By Eric Peterson | Jul 05, 2021
Yurts, tents, and tipis
Gibson worked in the landscaping industry for 30 years, rising to the rank of president at Swingle, before going into yurt manufacturing.
After leaving Swingle in 2017, Gibson proceeded to evaluate more than 200 businesses with his wife, Kelly, with a plan to buy one as their next career move. "I looked at everything from cattle ranching to FedEx routes -- who knew you could buy those -- to wineries to solar business to excavating businesses," says Gibson. "You name it, I spent some time with it."
But the Gibsons had a bit of an epiphany, came back to Colorado Yurt Company -- which they had passed on earlier -- and struck a deal with founders Dan and Emma Kigar, who started the company in 1976. After the sale closed in early 2020, the Gibsons relocated from the Front Range to Montrose.
"What we found was that it wasn't about the money," says Gibson. "I felt I had the energy to take it to the next level. I had all this experience with growth and development and people and processes, and they all needed to go to the next level here."
He adds, "Not only did I like the product and the opportunity to improve the product, I liked the customers and the industry that we're in. I like that we make outdoor connections through the structures that we have."
Gibson pushed sales as soon as he took over, and saw a big uptick after a slow spring that included a pivot to personal protective equipment (PPE) manufacturing in the early days of the COVID-19 pandemic. "Our sales numbers in May were less than 30 percent of what we expected when we bought the business," he says. "By July and August, we had the largest sales months in company history. . . . We ended the year 45 percent above the prior year."
The company had 37 employees at the beginning of 2020; that's grown to 58 in the interceding 18 months. Director of Sales Garrett Walker, formerly of Otter Products, joined in late 2020.
In spring 2021, Gibson implemented an Acumatica ERP system and says he sees room for a wide range of process improvements. "My buddies in my Vistage group would always ask me: 'What's the low-hanging fruit?'" he says. "There are grapes on the ground everywhere. It's like I'm standing in a vat of them. If we shuffle our feet, we're making wine. There are so many opportunities."
One of them involves the evaluation of existing manufacturing processes and product designs with an eye on manufacturability. To this end, Gibson hired Director of Products Chris Nance from Black Diamond in 2021.
"Now that we have some experience on staff with international sourcing through Chris' work, we're finding different methods to manufacture the products that we have," says Gibson. "We're figuring out there's different mills and places to go for our raw materials than what we had been using in the past. With scale comes purchasing power that we didn't have in the past."
Customers are split between residential and commercial/institutional luxury camping -- or "glamping" -- customers. Escalante Yurts in Utah is a client in the latter category. "We're literally selling in every market in the U.S.," says Gibson. "The glamping industry is not only huge in the U.S. -- we sell to Hawaii, we sell to New Zealand."
While tipis and tents are sold in similar volumes, Colorado Yurt Company's namesake product brings in the lion's share of revenue. "What we're finding by the way we branded the company in the past is that people see us as a yurt company that also does tents and tipis," says Gibson. "We'll be revealing our new brand this fall. We're rebranding the company and our products."
The 2021 forecast is for 40 percent more sales growth. Gibson says he has plans to more than double sales from 2019 to 2022.
About 80 percent of the company's staff works in production. Cut-and-sew operations and metal fabrication are handled in-house, and the company works with Distinctive Wood Designs and other local vendors on certain components. "We're in fabrics, we're in wood, and we're in metal," says Gibson. "So we have all three disciplines under one roof."
Colorado Yurt Company is building a new 30,000-square-foot HQ and factory on the Colorado Outdoors campus in Montrose, more than doubling the footprint of the current 12,500 square feet of production space.
"Now we're stuck where everybody else is, which is a massive increase in construction costs and a backlog of building design time," he says. "We had hoped to break ground in July but that could be pushed off dramatically based on the delivery of the steel."
Regardless, Gibson says it's been an eventful first year and a half of his ownership, and he doesn't see that changing anytime soon: "In a period of 24 months, we'll have changed out our whole ERP system, rebranded the company, and started construction on a new manufacturing facility -- while at the same time growing revenue by 100 percent."
He adds, "We're a 45-year-old startup. That's how I think about it. There's change happening all the time and you've got to be comfortable with that."
Challenges: Supply chain. "Lumber's really painful right now," says Gibson. "We paid $19 a sheet for OSB [oriented strand board] when I bought the business, and at our peak here we were at $61 three weeks ago. That's scary stuff." In response, the company has raised prices across the board by 20 percent.
Exports are "purposefully" a small sliver of sales, but he sees a growing international opportunity in the glamping industry.
Opportunities: About half of Colorado Yurt Company's customers are consumers, and the other half of the market are glamping resorts and other commercial operations. "What we're scaling for is the ability to partner with larger glamping resort owners that have multiple sites," says Gibson. "Nobody in this niche is big enough to take on an order that would be 200, 300 units at a time."
Gibson says he also has plans to expand the catalog with the rebranding in late 2021, noting, "I think our number-one-selling product three years from now, we don't build yet."
Lead times on yurts are approaching four months as of June 2021, and Gibson sees an opportunity to improvise on that through streamlining the company's legacy processes.
"If I could produce more today, I could sell more today," he says. "We have so much opportunity and we're limited in the capacity we can take on."
Needs: Skilled employees in both leadership and production. "My intent isn't as much to grow the number of people as it is to grow the wages of the people we have," says Gibson.
Automation is part of that strategy, he adds. "We're really a manual shop in a lot of what we do," he says. "I want someone who can produce four times as much, and I can pay them 50 percent more because I can teach them another skill -- then we all win."
Gibson also says capital could be another need in the longer term: "There will be a capital question in the future. We're growing dramatically and will have to decide if we're going to stay in one facility or make this bigger and have more regional activities."