New Offices & New Categories for BlackStrap Industries
BlackStrap Industries Inc. was founded in 2008 to fill a void in the snow industry within technical face wear. At the time, they believed there was room for improvement in comfort, performance, and aesthetic in the category.
The brand entered the snow market back in 2010 and brought a refreshing style and business acumen, sourcing, cutting and sewing all fabrics domestically with distribution from their hometown and headquarters in Bend, Oregon.
In Summer 2015, the brand saw an opportunity to expand in cross-markets, entering into the fishing and activewear categories. Once the snow melts, most of the guys in the office start fishing, biking, and exploring the outdoors. Entering these categories seemed like a no-brainer for the brand.
Jim Sanco, the brand manager for BlackStrap Industries welcomed TransWorld Business in style at the front door of the company’s office. We got to take a tour of the new facility and check in on the brand as they enter year two of the summer product categories. Sanco and team opened up about the challenges, lessons learned, and advice for brands looking to enter new categories.
How was the transition to the new office been?
Slow but steady, as we moved in on New Year's Eve of this year, during the busy travel season, when a number of us are out of the office and on the road. By the middle of February we were totally moved in and settled. It has become more and more of a home every day. For both the offices and distribution area, it is nice to have adequate room as well as space to grow into. That was something that was on our minds a lot before moving. It is a big relief to know we are in a space that we are going to be in for at least the next three to five years.
For us, it is important to find that right balance with growth. As we've grown distribution and slowly brought people on, we’ve had to get creative with limited space. Not being sure about if you can find another spot made us be careful with each and every move. We are now at a point where we have a facility that gives everyone their own space, has common areas for collaborative work, and more room for future growth.
What is the best part about the new BlackStrap office?
Probably that it is still in Bend, Oregon. That has always been a main focus for us. Being able to be 20 minutes from the closest chairlift, river, and biking trails is what makes makes Bend such an amazing place to live and work. We are able to keep a constant mindset on our product performance and quality. If we have an idea we can quickly head into our backyard, test it, and get firsthand feedback in a wide range of conditions.
Bend is a relatively small town so there are some operational challenges compared to being in a larger city. As a wholesaler and manufacturer, we need our facility to have specific attributes regarding floor space, office space, cleanliness etc. Spaces that meet all (or some) of these attributes are few and far between. We needed a decent sized office and a large warehouse space. There really aren't that many spaces that fit that here in Bend. Finding a larger facility to move into was a process, but we are glad it worked out the way it did and we are happy to be one of the few companies born and raised in Bend Oregon.
How do you balance growing the product line and keeping that unique look?
The core of every product is still the same. "Our fabrics. Our facilities." All of our products start with the same simple premise that it needs to be made from our fabrics, as well as cut and sewn at our facilities here in the United States. Since we mill our fabric domestically and manage all aspects of product design in-house, we are very hands on with our products throughout every stage. We take a lot of pride in creating products that set the industry standard as far as functionality, comfort, and protection, regardless of the elements you face outdoors.
What is new for the fishing and activewear categories this year?
We had a solid foundation from year one. Going into year two we didn’t add new products for these categories so the focus has been on refining the products themselves and continuing to listen to our retail partners regarding our sales programs, pop, merchandising, and the presentation of our products at retail.
As we have done in snow for years, our regional sales reps are putting on in-store product clinics and getting shop employees into gear to try out for themselves. Shop employees using (and believing in) our gear has always been the first step.
We are very critical with all of our products and are always looking to improve their performance. Whether we are refining color pallets or changing the cuts, the feedback we hear from the industry is incorporated into our products. Small improvements for this year include elastic bicep bands on the daily sleeves, a refined cut to our tube, and a more contoured shape to the hood for hat and sunglass compatibility. Same products, new looks, added comfort, improved performance, happy end users–that is our goal.
Beyond the product, our big push for these categories has all been behind the scenes working to make things more seamless for our retail partners. As we have done in snow for years, our regional sales reps are putting on in-store product clinics and getting shop employees into gear to try out for themselves. Shop employees using (and believing in) our gear has always been the first step. The best sales pitch we have heard comes from any employee simply telling the customer "This is the one I use.”
Can you speak on the team and ambassadors for the fishing program?
Across all categories, our ambassadors have been a tremendous asset. These people are spending tons of time in the outdoors doing the activities they love. This results in the best product testing possible, helping us to continually improve our products and develop our year-round product lines.
Our fishing team consists of people who live in all conditions, from British Columbia to the Florida Keys. The team is very diverse and covers all different kinds of disciplines. Some are in freshwater lakes. Others are in saltwater flats. This gets products used in all sorts of settings, ranging from river banks to offshore fishing boats. Our ambassadors are on the water more than just about anyone I've ever seen. Their feedback has helped in the development of our products to better protect you from the sun, cold, bugs, or whatever other elements you may face while out on the water fishing.
There really has only been a few companies legitimately doing technical facegear in fishing over the past 30+ years. We aren’t reinventing the wheel by any means but our ambassadors and their input have been a great asset for R&D. They constantly come to us with ideas for improvements, new products, and applications.
Has your retail strategy changed now that you are working with fly shops and bike shops?
No matter what the activity, if you are really hot, cold, or sunburnt, your experience will not be as enjoyable. That is what we have always been about. Our story has also been about better protection and added comfort for a more enjoyable experience in the outdoors (winter or summer). Retailer education is required so that this message is properly conveyed to the consumer. Our new categories include vastly different retail settings but they all require the same technical sales process. The consumers want to know what the best stuff is and why they want to spend their money on it.
The consumer looks to the product experts for the best gear for their activities. At a snow shop, once a consumer has purchased all their outerwear, skis, helmet, goggles & gloves it usually takes a retail associate to tell them that they don't want to forget a facemask. The product experts must be able to tell the consumer the reasons they want one and show them the available options. It is exactly the same with fishing. People spend thousands of dollars on rods, reels, nets, and everything else. It requires someone working at the shop to suggest our products to the consumer and explain the benefits of using one of our products versus not.
Creating relationships with our retailers is a major focus for our company. We want to educate shop employees on our products and company. Their feedback on our products has been very valuable. They are the ones on the sales floor talking to consumers about issues they may be having or shortcomings of other products in the category.
To begin you were exclusively in snow. Now your business covers all four seasons. How does that change operations around here?
The best part about entering into the Fish/Bike/Outdoor categories is that the people we work with are the same as the folks we work with in Snow. Everyone is passionate and gets outside to enjoy themselves. This makes the sales side of things enjoyable because we are still working with people that are exactly like us.
There is such a synergy between these activities that entering the new categories hasn't been too much of a challenge. The timing is the hardest part now. Making sure we are staying on schedule with higher manufacturing volume and trade shows…
There is such a synergy between these activities that entering the new categories hasn't been too much of a challenge. The timing is the hardest part now. Making sure we are staying on schedule with higher manufacturing volume and trade shows like ICAST earlier this month in Orlando. Just like our path within the snow category, it will take time to get over the learning curve and get ahead.
New products for these categories but they still have that some aesthetic style. How important was it for the brand to have that same look across all categories?
It is tough. Everyone puts their logo in that same spot. We try to make our products so that when you see the color or cut you know, it's a BlackStrap. In 2014, we introduced a brand new product to the fishing category, The Daily Sleeve. It is a super functional piece that improves the comfort of the user tenfold. There are a couple companies trying to release their own version, but the style, colorways, functionality and branding of ours has continued to stand out in the industry. I wear them everywhere when I'm outdoors and I always get grilled about them. People ask what they are, where they are from, and that kind of thing.
We definitely spent a lot of time on our color ways for this year. Our tubes for the outdoors and fish categories feature 100 new colorways including 2 artist collab series with Vaughn Cochran and Rachel Pohl. The sleeves feature over three dozen all-new colorways and 10 different colorways for the Daily Hood.
Collectively as a group we went through every option and carefully selected the color ways. We started off with probably 400+ options then slowly but surely widdled them away until we got to our core color ways for biking, fishing, and active wear. There is everything from fish scale patterns to animal tracks. We put a lot of time and thought into this process to make sure there is a style for everyone that they will be psyched on.
What advice would you give to brands looking to enter into other categories?
Everyone in our office either fishes or bikes and actively participates in outdoor activities year round. We take products out on a daily basis and use them across a variety of applications. It made too much sense to grow beyond snow and enter these categories. Along with the positive feedback and support from our retailers and Sales Reps for the products, we developed our SPSU line from the ground up.
My best piece of advice would be to not force anything. Entering new markets or releasing new products is always a gamble no matter how sure you are of your products. It has to make sense and be authentic, if not people will know. We didn't have to fabricate something that was new or out of the ordinary for us when we expanded. Everything fit right into our product lines and stayed true to our story.