Denver / Leadville, Colorado
Employees: 10 (plus about 40 more in contract facilities)
Founder Michael Collins has proven you can make high-quality, affordable technical outerwear in Colorado -- now he wants to take it to the next level.
After working in -- and being laid off from -- the telecommunications industry in Tennessee, Collins decided it was time for a change and moved to Colorado in the late 2000s. "It was either stay in the corporate rat race, or come out here and live a good life," he says.
Collins chose the latter path, moved to Leadville, and focused his energy on skiing. He made a system to carry his skis while hiking to untouched powder in the backcountry. Fellow diehards liked what they saw and he went into business making the nylon-based systems in early 2010.
By the end of the year, he saw a demand for mainstream products and moved into outerwear. "I wanted to put all of the great features in a jacket that was affordable and a U.S.-made garment," he says.
He worked with garment engineering experts to develop his jackets to came up with a line of products that sell for less than $400. "I know when I don't have experience to turn to an expert," he says.
The results have been technical jackets that are waterproof, breathable, and rated for -5° to 50° F with no extra layering -- in other words, jackets that compare favorably to those made overseas by the titans of the outdoor business.
"Can we make the same garments that they make in China and Vietnam?" asks Collins. "The answer is yes."
Collins says his telecom background has helped him walk the tightrope of keeping costs down while manufacturing domestically. "I had past experience in procurement, and I was very diligent about tracking down sources and fighting for prices," he explains.
The first Freeride jackets sold out quickly. "I started researching, 'How do I take this to the next level?’" Collins says. His strategy: keep the catalog streamlined and the quality high. "I keep the styles to a minimum. There are only two or three variations."
There's a reason for that. "Every time you want to add a style or a women's cut, you're laying out tens of thousands of dollars," says Collins, noting that quality would also suffer with a major catalog expansion. "I don't have the resources to put out a wide range of junk. I want to make the best stuff I can so I need to direct my resources." As part of this emphasis, he's in the process of moving Freeride's distribution to Denver, where Freeride opened a production facility in 2011.
While Collins has largely eschewed traditional retail distribution and focused on direct sales, he found the uniform business as a fertile market for growth. Freeride landed a contract to make technical jackets for ABC News' on-air talent worldwide in 2013 and has since produced thousands of units under his Fulsus USA brand.
"I've got a five-year contract," says Collins. "I'm about a year into it. We're preparing to launch the affiliate station program." He says that as many as 239 ABC affiliates could place orders for jackets.
Collins hopes to build relationships with other Colorado manufacturers to offer a broader range of products. "If there was a local fleece manufacturer, they could private-label that tom me and I could pass it through to [ABC News]," he says. "My expertise is in jacket manufacturing, seam taping, and waterproof, breathable garments. I'd prefer to partner with other Colorado manufacturers for fleece or wool or socks or hats. I'd put the ABC logo on it and it goes worldwide."
Freeride has also made uniform jackets for a Front Range retailer, the Colorado Avalanche Information Center, and the Free Ride Transit System in Breckenridge.
The move has required an investment and plenty of hard work. "Last year, we were the only Colorado company that I know of running seam-taping machines in the state," says Collins. In 2014, he invested in several laser-guided machines that require less operator experience. With the old ones, says Collins, "I was very limited in who could run them."
Top recreation brands have approached Collins for advice in domestic manufacturing. "I constantly have people who want to know exactly how I do things," he says. "I have to walk that line very gingerly. I've had to earn every single penny, one sale at a time, and it's not easy. Why would I just give that away?"
Challenges: Wholesale distribution into traditional retail channels. "It's a huge challenge because of the margins," says Collins. "In the beginning, I tried to work with retailers. I pulled back from that and primarily sell direct now."
But he's now hoping to partner with retailers who are negotiable on margins to design garments that will hit the right price point for all parties involved. "If Sports Authority would step up, I could create 50 to 100 jobs in 30 days and they could say, 'Made in Colorado,’ and appeal to more customers," Collins says. "Give me that challenge. Put me in position to solve that problem and I will solve it."
Opportunities: Private label business with snowsports brands. Colllins currently works with Weston Snowboards and Rocky Mountain Underground Skis to produce branded jackets, but is on the cusp of launching "a virtual distribution system that gives other brands and retailers the opportunity to sell our products without investing in those products," he says. "We're going to drop-ship the orders from Denver with their name on it."
Needs: "Exposure," says Collins. "I need the companies and government bodies in Colorado to at least shop us. They're buying uniforms. They need to at least put us on that list so come in and make a presentation. All we want is an opportunity."