San Francisco / Denver
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Mittens and gloves
Co-founder Bradford Peterson makes gloves and mittens that meld fashion and performance.
The idea for Astis came from a pair of handcrafted mittens, made in the finest Cree tradition.
"Back in high school, my friend was canoeing in Canada and he traded a Swiss Army Knife for a pair of mittens," says Peterson. "I don't know why, but he gave them to me. I skied in them from high school to college."
These were no ordinary mittens, mind you, but Cree-made, caribou leather mittens with ornate beadwork. Peterson added liners for warmth. He says they were otherwise bulletproof.
After growing up in Cleveland, Peterson was dead-set on going to college in Colorado to ski and attended CU Boulder. He graduated and moved to San Francisco, where he worked in corporate finance before starting Astis with another childhood friend, Charlie Brown.
The final entrepreneurial impetus came in 2007 then the old mittens met their maker. "My sister's dog ate them," says Peterson. "They were near and dear to my heart."
Brown pushed the idea, telling Peterson, "You love those. You can't find them anywhere."
It wasn't a hard sell. "I was working in finance for a big corporations and decided to go out on my own doing something I love," says Peterson. The duo sourced samples, found a contract manufacturer, and launched Astis in 2010.
There were a few early hiccups. They missed the sales cycle with the prototypes in year one and their supplier mistakenly sent Italian shoe leather for the first batch the following year. But they soldiered on and honed the design. "We're always evolving," says Peterson.
So Astis brought manufacturing in-house, and work with a cut-and-sew shop in upstate New York. "We had moved contract manufacturers a couple times," says Peterson. Why? "It was expensive and we knew we could do it better." Manufacturing the mittens and gloves themselves has allowed for better control of inventory and the supply chain, he adds.
A Wisconsin tannery now provides Astis with black, brown, and tan leather, injected with silicon for waterproofing and lined with Polartec Thermal Pro High Loft insulation for warmth. Like Peterson's original mittens, they feature ornate hand-stitched beadwork and fur-fringed cuffs. Mittens and gloves retail for $145 to $245. Astis sells them direct and through stores in snowsports destinations like Vail and Park City as well as a few outlets in major metro areas.
Astis has expanded into leather wallets and facemasks, but gloves and mittens remain the company's primary products. "I think we make 127 products," says Peterson. "Our flagship product is our long-cuff mitten."
Quality is a big focus, he adds. Customers "don't have many problems. If there is a problem, we take care of it."
Astis also offers custom mittens and gloves, and offers contract manufacturing; Filson is its largest customer. While the Astis brand is snowsports-centric, Peterson says that winter performance extends to numerous categories. "We target skiing, but if they work with skiing, they work anywhere," he says.
The market has responded. The company saw sales double in its first years after the retail launch, and Peterson expects 30 percent growth in 2017 and a "bigger jump" in 2018 based on orders. "As unique as our mittens are, it's amazing it's a good business," he says.
Peterson relocated back to Colorado by 2013 and spearheads sales, while Brown remains in the Bay Area to oversee day-to-day operations and the company's finances. The company may move to Colorado in the coming years, but Peterson says that the Denver marijuana boom has proven a hurdle. "We talked about moving to Colorado," he says. "For a while, it was almost cheaper to do it there [California]."
Challenges: "Funding growth is difficult," says Peterson, who self-funded Astis' launch with Brown; the company now has lines of credit with two banks. That's compounded by another issue, he adds: "Not only are we seasonal, we're extremely seasonal. We're, like, December. Everything goes out the door at the same time."
Growing exports has also proven difficult in recent years. Peterson says sales to Canada have dropped from a third of the total to less than 25 percent. "It's gone down a lot because the dollar is strong," he says.
"As long as we have steady growth, we'll be okay," he adds. "It's whether we slow down or explode."
Opportunities: Peterson says he sees potential for growth in contract manufacturing for private-label clients and customized gift programs for big corporations. But he also says it's difficult to balance with Astis’ core business. "There's a lot of lead time on that," he says. "If I miss deliveries with tried and true customers, that's where things will go downhill."
And, in spite of the strong U.S. dollar, he adds, "Europe's a huge market for us. Japan could be big." But growing international sales involves finding the right distributors: "If you go with the wrong one, it's almost a two-year gap until you figure it out."
Needs: "We need cold winters," says Peterson. "We need snow. We're farmers. We depend on snow. A good early season really helps us."