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It could have been named Tumbleweed Transit or Tramp, but of the three potential names, Eagle Creek eventually won out — chiefly because a company with sales under $1 million just couldn’t support three brand names. Picking a single brand was one of many lively debates the company founders, Steve and Nona Barker, and a man considered to be one of the brand’s architects, Ricky Schlesinger, engaged in for 30 years. And now, after successfully selling the company to VF Corp. (NYSE: VFC) in January 2007, the three are transitioning into new roles to leave the brand debates to others. Click here to read the news release on Eagle Creek’s new executive leadership team and transition plan.
Steve and Nona Barker never really imagined their vision of running a successful global travel business would truly succeed when they first opened the doors of Eagle Creek in 1975 with $2,500 borrowed from friends and a business plan penned in a Volkswagen van. It just kind of worked out that way.
“Nona and I were up in Idyllwild (California) running our own retail store and making a bit of gear, and then the oil embargo happened and that blew us out of business,” Barker told SNEWS®. “Well, I’m sure there was some incompetence involved, too, as I was only 21 or 22.”
After driving around the country and, as Barker put it, mooching off friends, “We moved in with my dear 87-year-old grandfather who needed some care, which was perfect as we needed a place to stay.”
That was in Rancho Bernardo, Calif., with the Barkers living the high life in a retirement community. Nona was waiting tables, while Steve worked retail at a local ski shop. Even after launching Eagle Creek, they continued working odd jobs for a few years to keep food on the table and money in the bank.
In 1979, just five years into the business, the Barkers tapped Ricky Schlesinger, who was still working with Coming Attractions (an outdoor clothing apparel company he co-founded), to head up sales and help them position the brand.
“I started working from home in Washington, D.C., and for two years worked as the sales manager, sales rep and sales developer,” Schlesinger told us. “Steve talked me into moving in ’81 to Solana Beach (Calif.), which I did kicking and screaming. I was an East Coast guy and living in a small beach town in California was not what I had in mind. In the first year, I figured I was heading back pretty quickly.”
It did not take long, however, for the stranger in a strange land to start feeling right at home. “It is a very seducing place, and now, I wonder, why would anyone ever leave here if you have a choice?” he added.
Ironically, for a travel company, it is the shifting geopolitical climate that has perhaps caused the greatest change in their lives. An oil embargo pushed the Barkers out of retail and into launching their own travel company. Since then, most of the company low points, which eventually led to high points, can be traced to global events that cut the legs out of the travel market for a time: the first Iraq war, 9/11, invading Afghanistan, the second Iraq war, SARS, and now, the economy.
It was the most recent shift in business fortunes — as the Eagle Creek brand wrestles with its place in a changing economic climate — that indicated to Barker now was the time to step away.
“I had planned to stay a few more years at least, but in looking at the reality that business has gotten tough for travel, especially last spring and fall, I began to rethink things,” Barker told us. “We went through a couple of layoffs as a result, and laying off great people took a lot out of me.
“We made decisions to consolidate things with VF Outdoor, and as part of that, we are moving our facility at the end of month. With all that was going on, it seemed the best thing Nona, Ricky and I could do is speed up the transition of leadership to reset the bar with a whole new group,” said Barker. “When the business comes back, and it is coming back, I want the great young talent we have to experience the excitement of the ride up that we have felt before…this needs to be their legacy.”
As both Barker and Schlesinger remember the last 34 years, we asked each of them to share with us their highest highs…and lowest lows.
The five-year party we had is at the top of the list. We never ever thought we’d make it five years.
Right on the heels of that, I would have to say it was when we took all of our U.S. employees down to our Mexico factory in Tijuana, and we worked shoulder to shoulder — U.S. and Mexican employees putting together boxes of Christmas dinners to share. We headed out until the end of the electricity, and then drove several more blocks, stopped our vehicles, and then we began unloading Christmas dinners. Being able to see the smiles, and know the joy we had brought, and knowing we had done it together, as an international team…that meant a lot.
Twenty years ago, we took all of our European retailers to Ensenada, and we went out kayaking and ran into a pod of gray whales. Our European friends went home, despite my best efforts to explain otherwise, saying that this was what we all did every day
The day after the sale to VF — knowing that because of the Employee Stock Ownership Plan, we could share the joy of the company sale with everyone. Everyone here got a payday, and that meant the world to me.
For me personally, being given an Outdoor Industry Leadership Award; I think it was in 1997. I mean, I am just some schlub from D.C. who turned out to be pretty good at selling luggage. The others on the ballot — Larry Burke, who practically invented the genre of outdoor adventure magazines, and Tim Boyle — those two are captains of industry. So to win that award for me was validation of all of the efforts we’d been putting forward as a company to create the adventure travel category at retail.
Eagle Creek receiving the REI corporate vendor of the year recognition in, I think, 1998. That was further validation of the whole business opportunity of creating travel as its own category at outdoor retail, and not just a small corner in a camping department.
And then in 2001, being recognized by the luggage industry with the Man of the Year award…that was neat in a different way. It was also a validation for our company that we were making the right decisions and doing the right things for both channels — luggage and outdoor. We are, to my knowledge, the only brand that has a market stronghold in both channels, and that is special.
After reaching one of our lowest points after 9/11, where the business was in real jeopardy, being part of the incredible team effort of company executives, with Barker at the helm, that saved the company and put us in the position to be healthy enough that a company such as VF would want to acquire us. That was financial validation we were successful, and if you put all of that together and everything in between, man, what a great run we all had. I am truly a blessed guy.
It was just after we had wrapped up our fifth year in business and I found out our CFO was putting our payroll on her personal credit card. She had such a personal sense of responsibility and dedication to our company, and she felt so bad she could not get vendors to pay their bills on time so we could make payroll. As a result, she felt she needed to cover payroll personally and that was amazing to me in one sense. Beyond that, there was the overwhelming feeling that, oh crap, this business isn’t working out so well. That was tough.
Ten years into our business, we went to a trade show with a new product, called the Study Hauler — truly the first daypack with an organizer front pocket. And there, in a booth across from ours, was a company who made their products in Asia, and I was gazing at a complete knock-off of our innovation. They even had the nerve to claim they developed the concept. Worse, they were able to sell it at retail for what we were wholesaling it for. I was naïve as hell, and not used to that kind of business ethic. It also woke me up to the fact that we could have great ideas, but we could not protect them. And, sadly, I realized this whole “made in the U.S.” thing was not going to work.
Right after 9/11, we lost 40 percent of our business literally overnight. The banks were threatening to take my house and liquidate the inventory. After 25 years in business, you think you have made it and then…oh crap.
The night before we signed the papers to sell this business to VF. I had a very tough time not sleeping, and wondering if I had really done the right thing for Nona and for me, for my employees, for our team.
Right after Sept. 11, 2001, what happened decimated not just the economy and lives, but also the travel business. Everyone is afraid to get on an airplane. Just when things start to improve, in 2003, we enter the Iraq war and no one is sure what to expect. And then two months later, we have the SARS outbreak. Until 2004, the travel business was an ugly place to be. At some point, you find yourself sliding down the rock, out of control and wondering if the rope you are tied to will hold. It did, but only because of the strong leadership team we had in place, and Barker leading us forward.
What’s next for Barker and Schlesinger?
For Barker, he’s not straying too far, at least not yet. “I get to help both Michael (Millenacker, the new Eagle Creek president) and Candyce (Johnson, vice president of merchandising and marketing) succeed in their new roles. I get to work on product development and some product pieces I am interested in — and think after 35 years I can bring some value to that.”
Then, of course, there’s his work as a fire captain with his wife, mentoring new firefighters and getting them ready for careers in firefighting, and his work with the Conservation Alliance and also local land conservancy efforts. In his spare time, Barker expects to spend more time outside.
“This job has allowed me a lot of access, but never quite enough time to enjoy it,” Barker told SNEWS. “I want to be able to take advantage of all the invites to go play from my friends in the outdoor biz before I’m too old and decrepit.”
Schlesinger, on the other hand, has no idea what is next, and he likes it that way. “I do not have any idea what I will do next. I am a full-time employee until June 2010, focusing on supporting the team transition and training everyone. After that, I plan to take some time, tend my garden, trek some trails, and think about what I might want to do in 2011 sometime. My ideal world is to take six months off and figure out what my next role in life is once that time is up. I would not mind being in the travel or outdoor industry, or even doing something completely different.
“With that, there is a lot of personal learning ahead of me,” said Schlesinger. “It has been really easy and enjoyable to work my ass off to build this brand and this company, and as much as I put into it, I have gotten way more out of it. But now, let’s turn the page.”
And with new leaders transitioning in, the first in 35 years, Eagle Creek turns the page on the next chapter in its unfolding story.
Michael Millenacker, Eagle Creek’s new president, summed up the future this way, “We have big ambitions and a plan to get there. Best thing we can do is continue to build on the vision and purpose set for us by our founders and that is to make uncompromising gear built for the active traveler. Luckily, I have had fabulous trainers and mentors in Ricky, Steve and Nona. I feel I am up to the challenge because they believe I am up to the challenge.”