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Cascade Designs: All in the family

As founder John Burroughs passes the torch to his son, David, the two reflect on the brand's humble beginnings and the importance of family, manufacturing at home, and getting a good night's sleep.

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Forty-six years ago, a passionate hiker, climber and camper named John Burroughs had a groundbreaking idea: Sleeping on the solid earth, surrounded by the wilderness that he loved, shouldn’t need to be miserable.

Burroughs had a PhD in electrical engineering from Stanford and, at the time, worked for the missile branch of Boeing, back in 1971. The company was constructing a supersonic transport and a huge plane called C-5A—and lost funding for both of those projects: 80,000 people were laid off, including Burroughs’ climbing buddy, Jim Lea.

John Burroughs climbing Mt. Adams in 1963
John Burroughs climbing Mt. Adams in 1963Courtesy

When Lea, who was a mechanical engineer, lost his job, fire was lit for him to invent something. Burroughs suggested that they figure out a way to sleep better in the woods. The simple suggestion catalyzed the creation of the Therm-a-Rest. With Lea’s brother, the three founded Cascade Designs, and Burroughs started moonlighting from his job at Boeing as an electrical engineer to get production of their debut product off the ground.

What started as a company that just made the world’s most comfortable outdoor mattress in 1972, grew. Over the next four decades, Cascade Designs saw worldwide growth, expanded to include other product categories, and began acquiring like-minded companies—such as Platypus, SealLine, and PackTowl. 

Now, as the 82-year-old founder passes leadership to his son, David Burroughs, who will be stepping in as the new chairman of the board, the rare family-owned business is home to 550 employees and 1,700 products, most of them made in the Seattle, Washington factory.

The new chapter is nostalgic, yet full steam ahead: Burroughs’ passion for lineage and his innate curiousity, which drove the company’s evolution, remain intact, and David is ready to take the reins.

SNEWS reporter, Morgan Tilton, caught up with the father and son to reflect on the past 50 years at Cascade Designs, and to catch a glimpse of what lies ahead for the iconic company.

Morgan Tilton: John, you’ve been the face of Cascade Designs for so long. What does it feel like to be passing it on to your son and stepping back after nearly 50 years?

John: It feels really good. If I didn’t have any children, what would I have

done? Even as a kid David did work for Cascade Designs. I’d bring home fun things for him to do like putting accessories in boxes.

David: This is John’s life work in many ways, and he considers the company part of the family.

John: You see, I only had one heir. David has done well: He has twins. Whether or not they want to be involved in the company is still to be discovered, but my grandsons are both electrical engineers like I was. David has done twice as well as I did in terms of providing a future company leader!

MT: How did that self-inflating camping mattress came to be?

John: That was an invention by necessity!

Therm-a-Rest original

One day, Jim was kneeling in the back yard doing garden work. He had a little cushion beneath his knees as he was digging. When he got up, it rebounded: the cushion blew itself up every time he got off it. Thousands of people had seen that happen, but no one but Jim Lea realized this would solve the mattress problem for sleeping in the outdoors.

He rolled it up, put a plug in the inlet, and it blew itself up. Oh my gosh, it was a miracle—it was even warm when you put your hand on it.

So, Jim and I, along with Jim’s brother, started the company. It took several years before we could figure out how to make these things on a big scale.

Adversity is opportunity, is certainly our slogan. If two engineers were not laid off from Boeing and looking for something to invent, then there would not be Cascade Designs.

MT: As a multigenerational business, what role has Cascade Designs played in your family?

John: When we launched Cascade Designs in ’72, I was still working full-time for Boeing. There was an overlap for about 10 years. I worked for Cascade in my spare time. David was probably neglected in that all of my evenings, weekends and vacations went into the company. But he came along on work trips to Europe—Norway, Sweden, Germany and various places—which we wouldn’t have been able to afford if we hadn’t been able to write it off as a business expense.

Therm-a-Rest founders Jim Lean and John Burroughs with the original mattress at the Seattle factory in 1972.
Therm-a-Rest founders Jim Lean (left)  and John Burroughs (right) work on the original self-inflating air mattress at  the Seattle factory in 1972, while a crowd of fans watch.Courtesy

David: I remember it always been a seamless blend of family and business. The travel we did always focused on using the new gear and experiencing the outdoors as we visited dealers or customers.

Some of my earliest memories with the business are from age 12, when my grandfather, who passed in 2000, retired from being the Oregon State Labor Relations Mediator and became the first Cascade Designs sales rep. I traveled with him in his Toyota pick-up truck on summer fishing trips, and we’d stop at dealers along the way for him to pitch the Therm-a-Rest products.

MT: Wow, your dad worked for the company, too, John?

John: My dad was Tex Burroughs. One of his favorite tricks was to carry rocks with him for his sales pitch: No one knew what Therm-a-Rest was. He’d walk into the shop, put the rocks on the floor, drop the Therm-a-Rest on top, and tell the associates to lay on it.

We knew they couldn’t feel the rocks—they weren’t big enough. The whole scene would disrupt everything in the store. It was a wonderful way to sell a product and have fun while he was at it.

MT: David, what’s one of your favorite moments in the outdoors with John?

David: To this day—and we still have a picture in our building—one of our more memorable trips was with Tex. The three of us climbed 9,000-foot Mt. Shuksan in the North Cascades, a famous non-volcanic peak that’s surrounded by old volcanoes and has this gorgeous reflective lake. I was in college and almost 20 years old.

This was such a happy life memory, because it was me, my father, and his father all-together as a family and enjoying a common passion: outdoor recreation. I’m excited to spend more time with my father as he steps down. We’ve had a business relationship for a long time and it will be great to connect as father and son in the years ahead.

John, Tex, and davis Burroughs atop Mt. Shuksan in the North Cascades in 1985
Three generations of Burroughs men (left to right: John, Tex, David) atop Mt. Shuksan in 1985 Courtesy

MT: So many big companies have sent manufacturing overseas. How much of your product is made here in the U.S. and will a commitment to U.S. manufacturing always be a part of this company’s story?

John: Most of our products are made here in Seattle. We also have a substantial factory in Cork, Ireland that makes the gear we sell in Europe. I’ve always felt that you should manufacture things near where you sell them, because you can provide so much better service. You can’t do that if your stuff is coming from the other side of the world. That was always my philosophy.

David: Manufacturing in the U.S. has always been a priority for Cascade Designs. We don’t see that changing any time soon. We continue to believe in U.S. manufacturing, because it helps us employ hundreds of people in the markets where our products are sold and used, minimizes wasteful shipping, and allows us to produce high quality products that meet our standards.

MT: And, what are your current plans, John?

John: In general, I like to travel, and we have a sales meeting in Ireland in May, which I will attend to say goodbye to a lot of friends. In June, my wife and I are going to Alaska on a trip to see whales and grizzly bears. I’ll keep looking for new things to do and places to go.

David: John will continue to be an avid product tester, will provide feedback on company products, will continue to be a shareholder, and will support the board. John also purchased a home next to his sister in Flathead Lake, near Big Fork, Montana. I’m excited, because it provides a connection with the family, and for us to enjoy Glacier National Park.

MT: Can we expect to see you at the trade shows?

John: Occasionally, if it works into my other travel plans. It’s always a lot of fun to see old friends. I still remember when I went to Europe for the first time for ISPO around ‘85. There was a shared booth called, Made in the USA, which was created to bring little companies there together including us, Skip Yowell (JanSport), and a bunch of other great people.

MT: David, you’ve been involved in the company in some capacity your entire life. Was there always a plan for you to lead the company one day?

David: I did graduate work in civil engineering. I had my father’s interest in building systems and worked with a Microsoft Solution Provider (consulting firm) for a while—and then the stars aligned. I was at a point in my career where I wanted to learn new things beyond the world of tech, the bust had occurred, and I had just gotten my MBA. My father’s business partner Jim Lea retired in 2003, and the company needed help with a capital restructuring plan. I joined the board as Vice Chairman and worked that project full-time for a year and a half. It was about 12 years ago that we began planning for my succession as chairman.

MT: What are you most psyched about in your new role?

David: Our more recent initiatives focus on applying techniques of lean manufacturing and lean enterprise, which I want to continue.

And one of the greatest things about our business is that we’re global. This position will allow me to be more of an ambassador and deal with external affairs: I’m excited to pursue working more in places around the world—in the Middle East, India, Africa, Asia—with a focus in water filtration, global health work, and government-funded research and development.

I’m psyched that my change in roles will allow others in the company to grow.

Also, my new role will allow me to spend more time with my father in a father/son role and less as business partners.

MT: Given your lifelong contributions to Cascade Designs, what is the significance of legacy for you both?

David: Legacy has family, product, and brand connotations. It’s also a relationship with employees, the products they are creating, and the difference those all make in the world.

John: What makes me the proudest is that I remember what it used to be like to camp overnight: It was hard, cold, miserable and not that much fun. Jim Lea came up with a product to solve that problem. Now, Cascade Designs has many products—up to 6K with all the color options—and they are all aimed at people having a better time in the outdoors.

It’s been great to watch that grow.