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.
Petra Hilleberg: Hilleberg the Tentmaker
When Sweden-born Petra Hilleberg was ten, she told her father Bo that she'd sell his father's tents in the United States one day, and he laughed. But less than a week after graduating from Seattle University in 2000, that's exactly what she was doing, as she launched a U.S. center of operations out of a tiny storage unit in Redmond, Washington. Now a multimillion dollar business, Petra runs all operations outside of Europe for Hilleberg the Tentmaker, and is in daily contact with her mother and father at headquarters back in Stockholm. Meanwhile, the family's tents frequently are taken on some of the world's most hardcore expeditions, like those to the North and South Pole. "We're all still involved because we still have a lot of passion for what we're creating," Hilleberg says. "My parents always say 'The business is here for us, we're not here for the business,'" and I think that's why we still love it."