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New Polartec CEO Gary Smith sees challenges, opportunities ahead

His first day on the job, SNEWS speaks to new Polartec CEO Gary Smith. The former president of Timberland’s Outdoor Group is no stranger to the outdoor industry, nor the effect of business cycles on a brand.

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New Polartec CEO Gary Smith is no rookie to the outdoor industry and its business cycles.

The former president of Timberland’s Outdoor Group (2002-2008) has worked for the big brands, in good times and bad, and founded two of his own companies in the cycling world. One thing he’s learned along the way is that innovation drives the industry, but a brand must also keep a close eye on its heritage.

With performance fabric supplier Polartec, he said he sees a brand strong in both arenas.

“My first Patagonia pullover from 1981 was made with Polartec,” he told SNEWS. “I still have it, and Polartec has kept its top reputation in the industry.”

On the innovation front, he pointed out how Polartec took the leap to move beyond just next-to-skin performance fabrics, expanding into outerwear with its waterproof/breathable NeoShell.

Still, there are challenges ahead for the company, Smith admitted.

“We are coming off the ‘winter that wasn’t,’ Europe’s economic troubles and declining military budgets.”

All that its part of dealing with business cycles, he said, pointing to the military side of Polartec’s revenue as an example:

“Polartec’s military business is a relatively recent phenomenon for the brand, one that it’s done really well with during a period of two wars, but it’s a business that’s naturally very lumpy, where orders come and go in waves between war and peace. The objective for us is to become more nimble, so when the orders are there, we can ramp up, and when they decrease, we won’t get hurt. The mantra is, we have to be as flexible as possible.”

And there are always other growing sectors full of opportunities, he said.

“Domestic energy production and healthcare — I think those are two of the fastest growing fields in the United States now,” so Polartec will look to address needs in those areas, he said.

Being that Nov. 1 was his first day on the job at Polartec, Smith didn’t have all the answers, but said he suspected there lay opportunities in the health and wellness sectors with the rise of yoga and fitness, plus a growing need for Polartec’s fire-retardant work wear.

In the outdoor space, Smith said there will always be a place for synthetic fabrics despite the recent rise of natural materials like wool and down. Like the above, everything moves in cycles, he said.

“Down puffies have been popular for some time now. But you’re starting to see people move back toward the slim and athletic look.”

In conjunction with Smith’s hiring, Polartec announced the addition of Joe Robinson as its new chief financial officer. Robinson most recently served as vice president and head of corporate finance at inVentive Health and previously held financial roles with Converse and Procter & Gamble’s Gillette group.

Smith and Robinson join Jon Adelman, Polartec’s current executive vice president and head of global sales and marketing to complete the company’s senior leadership team, officials said.

Polartec announced a leadership shakeup in July, saying its former president and CEO Andrew Vecchione would step down once a new CEO was named.

Vecchione, who has been with Polartec for eight years, the past five leading the brand, switches to being a senior adviser and remains a company board member and equity partner.

The company continues under ownership by private equity firm Versa Capital Management, which bought Polartec out of the Malden Mills bankruptcy in 2007. Versa management recently hinted that it is looking to sell Polartec, but that should be no surprise, Smith said.

“While there’s no active sale process at this point, any private equity firm is always open to a sale.”

–David Clucas