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.
Kathy Beckel Darnielle: Beckel Canvas Products
Fifty years ago, Kathy Beckel Darnielle's father Bob, at one time a parachute rigger in WWII, founded a business in Portland as the official outfitter of curtains and tents for Volkswagen vans all over the west coast. "When the VW boom hit in the late 60s, that business was just too big – it went elsewhere, so my dad got into building tents for hunting and horse packing," says Darnielle. Beckel still builds those classic wall tents, many of which can accommodate a wood stove, and makes luggage now, as well. A recent collaboration with Danner Boots put the small shop on the radar of cool hunters nationwide. But don't expect rapid expansion from the brand: "We just like being a small company, and maintaining the fact that we're made in America. We're not going anywhere," says Darnielle.