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Utah’s Push for Outdoor Industry Dominance

Photo Credits: courtesy of 4FRNT Skis

By Sean Zimmerman-Wall

In 2002, Salt Lake City held the world captive by hosting the Olympic Winter Games. The rapid injection of billions of dollars for infrastructure and venue construction sent Utah into a whirlwind of development as we prepared a global stage. Before long, our humble state began receiving more recognition for its natural and urban characteristics. This transition made dozens of outdoor companies realize Utah was an extremely underrated market. Since that faithful February 10 years ago, a stampede of organizations (new and old) has descended on this once-remote desert outpost.

With Utah’s outdoor tourism industry contributing nearly six billion dollars annually to the state’s economy, it’s no wonder so many companies have decided to set up shop here. The perfect blend of unique terrain and a variable climate make Utah ideal testing grounds for any piece of gear. Every season holds an opportunity to test products and tweak designs, yielding some of the most respected tools of the trade(s). Combine that with the logistical simplicity of being located along three major interstate corridors and having an international airport; it’s a business developer’s dream scenario.

4FRNT Skis (4frnt.com), a company out of California, decided to make the move to Salt Lake in 2005 after realizing the potential for growth. The rider-owned company started as a small contingent of all-mountain and park skiers who believed in the value of athlete-inspired products.

“The great thing about our company, is that the skis reflect the rider’s style and they play an intricate part in the design process,” said 4FRNT owner Matt Sterbenz. Incorporating this mentality into everything they create, the company has exploded on the scene and attracted a wide array of new and influential athletes.

Calling Utah home has also allowed them to develop their own in-house prototype facility dubbed the “White-Room.” In a dedicated corner of their warehouse in South Salt Lake, Sterbenz and his band of innovators press and finish skis. Then they go out and shred the Wasatch, which is conveniently located out their front door. It’s impressive to watch them work out the details of each design and see the process go from drawing board to production.

Attracting companies like 4FRNT to Utah is becoming easier due to a variety of factors:

  • As mentioned before, the ability to test gear across 2.3 trillion square feet of land is a huge motivator.
  • According to edcutah.org, the low cost of doing business in Utah, 10% lower than the national average, helps keep operating costs low.
  • In 2010, Utah beat out Virginia as Forbes Magazine’s “Best State for Business.”
  • Industry awards continue to add to Utah’s stellar reputation and attract more investment, which means greater tax revenue and economic stimulus.

Industry titans Black Diamond Equipment (blackdiamondequipment.com) and Petzl (petzl.com) have called Utah home for many years, and although they each command respect on an international level, both companies keep their North American headquarters in Utah. In a statement made to the Economic Development Corporation of Utah, Black Diamond CEO Peter Metcalf said, “Our future is immensely bright, immensely exciting, and without question a significant portion of our success is because we chose one of the best, if not the very best, place in the United States to set up our global headquarters.”

The decision for Black Diamond to relocate from California to Utah was marked by the desire to continue pushing the performance of their brand and maintaining the highest caliber of research and development. Their complex of buildings in Holladay is reminiscent of a tiny alpine commune and the corporate culture is something to be admired.

Every employee is encouraged to take time to enjoy the outdoors and revel in the spirit of nature. Cultivating this kind of philosophy at their company, Black Diamond has created a one-of-a-kind atmosphere that promotes individualism, and in turn, financial success.

Petzl America is one of the world’s leading innovators in climbing and work-at-height equipment. Their offices in Clearfield, Utah represent that innovation and their facilities include a state-of-the-art climbing wall for product testing and employee recreation. The company also encourages the staff to bring their dogs to work in an effort to keep morale high. Petzl was also rated by Outside Magazine as one of the “Best Companies to Work For” in 2008. The creation of jobs from the influx of companies moving to Utah, or expanding their current operations, has boosted the local economy and made legislators very happy. Since 2007, major players like Scott USA, Rossignol, Amer Sports, Quality Bicycle Products (QBP) and Specialized Bicycle Components have constructed new facilities and employed many hard-working Utahans. In the cases of Amer Sports and QPB, they have hired 300 and 100 employees respectively, and QBP injected more than five million dollars in capital towards its Ogden warehouse. The addition of more storage and office space by these companies is an example of the confidence in the Utah economy and the overall climate of continued development.

Finding creative ways to present the benefits of doing business in Utah has kept the Convention and Visitors Bureau and the Chamber of Commerce very busy. For example, Salt Lake City has hosted The Outdoor Industry Association’s Outdoor Retailer Show (outdoorretailer.com) every year since the mid 1990s. This has allowed Utah to maintain a stronghold on attracting the leading companies to this over-the-top trade expo. The biannual event, summer and winter markets, plays a vital role in bringing new and established organizations from across the globe to the Salt Palace Convention Center for a week of hobnobbing and product demonstrations. The OR Show has gotten so large that they’ve outgrown this conference space for the summer show and expanded to a virtual tent city in the adjoining parking lot. Attending is truly a scene, and it’s encouraging to see the innovation and how aggressively the industry is growing.

Amongst the ever-expanding list of outdoor companies in Utah are several that have been here since birth. Kuhl Clothing (kuhl.com), a company born out of a deep admiration and respect for the mountains, began in the early 1980s under the moniker Alfwear. During the early days, the company specialized in making ski hats. The founders of the company, including legendary climber Conrad Anker, eventually shifted gears and set out on different paths. Remaining founder, Kevin Boyle, believed in the spirit of the brand and decided to start making clothing that embodied their initial focus. Renaming the company Kuhl, Boyle designed and manufactured clothing for mountain lifestyles. Nearly 30 years later, Kuhl has broadcast its message of sustainable fabrics and innovative styling across the globe.

Another homegrown organization that has gained global attention is SkullCandy (skullcandy.com). This Park City-based company has dominated the personal headphone market and garners a cult following. Seen the world over in the ears of athletes and celebrities, SkullCandy is the quintessential combination of art and sound. Its premiere product was introduced as the LINK, which integrated mobile phones and music devices. Consumers have rapidly adopted the brand and made it the third best selling headphone in the United States, a phenomenal achievement for a company less than 10 years old.

As we celebrate the 10th anniversary of the 2002 Salt Lake Winter Games, it’s exciting to imagine what the next decade will bring. Investment continues to flow into the state and new outdoor-centered companies are emerging every year. The recognition and status these corporations bring to Utah keep our local economy strong and vibrant as we move into a new realm of doing business.

Sean understands the value of a cold beer after an epic day of adventuring, as well as good friends to share the experience with. When not ski patrolling at the Bird, you can find him on the golf course enjoying a game with his grandfather.


About Author

Jenny Willden is the Managing Editor of Outdoor Sports Guide and a self-proclaimed gear and grammar nut. She's a member of the North American Travel Journalists Association and the Adventure Travel Trade Association. A lover of adventure and travel, she's happiest when riding horses or snowboarding in Utah’s mountains. Follow Jenny’s exploits on Twitter @jennywillden or Instagram @jlwillden.

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