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SNEWS Qs, Manufacturer Edition: Mike Wallenfels, Timbuk2

SNEWS interviews Mike Wallenfels on his history with Mountain Hardwear, his current role as CEO of Timbuk2, and the challenges that lie ahead for the industry.

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Mike Wallenfels has seen just about every aspect of the outdoor industry. He started in retail with shops such as Sport Chalet, Adventure 16 and the Yosemite Mountain Shop, then worked at Sierra Designs, before helping co-found Mountain Hardwear in 1993.

Wallenfels played many roles at Mountain Hardwear through its sale to Columbia in 2003, becoming president of the brand in 2005. In 2009, he took on his current role as CEO of Timbuk2 in San Francisco, where he tells us he was attracted to a more diverse lineup of retail markets such as bike, consumer electronics, fashion, collegiate, and travel.

What’s changed over the years for Wallenfels? Where does he see the industry going? How’s he tranforming Timbuk2? Read on to find out:

How did the dream of co-founding Mountain Hardwear differ from the reality of it?

To be honest, Mountain Hardwear was one of those rare examples when the reality exceeded the dream. While there were challenges along the way, the reality shown in the dedication of our retailers, sales reps, and lifelong friends were a benefit that I had not anticipated. The other reality is seeing Mountain Hardwear become a brand extending beyond mountaineering and backpacking products. That carries a huge amount of personal satisfaction for me.

What were some of the biggest challenges you faced during that endeavor and how did you overcome them? 

Some of our biggest challenges were selling larger retailers such as REI and Galyan’s, creating alternative waterproof-breathables to Gore, and funding growth. These decisions were deeply philosophical and eventually transforming. We were a collective of ideas and decisions, so topics like this were made through offsite meetings and group decision-making (usually involving beer). This approach resulted in cohesive buy in and a unified method of communicating what we were doing.

What attracted you to Timbuk2? 

Timbuk2 is a brand that created a category of product, which is a unique thing in any market and the brand has always had the potential to be so much more. I also saw the opportunity to experience personal growth through exposure to more diverse retail markets such as bike, consumer electronics, fashion, collegiate, and travel. Growing a brand’s halo with focused product and brand messages is what I love to do and Timbuk2 was the right size company for me to do just that in an environment very similar to what I had experienced before. 

How has the company changed since you took over as CEO? 

Timbuk2 was a bit of a one hit wonder and we have been transforming it into a brand that is now growing in multiple product categories beyond messenger bags. People have been the biggest tool in making that change and I love to surround myself with really smart, hard working game changers. The next was putting formal process and logic behind product creation and innovation with a focus on reestablishing our dedication to the core bike market and extensions into the CE specialty market.

What were some unexpected challenges you faced during the transition to Timbuk2?

For the first time in 17 years I was “the new boss” coming from the outside. There was an existing team that had been through some very rough times and they were all looking for answers that I didn’t have just yet and were wondering what their future was with the company. The next challenge was going from a ‘top three’ brand with my retailers to being a weakening ‘top 20.’ That meant that getting people to attend sales meetings, trade shows, and simply getting people on the phone was a bigger challenge than I had ever anticipated. Luckily we are over that now!

What makes Timbuk2 different from other companies in the industry? 

So many brands look and communicate the same or similar messages of authenticity and innovation through tech and a pure outdoor image. Today’s younger consumer is much less turned on by that image of the lone hiker in the backcountry. Timbuk2 has always been a blend of an urban message with a good dose of irreverence and a connection with technology that uniquely puts it in a place where I believe more outdoor and active retailers should be paying attention to attract the Millennial consumer.

What are some of the most useful lessons you’ve learned during your time in the outdoor industry? 

It is smaller than you think and the people will eventually circle back if you give it enough time, so don’t burn bridges and treat people with integrity. It is also an industry where its retailers and business leaders really care about what they are selling where other markets are much less passionate. That works for us and against us, but it certainly makes it rewarding.

What is your favorite thing about attending Outdoor Retailer?

Getting back in touch with people and seeing what is new and emerging. Since I now attend both Interbike and the Consumer Electronics Show, Outdoor Retailer is like old home week…both figuratively and literally. It will always be my home and the relationships extend beyond the transaction, which is extremely rewarding. I also now get more time to shop for paddle boards and slack lines!

What new, exciting things does Timbuk2 have coming to Summer Market this year, and what makes them different? 

This season we go big into camera with a complete range of “stealthy” camera carrying solutions that don’t announce to the world, “Hey…I got $2,500 in camera gear in this bag!” with an urban flair. We also are going to put the mojo back into the entire messenger market with new price points and fabrics that will keep Timbuk2 dominating in that category.

How do you think the outdoor industry can best go about attracting a more diverse consumer base? 

Start by hiring diverse people that do diverse things and show diverse images on your web sites, product pages, and advertising. 50 percent of the U.S. population lives in an urban setting and they are not all going to be turned on by the typical outdoor image. You would be hard pressed to find a more diverse company than Timbuk2 or ones that show diverse audience.

What do you think the biggest challenge the industry is facing today, and how can we address it? 

We tend to fall back on what worked in the past and assume that it will work today. I think that our inability to change and adapt to the way that consumers buy and shop is going to keep us behind other markets and consumers. Accepting how, when and who buys products today is the first step. The second is adapting our buy/sell timing to match consumer demand. Apple, trend, and CE retailers look at product launches based on consumer buying patterns and expect their brands to work closer to that time to market.

What’s your personal business philosophy?

I approach everything with a sense of fairness, quality, and planning. If you are fair to your customers and employees they will be loyal. If you deliver on quality of service and product, people will notice. If you create a plan, stick to it and it will deliver.

–Compiled by Ana Trujillo