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Q&A: ExOfficio's Brian Thompson on managing the people and processes behind the products

ExOfficio's general manager tells us where the apparel industry is heading and why employees are a company’s greatest asset.

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There’s a background story to every piece of new gear you see at outdoor retail.

Brian Thompson, general manager of ExOfficio.
Brian Thompson, general manager of ExOfficio.Courtesy of ExOfficio

There are tales of design concept, manufacturing and marketing, right down to how the company hired and kept the employee who came up with the next great idea. Bringing all those pieces together is the job of Brian Thompson at ExOfficio and that of so many other general managers across the industry. These are the train conductors, the ones who manage all the day-to-day tasks it takes to create the final product. There’s no fanfare here, just hard work.

Thompson, who has worked with Horny Toad (now Toad&Co.) and Cutter & Buck at various leadership levels, has seen all sides of the apparel industry and received recognition as Industry Player of the Year by Wearables Business Magazine in 2006. He tells us where the apparel industry is heading and why employees are a company’s greatest asset.

You’ve helped manage several teams in the industry. As the economy improves and opportunities open up, what are you doing to attract/retain your best employees and keep them happy at work?
Regardless of the economic conditions, I subscribe to an empathetic management philosophy. Employees are any company’s greatest asset and need to be managed with that mindset. The most successful mangers understand how the demands of both work and personal life impact their team. These managers ensure that company policies, procedures and workloads are optimized and reflect a long-term investment in their team. A highly engaged and appreciated team will give back to a company that conducts its business in this way through better productivity, a commitment to the company’s long-term success and longer tenure. If you can build an engaged team that is truly having fun at work, the challenge of attracting new talent becomes significantly easier. Having potential hires interview with several members of your team will give them key insights into the quality of the organization and its people. And the staff conducting the interviews will be very conscientious of whom they bring into the company given how hard they have worked to create the current environment, serving as important gatekeepers.

Given your experience in the apparel world, what are some of the biggest changes you’ve seen on the supply management and manufacturing side of apparel in the past decade?
The recession brought about some significant changes in the dynamics between mills, factories and brands. In the past, mills and factories were willing to hold raw fabric and finished goods. This gave brands much more flexibility in planning their purchases and the ability to run tighter on inventory. Today, the mills and factories generally will not start production without firm purchase orders or commitments. Given the lead times with apparel, brands are committing to fabric and production for some product even before they have gone to market. This shift in the dynamics impacts the retailer in the form of the ever-earlier order deadlines and less in-season availability of product.

It seems as if every outdoor brand is getting into apparel — both on the performance and lifestyle side. Is there a point of saturation or too many players in the field? What are the effects on the specialty retailer?
In my experience, competition drives innovation, so having more brands competing in the apparel space is positive. Regardless of their size, each brand must constantly prove why their purpose or cause is relevant to the consumer and how their products provide a tangible benefit to the consumer. The brands that are successful over a long period of time are those that are able to excel in promoting their “why” message first and developing innovative and stylish product second. The impact of this increase of options on the specialty retailer is that it forces them to really focus on “specialty.” The challenge is to develop the filter they use to curate this expanse of brands and products so that they are bringing a unique and meaningful offering to their customer. New brands are traditionally launched with the support of specialty retailers because they are the ones willing to take the risk of trailblazing what is new and exciting. This is what gives the specialty retailer an edge, allowing them to offer their customer something different from the larger mass distribution channels and the opportunity to compete on selection and service rather than price.

ExOfficio is best known in the adventure travel space. What are the differences from a good adventure travel piece of clothing or gear versus a good one for the outdoors?
Generally speaking, the categories are much more alike than they are different. Most adventure travel consists of outdoor activities and thus the technical demands on the clothing are no different than doing that same activity at home. The main areas where adventure travel clothing is different from outdoor clothing are around versatility, security and weight. The easiest way to describe the difference is to start with the challenges that an adventure traveler has to overcome. Most adventure travel trips have limits on the amount of clothing and gear that can be brought on the trip. These limitations require that each piece of clothing serve multiple purposes. There is no room in the bag for an item that can only be used for one type of activity. The hiking pant must also be versatile enough to wear in the city and have the easy-care properties that allow them to be worn multiple times. The person taking an adventure trip will find themselves often traveling from one climate to another, spending long hours in transit, spending time in urban areas, and ultimately extended time in remote areas. The best adventure travel apparel is at home in all of those environments and does not ask the traveler to sacrifice comfort, style and performance at any stage of the journey.

–David Clucas