Watch the people: Predict the top outdoor brands for 2015 and beyond

One of the best predictors of a brand’s success or direction isn’t so much their products, but the people behind the products.

As we get ready for Outdoor Retailer Winter Market 2015, a lot of retailers ask me: “What brands do you see doing things right for 2015? Which ones will have the hottest products?”

As journalists, we don’t like to play favorites, and when it comes down to it, ranking products is always a personal opinion. I might really like that jacket, but it doesn’t mean a majority of America will — I’m a bit of a contrarian, anyway.

All that being said, after four years on the job at SNEWS, I have found that one of the best predictors of a brand’s success or direction isn’t so much their products, but the people behind the products. The advice I like to give : “Watch the people.”

It’s something I learned from my father, an investor. When someone he thought highly of left a company he had money in, he not only reassessed his investment, but also closely watched where the person went next.

Dial it to the outdoor industry, and there are plenty of similar examples.

When Columbia Sportswear purchased Prana earlier this year, CEO Tim Boyle told SNEWS he bought the brand for their people: “We don’t need another Columbia Frankly, we need them to be very different from us. We bought Prana for the quality of management,” Boyle said. “We don’t want a distraction of having to fix or rebuild a brand. We need them to run it as they have been running it.”

And here’s a personal anecdote from few years ago, when I first put on a pair of Point6 socks, I thought to myself “these are best socks I’ve worn since SmartWool.” Well wouldn’t you know, Peter and Patty Duke, the people who founded SmartWool are the ones behind Point6.

Or on the flip side, ever wonder why your favorite outdoor brand “just isn’t the same, anymore?” Take a closer look. The people behind the products are no longer there. Where are they now? That brand that is doing really well!

Whether you’re looking to buy a business or just some socks at Outdoor Retailer, take the time to ask about the people.

Take note, it’s not just about one specific person or another. Sure, there are true visionaries and leaders out there, but more often than not, it’s about the team that surrounds them, the grunt workers. Lose one person, OK, lose several more in a short timeframe — that raises eyebrows. The economy plays a role, too. Good people can get unlucky during a bust. Not so good people can get lucky during a boom.

After a long recession and slow recovery, the economy is starting to pick up again. There are fits and starts (wage growth is a bit stagnant — we’ll get to that in a minute), but you only have to look at the stock market, rising corporate profits and revenues and low interest rates to see that things are pretty good for businesses these days.

Employees see it, too, and their confidence to leave and switch jobs is at its highest level since before the recession, the U.S. Labor Department reported in November. Perhaps you’ve noticed — there’s been quite a bit of turnover lately.

That trend likely will continue into 2015 as the final pieces of any recovery — job and wage growth — follow. It always seems to take a while after businesses get used to cutting costs and employees take over the work that was formerly done by two or three people. But there’s always a tipping point, and from my perspective, we’re here.

It will be particularly important in the outdoor industry and beyond to watch the people in 2015. The talent pool — and it’s smaller than you think with baby boomers retiring — will be on the move. For companies doing well, it’s time to spread the wealth and invest in their employees. New hires and raises might just be a viral hit this year.

We’ll certainly be watching.

–David Clucas