Mammoth Lakes, California
Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Co-founders Jeff and Susan Russell innovate and tests the company's products in the great outdoors of the Eastern Sierra.
Russell co-founded Ridge Merino with his wife, Susan, to design and produce outdoor apparel with Merino wool. "Merino wool comes from Australia and New Zealand," says Russell. "It's fine, soft fibers offer many advantages over other types of wools and materials." The end result is a warmer, more comfortable garment.
He became familiar with the warming and moisture wicking characteristics of this wool, during the years he spent designing clothing and soft goods for a Utah-based ski company. "I was very lucky because I spent a long time working at Armada Skis to get the experience in working with such a tricky fabric," says Russell. "I really learned quite a bit during that time, and it made me feel pretty confident that if we were able to get our product to the outdoor market, we could do a really good job creating top-tier apparel."
Ridge Merino launched in the Los Angeles area, but Russell soon moved the company to Mammoth Lakes, the ski town on the east side of the Sierra Nevada Mountains. "It's a place that was a second home for us, and we frequented it often," he says. "We did all our product testing there, so we just decided to relocate our whole business to the area."
The town was a perfect place for the Russells to innovate, evaluate, and get feedback from skiers. "We do just about everything here outside of manufacturing," says Russell. "We design, develop, and market. We're warehousing the products, shipping, fulfilling, and we have a small showroom."
The company offers a growing line of apparel, but warming base layers and moisture-wicking underwear are the company's most popular products. "These were the first products we made and they're still very popular," says Russell.
The company sources its Merino wool from Australia and New Zealand, and contract manufacturers in Asia make custom fabric and finished clothing that are shipped to California. At some point in the future, Russell says he hopes to actually bring manufacturing home to California, but the current supply chain is more efficient for the company.
"Production in Asia is particularly efficient, because of its proximity to Australia and New Zealand where our wool comes from. If the yarn and fabric are already there, it's cheaper and more convenient to produce the garments there as well," says Russell. "However, we have done some sampling in San Francisco and I do see us making some products here in the future if they can be differentiated in the marketplace and can command a higher price."
With only four employees, staffing isn't yet a problem from their location, which has seasonal traffic. "As we get bigger, that could become a concern," says Russell. "We're keeping an eye on that as we grow."
Ridge Merino markets directly to consumers for most of its sales, but the products are also featured in one of the local ski and snowboard shops in the area. "Future plans include getting the products into more retail shops," says Russell. "I want to keep the direct customer relationship a priority."
Challenges: "We're a small team and time is always hard to come by," says Russell. "As we grow, we're hopeful that we can find talent up here, as well as find the capital we need to grow the business. This will allow us to buy inventory and market the brands."
Opportunities: "Expansion can happen in a lot of different ways," says Russell. "A lot of it will be very natural to what we're doing now, adding on different versions and introducing new fabrics. All our product is versatile, multi-sport, multi-activity, so it gives us the opportunity to grow in different areas of the market."
He says word of mouth with locals is driving sales. "Being able to test your products and get feedback from all these amazing athletes that live in town is really a huge advantage," says Russell. "We offer value, and because we're a small company, we can do some special details that this mountain community appreciates. For instance, we offer artist-commissioned prints on Merino wool. It's unique to our brand, you really don't see it very much."
Needs: "We need continued, controlled growth and expansion of the product lines," says Russell. "This will also help to grow the size of the company."