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Thule’s new Americas president sees “growth for years to come”

Hilary Hartley dishes on his next outdoor industry chapter, Thule’s success during the pandemic, and the opportunities for the brand amid these boom times.

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In the late 1980s, when Hilary Hartley was a college student at the University of Southern Maine, he worked for the Carroll Reed Ski Shops chain in Portland. As part of his regular duties, Hartley sold and installed Thule racks and cargo boxes for Mainers who needed a reliable way to transport their skis, boats, and bikes.

During his shifts, as Hartley learned about Thule’s products and showed customers how to attach them to their vehicles and load them with gear, he developed a strong attachment to the brand. That affinity never wavered.

“I know their cargo boxes and rack systems quite well,” Hartley told Outside Business Journal during a recent Zoom call. “I have a garage full of them.”

In recent weeks, Hartley’s relationship with Sweden-based Thule Group AB deepened significantly. More than 30 years after being introduced to the brand through that part-time job, and after decades of product loyalty, Hartley is now the top executive for one of its key regions.

Last month, the longtime outdoor industry executive formally took over as president of Thule’s Connecticut-based Regions America after being appointed to the role in February.

Hartley succeeds Fred Clark, who worked for Thule for nearly three decades. He brings diverse outdoor leadership experience to the job, most recently serving as North America president at Victorinox Swiss Army. Before that, he held senior management positions at Oakley North America and worked for Rossignol.

Hartley steps into this role at an interesting time for the brand. Thule has been killing it lately, with much of its growth driven by Covid-fueled outdoor trends, and the brand is launching into North America retail next month with a Denver store. It’s also a pivotal time for everyone in outdoor gear sales now that the end of the pandemic is in sight.

Read more: Behind the scenes at Thule’s first North American retail store

“I think for all of us in the outdoor industry, we should see some great momentum for years to come,” he said.

Hartley hasn’t yet visited Thule headquarters in Malmo, Sweden, nor has he met his boss, Thule President and CEO Magnus Welander (though he’s expected to accomplish both later this year), but he said his onboarding has been smooth thanks to Clark sticking around for a few weeks.

To see what’s on tap for the brand amid the current momentum and how Hartley plans to approach his latest career move, OBJ spoke with him this week in a wide-ranging conversation. Here are the highlights.

How have the first few weeks gone as you take over from Fred?

It’s been a very welcoming crowd here, so it’s been an easy transition. We have a great team in place and business is going very well right now so that always makes life a lot easier. A big advantage for me was that Fred had agreed to an in-person transition the first few weeks and he’ll stay on-call for a while. Having him here as a mentor and a person who can guide me these first few weeks has made a big difference.

How did your time at Victorinox and Oakley prepare you for this role?

I’m very fortunate because I’ve always worked with brands that are leaders in their categories and industries. At the same time, I’ve always been very passionate about the products that I’ve been able to represent. The same is true for Thule. I love to be outdoors, and I’ve used their products for many years. Sharing that passion for the brands where you work, with the products they represent, makes life a lot easier. You believe in the products you use every day. That’s been something I’ve learned throughout my career.

What’s your biggest takeaway about Thule in your first few weeks?

We’re very much a product-driven company. Three weeks in, I’ve probably spent more time on product meetings, R&D, future projects, and updating current products than I did in my prior job. A long time ago I was a product manager, so I’m excited about that part. There’s more involvement in the nitty-gritty and the detail of the products, which has been fun.

This is a dynamic time for the brand and the industry; what are your priorities in terms of balancing ongoing initiatives with new ones?

My first goal is building the right relationships—both internally here with the Americas team, but also with headquarters. I’m going to get on the road very soon. I’ve already met with our reps in New England last week, and I’ll come to Denver for the store opening. In the next six months, besides learning about the products, I’ll be spending time with our reps, retailers, and partners. It’s nice to read reports that tell you what’s working and what’s not working, but when you’re face-to-face with somebody, you get the important details; you learn what we’re doing well in terms of product and operations. 

What is driving North America growth for the brand these days and how do you leverage those drivers?

There’s a huge boom in water sports, biking, hiking, every outdoor activity. All of us—even our competitors—will continue to benefit from those trends, not just in the Americas, but globally. This is not a fad. This is going to be a longer-lasting trend. We’re focused on luggage, packs, and the travel category, in general. We’re starting to see momentum as airports pick up and families start to travel. I’m convinced we’re going to see a big boom again in terms of travel as people get back on planes, so we’re spending more time on how we position ourselves to grab market share in luggage and travel. Another strong category is active with kids. Overall, we’re very fortunate to have a great assortment of product categories that just happens to be aligned with current trends. We see lots of opportunities for lots of growth for years to come, and we feel very good about where we’re sitting today.

What are the biggest channel opportunities for the brand?

We expect to see growth in all channels. I do think that people want to try the products we offer, especially with racks, boxes, and even strollers. They might need help installing them, and that is key for us. That’s why we have partnerships like Rack Attack. For us, brick-and-mortar is important, so we continue to invest heavily in it. But we also know people shop and do research online, so it’s important to be in the right places online. We’re a non-promotional brand, so for us, it’s not about growing through promotions. I believe our growth is going to come through the products that we have and the market share that we can take away, on top of the current trends. With that, I think we can do it across all channels in a very balanced way.

You’ve got the Denver store coming online in June; how big of a play is owned retail for the brand?

I’m excited about retail. Our own stores have the full assortment of products—products that maybe you wouldn’t see at some of our retailers or online. Being able to tell that story, to have somebody walk into our environment with staff who know not just a product but our culture and who Thule is, that’s huge. We’re confident that the Denver store is going to be a great success. It would be great to see more stores, but I can’t say, right now, how many that will be and how soon. We’re also excited about retail in Latin America. You’ll probably see an expansion of our retail, either through partners or our own stores, in Latin America that’s faster than what you’ll see in North America.

Is the goal to keep things running as is or do you have plans to put your stamp on the Americas business?

The company is in a great position right now. The whole team and the leadership have done a great job, so there’s no need to fix anything. This is about fine-tuning. Fred was in this role with a very different background than mine. Sales and marketing will be my focus because that’s my background. In general, we’re on a great path. There’s a strong focus on operations to make sure that we provide even better service to the end consumer and our dealers, that we can provide the right products at the right time. We’re going to continue to do what we’re doing. When you see the success we’re having today, there’s no reason to rock the boat.