A familiar theme emerged when we talked to eight of the people at the reins of the premier family-owned-and-run outdoor gear companies in America. "It all began as a hobby," says Hal Stephens, speaking of his father’s interest in scuba diving, the ignition for a business that early on sold a single diving flashlight – and over 35 years became now a multi-million dollar tactical lighting company the younger Stephens now runs. "It wasn't overnight, of course. there were quite a few hard knocks on the way."
In fact, each of these companies, from a bootmaker whose wares last for decades, to a paddle-crafter working in high-tech carbon fiber, in some part spun out of a free-time pursuit. These families aren’t making widgets to fill some blank space in the product universe; they’re making the gear they’d want to use go to out and explore the world in the open air on Saturday and Sunday. We talked to each of these leaders about their company’s heritage, and one product which evinces it best.
Chuck Buck: Buck Knives
After Japan attacked Pearl Harbor in 1945, the U.S. Government asked for citizens to donate fixed-blade knives for the troops. "My grandfather said 'I can do something here,' and set to making 2,000 knives, made from old files, in the basement of a church in Mountain Home, Idaho," says Chuck Buck, now Buck Knives' chairman. Two years later, a pastor convinced his grandfather and father to incorporate and start building their high carbon, heat-treated steel knives en masse, and one of america's greatest family-run outdoor gear companies was off and running in San Diego. It's not leaving family hands any time soon – Chuck's son, CJ, is the current CEO, and Joshua Buck, his grandson, is moving up the ranks of the company, based in Post Falls, Idaho since 2005. "Our name is the most important thing, and we've seen many other companies sell and get their name pulled apart once new ownership sells an inferior product. We're not gonna do that," says Chuck.