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.
Hal Stephens: Princeton Tec
Hal Stephens grew up in Bordentown New Jersey with his father William's passion for scuba diving at the center of family life. When William's employer, the now-defunct electronics manufacturer RCA, wanted to move him in 1975 to Indianapolis – not a diving hotbed – he stayed put and started the company his son Hal now runs. Originally, William sold dive timers, then attained success with a space-age underwater dive light made from Lexan. The business now specializes in lighting, and makes over 50 technical lamps in five categories – biking, outdoors, tactical, industrial, and yes, scuba – all in the U.S. And why hasn't Hal cashed out on the family business's success? "It's not about money," Stephens says. "It's just part of me. I wouldn't feel comfortable about letting go of Princeton Tec, ever."