Gear companies are never too far from the cutting edge—and not only with regard to the products they design and manufacture. Many are at the forefront of workplace innovations and employee perks.
The 2015 Best Places to Work
Check out all the categories in this year's Best Places to Work program.
Product testing gives workers an excuse to get out and have fun, and the nature of the work means creating items that serve and satisfy individual customers—which makes for a fulfilling job.
Location: St. Paul, Minnesota
Number of Employees: 43
Ergodyne is housed in a converted railway repair shop in St. Paul, a fitting place for a company that builds protective gear for workers in transportation, construction, and manufacturing. The now-modern headquarters inspires creativity with wall graphics of Einstein and Edison and a dedicated product-testing center. And it’s as much a bastion of fitness as it is tech, thanks to an in-house gym, standing desks, and an annual office-wide 5K race.
Frequent wellness challenges involving weight lifting, running, and stress reduction encourage the company’s engineers and designers to eat healthier and work out more—and then reward them with cash bonuses. Other office perks include: NFL kickoff parties, summer half-day Fridays, and Minnesota-themed happy hours, complete with Salted Nut Rolls and local beer.
“It’s a collaborative, creative environment, with music playing all day [via Spotify], people wearing workout clothes, and leadership with open doors,” says Lindsay Herda, associate marketing director at Ergodyne. “It’s a place where people want to get to work.”
Location: San Clemente, California
Number of Employees: 130
Stance launched in 2009 with one goal: to shake up the sock market with forward-thinking, artist-driven designs. That creative business strategy bled into the work environment. The company, which has been known to sell a “pair” of three socks (in case you lose one), rewards unorthodox thinking. Its team of ambassadors, who contribute design ideas and are called Punks and Poets, includes NBA players, pro surfers and skaters, filmmakers, and Rihanna.
“When we looked at the sock landscape, there wasn’t a clear leader,” says John Wilson, president and co-founder of Stance. “We chose the name Stance because by definition, it can be a point of a view, a posture, but it can also be a form of expression.”
The San Clemente headquarters constitute another form of expression, with retrofitted shipping containers that serve as offices and a Zio Ziegler mural above the basketball court. The office also features a skate bowl, table tennis, a golf simulator, and a full gym staffed with a personal trainer. Cold-brew Stumptown Coffee pours from a tap, and a chef whips up two meals a day for employees. The beach is ten minutes away.
“If you need to go surf at lunch because the waves are good or go ride your mountain bike, do that,” says Wilson. “Our culture is about freedom and accountability.”
3. United by Blue
Location: Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Number of Employees: 25
United by Blue launched five years ago as a T-shirt company with a philanthropic mission. Founder and “Chief Trash Collector” Brian Linton wanted to remove one pound of garbage from waterways and oceans for every shirt sold. And he wanted to do this not by writing checks to nonprofits but by organizing the cleanups himself. Five years later, the company, which has expanded beyond T-shirts into handcrafted apparel and items for the home and outdoors, has picked up more than 250,000 pounds of waste in 22 states. In fact, when customers buy United by Blue’s organic-cotton tote bags or bison-down socks, they can volunteer for a cleanup.
“The idea was to create a brand built for people living in an urban environment who enjoy the outdoors but also to have a direct tie to conservation and be a catalyst for change,” says Mike Cangi, co-founder and vice president of the company.
In 2013, United by Blue opened a flagship store (complete with a coffeehouse with fancy donuts) in Philadelphia’s Old City neighborhood, with office headquarters upstairs. Today there are three UBB stores, and its products are sold in more than 400 retail locations. It also employs 25 people, nearly all of whom are younger than 30. The whole staff pitches in on cleanups. Their reward: themed potluck lunches, quarterly meetings held at campsites, and access to the shops’ DIY workshops to learn skills including kombucha brewing, bookbinding, or terrarium making.
Location: Steamboat Springs, Colorado
Number of Employees: 65
Wool used to be thought of as itchy and uncomfortable. Then, cozy, plush merino came along and revolutionized the sock and base-layer industries. SmartWool, which started in Steamboat Springs in 1994, was an early leader in this space, selling soft merino socks to skiers. Today, the company offers a full line of merino apparel.
Working at SmartWool means playing like a ski bum while having a real job. The company buys season passes to the Steamboat Ski Area for all 65 employees, encourages bike commuting with cash bonuses, mandates a powder day whenever it snows more than six inches, and gives employees 40 hours of paid leave for community service. On summer Fridays, the office closes at 3 p.m. and the president leads a group road bike ride.
There’s plenty of friendly competition, be it a battle between departments, a Ping-Pong tournament, or a costumed race on staff ski day. Each June, SmartWool stages a monthlong Ironman race, and the winner is whoever logs the most swimming, running, and biking hours during the 30 days.
5. Eagle Creek
Location: Carlsbad, California
Number of Employees: 47
Live, work, and travel are the three pillars luggage-maker Eagle Creek was founded on. The mission applies both to its durable duffels and its 48 employees. Based ten minutes from the beach in Carlsbad, Eagle Creek encourages its staff to test products on weekend adventures, has an in-house meditation room, and offers employees funds for Kiva microloans to support small businesses around the world.
“Travel is more than just going from point A to point B,” says Roger Spatz, president of Eagle Creek. “We try to look at the whole experience and make sure we’re providing solutions for all types of trips.”
Employees get five paid days off for service projects, and the company holds a staff-wide local trail and beach cleanup twice annually. Other perks include an on-site gym and showers and a monthly pie day. This year, the company focused on personal development to celebrate its 40th anniversary, offering leadership training and hiring speakers to coach teams on efficiency. “It’s a casual environment, but we hold each other accountable,” says Spatz, who often wears a T-shirt and shorts to the office.
Location: Ferndale, Washington
Number of Employees: 102
At Ferndale, Washington–based Superfeet, which makes over-the-counter custom insoles for your shoes, you’re not just an employee. You’re a partial owner of the company. In July, the brand announced a 100 percent employee stock-ownership plan, which means all 102 staffers now get a chunk of the business. “You work here and you get part of the company,” says Eric Hayes, vice president of marketing and product at Superfeet. “That changes the dynamic inside the building. People take responsibility because this is their company, too.”
Superfeet launched in 1977 as the brainchild of a podiatrist and an inventor who wanted to make orthotics affordable and accessible. Putting people—and their feet—first has been a company motto since day one. “It’s refreshing to sit in an executive meeting and have the question be, ‘How is this going to affect the people?’” says Hayes.
One percent of revenue goes to nonprofits, and employees get two days of paid leave for service projects. Comic troupes show up for Friday happy hours, and the office includes a video game room, volleyball court, and Ping-Pong table.
Location: Salt Lake City, Utah
Number of Employees: 56
Established in France in 1975 by caver and inventor Fernand Petzl and his sons, Petzl opened its first tiny U.S. outpost in Utah in 1999. The gear it built for exploring dark caverns (nylon ropes, ascenders, headlamps) also proved useful to climbers and mountaineers, and later for people in construction, search and rescue, and firefighting. The company grew, but its mission stayed the same.
Today, Petzl employs 56 people and is headquartered in a custom-built LEED-certified office in Salt Lake City, just 20 minutes from the slopes in Big and Little Cottonwood Canyons. It also has a bouldering area and a 55-foot-high climbing wall.
“The company culture at Petzl is aptly described by the saying ‘Type A people in Type B clothing,’” says Dave Hugar, marketing director at Petzl. “Casual dress allows employees to easily transition between their stand-up desks and activities such as on-site yoga or bouldering or whatever their dawn or dusk patrol mission might be.”
The staff gets discounted ski passes, a loaner gear closet, and ample paid time off (after five years, employees get 24 days off per year). The Fun Committee plans workday diversions, and most staffers can work from home one day per week to reduce commuting costs.
Location: Santa Barbara, California
Number of Employees: 75
Last January, after more than 20 years in business, apparel maker Horny Toad changed its name to Toad&Co. “We felt like the company had shifted and evolved,” says Sarah Matt, marketing director at Toad&Co. “We wanted to carry forward the heritage of Toad but attach it to something that tells a bigger story about the company we keep.”
The company got its start in 1991 making hand-knit hats out of a garage in Telluride. Since then, it moved to Chicago, then back West, finally settling in its current Santa Barbara location. The headquarters is housed in an old college library with ocean views and nearby hiking trails.
While the name and location has changed, the company culture hasn’t. The laid-back staff of 75 takes group camping trips, hosts grilled-cheese smackdowns, and preps rosemary-infused cocktails on Friday afternoons. Community service has also become an integral part of the company’s identity: Employees work with adults with disabilities, volunteer at soup kitchens, and rebuild bikes.
Location: Boulder, Colorado
Number of Employees: 92
Robotics developer Sphero is, in many ways, a toy company. Its Boulder headquarters are packed with Xbox stations, Frisbee golf, Nerf guns, and an electric car that staffers drive down the halls. An ice cream truck delivers free scoops.
But the work is serious. Born from a tech startup accelerator program in 2011, Sphero makes toys that consumers control with their smartphones. “Do you want to just have fun at work or do the greatest work in your life? Here you can do both,” says Rob Maigret, chief creative officer at Sphero. “The goal of our company is to put a robot in every single house. But instead of creating a utility robot that vacuums or does surveillance, we build robots based on entertainment and fun.”
All 92 employees—animators, coders, and designers—are encouraged to be bold and unorthodox. Employees get flexible work hours and win awards for creative thinking at weekly staff lunches. And it’s not just fun and games: An educational edition of the company’s signature Sphero ball teaches kids how to code, and the company runs coding seminars at local schools. “We’re trying to disrupt the toy industry,” says Maigret. “We can’t be afraid to break the rules, so we want to create an environment where that feels okay.”
Another nice touch: To celebrate the release of its latest product, BB-8, a Star Wars–edition robot with an interactive personality, Sphero rented a Boulder movie theater for the team to watch the upcoming Star Wars flick.
Location: Golden, Colorado
Number of Employees: 90
Family-owned since the 1970s, knife maker Spyderco has maintained a work environment that feels small and tight-knit. Founder Sal Glesser, who started the company selling knife sharpeners out of a converted bread truck, roams the halls, while his son, Eric, heads the R&D arm. The staff of 90 is close, thanks to regular staff-wide gatherings. “We’re not making toilet seats,” says Eric Glesser. “Our products are something everyone can take pride in.”
Now known for its ergonomically designed folding knives, Spyderco’s blades have become collector’s items and are loved by butchers, ranchers, and envelope openers alike.
From its location in Golden, in the foothills outside Denver, employees get out for midday trail runs and paddles on the whitewater park downtown. The company also covers gym memberships and regular fruit deliveries. “Through the years, we could have moved to a different location to save money,” says Glesser, “but we would have lost the culture of the place.”