commitment to New Zealand-sourced wool, gender balance at the company, supporting specialty retail, and what his company can do better.

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Photo shows Travis Campbell fly-fishing. Campell is the board chair of the Outdoor Industry Association and general manager of The North Face,…
Smartwool presidentTravis Campbell lands a big on the Dean River in British Columbia.Courtesy

In January 2017, Travis Campbell took the steering wheel at Smartwool following Mark Satkiewicz’s abrupt departure. Prior to the move, Campbell served as the president and CEO of Far Bank Enterprises, an integrated manufacturer and distributor of fly fishing produces and owner of Sage, Redington, and RIO brands. He has served on the board of directors of the Outdoor Industry Association (OIA) since 2010.

Campbell has kept a low profile since moving to Smartwool, and this is his first interview since taking the job.

SNEWS Tell us about your career and what led you to and prepared you for this position with SmartWool?

Travis Campbell I appreciate that your question assumes I am prepared for this position! I spent the last 16 years working in the fly fishing industry where I helped build one industry leading brand, Sage, into a collection of three industry leading brands. It was my first exposure to the Outdoor industry and the magic of working in an industry where you get to combine your personal and professional passions. It was a great company, with great employees, and great owners and I will forever feel fortunate for my time there. About 7 or 8 years ago I was asked to join the OIA board of directors and that move brought me closer into what I would call the “core” of the traditional Outdoor market and gave me great exposure to other leaders in the space and more broadly the opportunities and risks facing the industry. When I started thinking about the next chapter in my career, I wanted to stay in Outdoor and find a similarly great company to work for but with more scale so I could continue to grow and learn. Smartwool proved to be that place and had the added benefit of being based in Steamboat Springs, CO, a place where all the outdoor things my family enjoys are right at our doorstep.

SNEWS As an OIA board member, what do you feel is the biggest challenge our industry faces today?

TC It’s unfortunately a pretty big list of challenges we are facing right now and my answer depends a bit on whether we are talking short term or long term. I’m guessing most people that will read this know many of the shorter term challenges so I’ll highlight a longer term participation issue that is being driven by societal and demographic shifts.

Our population is becoming increasingly urban and increasingly diverse and I’m not sure the traditional brands and retailers that we think of as the “industry” today are keeping up with the challenge of shifting to serve the needs and interests of those potential consumers. As an industry, and an industry association, we need to be making sure we understand the changes that are coming and adjust our businesses accordingly. I believe that will mean redefining what Outdoor means, making sure we advocate for the types of Outdoor experiences and infrastructure those consumers will want (like parks in cities in addition to wilderness), and making sure our businesses hire more diverse employees such that our products and services continue to resonate strongly in the market of the future.

SNEWS We are exploring the American wool industry this month in a series of articles. It’s a fascinating industry. Where does Smartwool come from, and do you feel that it’s important for American companies to support American supply and manufacturing?

TC Smartwool sources its Merino wool from New Zealand and we built out that relationship from the very start of the business because at the time that was the only location to get the quality and quantity of fiber we needed. As with any partnership, we look at three key things in determining where we do business: a very high level partnership that delivers a premium fiber in the we need at a commercially viable and, in the case of wool, with the animal welfare standards that we demand.

We are fully in favor of the development of a robust American Merino supply chain and would definitely be interested in continuing to help that develop. Our wool suppliers in New Zealand have been great partners with us for a lot of years, however, so it’s important to note that we would want to grow the American supply chain without diminishing our support for our current suppliers. Because the global demand for wool continues to grow I think that opportunity exists.

SNEWS What is your leadership style?

TC I think it’s pretty straightforward. I try to hire really smart and motivated people, get alignment on our core priorities, and then let them go do their work. I’m here to coach and/or help if they need me and try to make sure I’m available and approachable to anyone in our organization.

SNEWS What is your vision for SmartWool?

TC At a cultural level we need to transform ourselves to a consumer driven apparel-first company. More specifically, I believe we have the opportunity to create the next big outdoor lifestyle brand but as importantly I think Smartwool can be another great example of a for-profit entity can be strong economically and also do good in the world.

SNEWS What opportunities do you see for SmartWool?

TC Our biggest category opportunity is in apparel and I think we are bringing innovation in fabrics and design into this space in a really unique way. We are just getting started with telling our apparel story and we are seeing great results as we put investment behind it. We are a strong brand in traditional outdoor communities but we also have lots of opportunity to grow all of our categories in many markets both domestically and internationally just by increasing our brand awareness.

SNEWS Is there something specific you think SmartWool can improve on? If so, what’s your plan of action?

TC This may sound a little trite but I think we could do a better job of telling our story and perhaps singing our praises a bit more. We have humility as one of our core values and I wonder if we haven’t taken it a bit too far. What I mean by this is we are almost shy about telling people about all the good work our team does – everything from improvements in supply chain to employees giving back. These aren’t things that the Brand has typically promoted loudly. that more and more our consumers are telling us they want to be doing business with companies that operate with a sustainability mindsight, and with a great deal of transparency, and an eye toward doing good rather than just making profits. The great news for Smartwool is that we’ve been doing all those things for years but we just haven’t spent much time telling anyone about it. To succeed in the future we have to get better at telling our brand story and telling it more broadly.

SNEWS Your predecessor, Mark Satkiewicz, left behind a legacy of supporting women and creating a gender-balanced culture at SmartWool. Is this a priority for you, and if so how will you follow suit?

TC Mark was a really strong leader and equality mattered a lot to him. I’d like to think that I can take his legacy and build on it such that Smartwool remains an employer of choice for the best and the brightest that want to work in this industry. I will also say that as the outdoor consumer continues to diversify, we need to have our companies equally as diversified or we are going to have a hard time resonating with the customer of the future. It’s as much about self-interest as it is doing the right thing.

SNEWS SmartWool started as a sock company about 20 years ago and has grown to a full-blown apparel brand with recent expansion into “hook and bullet.” Are there plans to expand into new categories under your leadership and as a company how do you diversify while still staying true to your core?

TC One of the good and bad things about starting as a sock company is that we have broad distribution because people buy great socks in lots of places. We’ve actually sold into the fish and hunt sector for years but we realized that no one had ever created an ultra-high performance hunting sock before so we launched that this year and we are excited to see how it resonates. In terms of other category extensions, I believe we have immense opportunity in our core categories when you look on a global basis and so I see us trying to maximize those opportunities before we push into new categories. We will stay true to our core by deeply understanding our core consumer and making sure our product, and where it is distributed, stays in sync with their lifestyle.

SNEWS Brands marketing direct to consumers—which seems like a necessary part of doing business today– is such a hot button topic within our industry lately. What does SmartWool do to support its independent specialty retailers?

TC Specialty retail is critical not only to our success, but the success of the outdoor industry. We do everything we can to support specialty retail. Our Insider App was created specifically to create better communication with our specialty retail associates. We also have a number of marketing partnerships with key specialty accounts and we offer Promoboxx campaigns that are easy for retailers to distribute. We attend and sponsor ladies’ nights, pint nights, and trunk shows, as well as seed a ton of Smartwool to associates so they can personally experience all the benefits of our products.

SNEWS Was the Insider App widely adopted and is it widely used by sales associates?

TC We are still excited about the program and continue to see good traction with it. We now have more than 2,000 Smartwool Insiders utilizing the app on a frequent basis.

SNEWS Can you give us an idea of what the next big exciting product launch or initiative will be?

TC We have a number of product and fabric innovations coming out in the near future. This spring we continue pushing our partnership with Conrad Anker with the launch of our new PhD Outdoor Approach sock. It’s a sock that was created in partnership with our design team in Chattanooga and Conrad specific for the challenges of getting to those epic climbing routes. We’ve also just recently re-launched our Merino 150 category that takes one of our lightest, most breathability fabrics from our performance line into a collection of more casual, everyday wear. In keeping with our apparel push – we will be rethinking/reimagining our midlayer categories.