Industry: Consumer & Lifestyle
Products: Ultralight backpacks and equipment
Owner Chris McMaster is prepared for the long haul as he brings new, Utah-made products to the ultralight backpacking market in 2020.
Since buying ULA Equipment in 2009 from founder Brian Frankle, with whom he hiked the Pacific Crest Trail, McMaster has seen business increase significantly. "Except for last year, which was kind of flat for us, we've seen exponential growth," he says. "We're doing at least 10 times what we did when we bought the company."
Frankle chose to sell his domestic manufacturer when it started growing, according to McMaster. "Like a lot of guys who do long-distance hiking, Brian didn't really like people all that much and when the business got to the point where he had to deal with a lot of people he bailed and sold it to me."
While McMaster is respecting the legacy of packs designed by Frankle, like the Ohm 2.0, which still uses what's essentially a carbon-fiber arrow shaft made in Utah as its frame, he's also made some significant changes at the company, which manufactures exclusively in Logan.
ULA uses lightweight, strong fabrics like ROBIC from South Korea and virtually waterproof X-Pac fabric produced in the U.S. The lightweight fabrics, which are often used for sails, are more expensive than a lot of fabrics used in backpacks, but they're still less expensive than Dyneema, another ultralight fabric. "We found ROBIC and it was so much stronger and so much less expensive, we started using it," McMaster says.
ULA's supply chain has gotten more reliable in recent years, he adds. "When I first bought the company the fabric was a little bit hard to get then. It was expensive and Brian would only buy a little at a time. Then he'd been out and we didn't have fabric to sew things."
It's now much easier to source the materials, and McMaster has capitalized on that. "The one thing we've always done is just kept a huge inventory of fabrics and all the ancillary stuff that we need. So right now we should probably be able to go for a year without buying fabric," he explains. Building up a stockpile of inventory might run counter to what larger manufacturers do, he adds, "but we'll build it up so that we can always get product out."
The spring is typically one of ULA Equipment's biggest sales periods. "We build inventory for this time of year," McMaster says. "We don't make any money in the fall."
Backpackers are normally planning multi-day or long-distance hiking trips, but organizations behind long-distance trails, national and state parks, and forest lands have closed. That's in addition to other fears stoked by the COVID-19 pandemic, which has impacted sales significantly.
"We're actually doing okay," McMaster says. "But we're still down about 40 percent, which is huge."
Orders, roughly 80 percent of which are direct-to-consumer, are still coming in, and McMaster also is filling international orders, like a recent order from Germany. He estimates that about 10 percent of ULA's business comes from international customers and another 10 percent from the few U.S. stores the company sells through, most of which are near long-distance trails.
ULA Equipment remains able to employ about half the staff making backpacks and other products. The remainder have gone on unemployment. "That puts the payroll down to a level where it's manageable with what we're taking in right now," says McMaster, noting that the company will scale back up as things start to return to normal.
McMaster doesn't expect sales to bounce back right away. "I see it kind of muddling along where it is this year. It depends, number one, on how quickly we get the John Muir Trail open. Can we reopen the AT, PCT, ADT so people can section hike? That will help. But if all the parks and all the trails stay closed for an extended period of time, obviously that's going to have a pretty big effect on us. I don't see a V-shape recovery, but we're well-positioned and we'll get through it."
The company is launching new products in 2020, primarily two new backpacks based on the existing ULA packs. One will be a larger version of the Dragonfly daypack, and the other will be based on the Circuit multi-day pack but using the X-Pac fabric. McMaster says he is also looking forward to expanding into some other products, including a backpacking sleeping quilt.
Challenges: "My biggest concern when I bought the business is just that kids didn't seem to be getting outside," says McMaster. "Now it's all young kids that are doing the PCT and the AT. The biggest problem that we have when things are busy is getting good people to work for us."
Opportunities: New products, says McMaster. "Quilts are really big. We've generally just stuck with backpacks. We think we see a good opportunity here and we definitely see a niche that we can jump in."
Needs: "Just survive," says McMaster. "More customers."