RockyMounts Survived the Pandemic. But It's Not Over.
The Colorado-based maker of bike racks and locks is a case study in the uncertainty that small outdoor businesses are navigating right now. With the right combination of luck and creative thinking, their future may not be all gloomy.
Crystal Tyndall had been working at RockyMounts, a leading bike-rack and lock manufacturer based in Grand Junction, Colorado, for less than a month when owner Bobby Noyes called his staff into an all-hands meeting. It was Thursday, March 19, and the company’s 14 employees gathered in a room at their temporary headquarters, a former welding college with cycling jerseys hanging on the wall. The world had begun to shut down due to the coronavirus pandemic. Noyes, who founded RockyMounts 25 years ago, wanted to tell his team how the shutdown was impacting the company.
Tyndall and her colleagues listened in silence as their normally brazen leader informed them he was taking a pay cut to become the brand’s lowest-paid employee. Noyes said he had no idea what was about to happen or whether RockyMounts would survive. “That was when my stomach started to turn,” Tyndall recalls. “It was hard to hear. I felt like Bobby was laying himself down to be run over by the train and save the rest of us. I got emotional.”
Despite the dire message, after Noyes finished talking, staff members made it clear that they had his back. “Everybody in that meeting was like, ‘Hey, whatever you need me to do, just tell me and I’ll do it,’” Tyndall says. Business continued, albeit shakily, for another four days. Then dealer orders stopped entirely. “You could see the iceberg coming,” says Lou Patterson, a 48-year outdoor industry veteran who consults for RockyMounts. With Colorado’s COVID-19 cases at the time nearing 1,000 and growing by 20 to 30 percent each day, employees began to fear getting infected at work. Legally, Noyes was permitted to stay open, but with little business and the potential health risk to his staff, he closed the RockyMounts office on March 24, one of the first bike brands to do so. He furloughed his employees indefinitely without pay but with health insurance. Five of those employees had just recently moved to Grand Junction for the job. “Literally,” Noyes says, “one kid had worked here for two weeks.”
When I later asked how worried he was that his business would fold on a one-to-ten scale, Noyes said eight. His employees sensed it, too. “I was at a nine or ten after that meeting,” Tyndall says.
I first interviewed Noyes on April 1, a week after he’d shut down his company. I asked how he was doing. “I’m great,” he said, before correcting himself. “Actually, I’m not great. I’m just used to saying that all the time.” A 53-year-old optimist from Saddle River, New Jersey, Noyes has blond hair down to his shoulders, runs his multimillion-dollar company wearing hooded sweatshirts, and starts every conversation with a fist bump. Recently, though, he’d had trouble getting out of bed. “I didn’t know what I was going to anymore,” he said. “Normally, I get up at 5:30 A.M., and I just stopped setting my alarm. I’d either feel like an army general ready to get things done or complete despair. There was no middle ground.”
It was the first conversation in a two-month-long series of interviews with Noyes and his employees, as I followed the brand’s attempt to stave off what would have been unthinkable pre-pandemic: extinction.
Before the shutdown, business at RockyMounts was up 25 percent over the previous year, when it grew 14 percent compared with the year before—numbers that, even for a core brand with a history of growth, are rare among niche-product manufacturers. Noyes had spent most of his adult life fostering that growth. He founded RockyMounts in 1995 in Boulder, Colorado, after working for Hall of Fame bike manufacturer Gary Fisher in Northern California, and then at a bike shop in Boulder in the early nineties. “I was the car-rack guy at our shop,” Noyes says. At that time, racks weren’t streamlined to fit a range of vehicles like they are now; each required numerous accessory parts that were sold individually. “To sell a system, I’d say, ‘OK, you need these towers, these bars, these clips, these locks.’ And every time I said ‘these,’ it was like kicking people in the stomach,” Noyes says. “I thought, I can make these things in my garage. So I came up with an idea that fit both round and square bars out of the box, which no one else was doing.”
When I later asked how worried he was that his business would fold on a one-to-ten scale, Noyes said eight. His employees sensed it, too.
RockyMounts has carved out a solid standing in the bike-rack hierarchy behind market leaders like Küat, Thule, and Yakima, with annual sales of around $5 million. Its feisty, little-guy plight is similar to hundreds of other outdoor brands—73 percent of the Outdoor Industry Association’s 1,249 members report revenues of $5 million or less, and 57 percent are manufacturers. Unlike behemoths like the North Face and Patagonia, whose size, you could argue, insulates them from utter collapse during the pandemic, RockyMounts had to get creative to save itself—and maintain faith at a time when it was hard to come by.
Much of the staff’s faith comes from Noyes, a straight talker and longtime bike advocate with street cred. “Bobby’s from Jersey, he’s never taken a dime of investor money, and he’s East Coast as fuck. Get ready for it,” says Joey Early, the company’s marketing manager. “If you need a new shirt, he’ll give you the one off his back, but he’ll also tell you exactly what he’s thinking. We all put a lot of trust in Bobby. He has heart that doesn’t really exist in a lot of places, and he does everything he can for his staff.”
The New Reality
By the second week of April, most of RockyMounts’ employees were receiving unemployment as they waited for something to change. The unknown gnawed at them like a rat. Early, a 31-year-old North Carolina native with short-cropped hair and black glasses, had uprooted his life in Boulder to follow Noyes to Grand Junction, one of two employees out of 14 who stuck by the brand for the move. After living in a van for five months during the transition, Early and his wife leased a two-bedroom house in the nearby town of Palisade with a view of the iconic Book Cliffs and just down the street from the Colorado River.
For years Noyes had struggled to maximize his brand’s potential in Boulder, where a lack of warehouse space stunted growth and the high cost of living drove his employees out of town. He’d seen his home’s value rise from $400,000 to $1.7 million in 16 years as Boulder’s economy boomed, but it was almost counterproductive to hold staff social events, because everyone lived a half-hour away. Then in 2019, his landlord raised RockyMounts’ rent and the city raised its taxes. Noyes was going to have to pay $5,000 more per month—$15,000 instead of $10,000—for the same inadequate space. So in October, five months after losing his mother to a stroke, he opted for a fresh start four hours west of Boulder on Colorado’s Western Slope. “Grand Junction was the only place where all my guys could afford to live,” Noyes says. “And we could all ride mountain bikes to work.” Still, almost the entire staff opted to stay in Boulder and find new jobs, so Noyes and Patterson, who’d been the vice president of Asics and the chief operating officer of Pearl Izumi and who’d known Noyes for 20 years, assembled a team from scratch.
As part of the move, Noyes broke ground on a new $3 million, 20,000-square-foot headquarters on the Colorado River just a short ride from Lunch Loops, one of the best micro trail networks in the state. The project continued after the shutdown, despite the brand’s uncertainty. As Noyes scrambled to find government funding to cover his expenses, Early—RockyMounts’ longest-tenured employee, at 17 months—called the furloughed staffers to ask what they needed and to make sure everyone was OK.
The shutdown was particularly disheartening for Tyndall, a sales and marketing assistant who’d joined the brand in late February and thought she’d found the perfect job. A 34-year-old outdoor-industry lifer from Long Island, New York, Tyndall had worked for the Montana Conservation Corps, REI (in three states), the National Park Service, the U.S. Forest Service, and Osprey, a leading backpack manufacturer. She and her husband, an assistant professor at Colorado Mesa University, bought a house in Grand Junction last year; she viewed RockyMounts as part of her future. After being furloughed, her only source of income was $62 per week in unemployment. (She’d moved states the prior year, which complicated and delayed her claim.) “It’s been a roller coaster,” Tyndall said in late April. “Nobody’s been shielded from that.”
Before the pandemic, RockyMounts’ sales had been so promising—REI and Backcountry.com both put in preseason orders that were up significantly from 2019—that Noyes’s staff convinced him to invest in extra inventory for the summer, which is typically the brand’s busiest period. This meant that when he shut down his company, he had three shipping containers and $750,000 worth of hitch racks en route from Asia, with nowhere to sell them. REI, which has carried RockyMounts products for 18 years, stopped an order two days before it was to go out to stores. Then Backcountry recoiled, and dealers turtled. It became clear that the company’s future depended on federal support.
Noyes anticipated a tight and competitive application process for the government’s Payroll Protection Program (PPP) funding. He didn’t have a great feeling about his local bank’s technology, he says. Its website felt like it’d been designed in the nineties, and he worried that his application would be delayed. So, at the last minute, he opened an account at a second bank and applied for the PPP loan through that one. The move paid off three days later: he was approved for $116,000 on April 14, enough to cover payroll for eight weeks—but it was still less than a quarter of what a friend who owns a Colorado restaurant received. Noyes would later admit to feeling guilty for turning to the government. “I’m not the kind of guy with my hand out,” he says. But without it, his business might not have survived the spring.
Anticipating the PPP money, Noyes brought all of his employees back to work on April 14, with no more than three people in the 15,000-square-foot warehouse at a time. Even though most employees worked from home, the change brought hope. “You sort of feel useful again, like, I’m contributing to this thing,” said Tyndall from her kitchen table in Grand Junction after returning. Sales were shaky but not dead, largely thanks to Amazon. “More consolidation for Amazon is kind of a sad state for independent retailers and just competition in general,” Noyes said in mid-April, referring to the online behemoth’s squeezing out of traditional shops. “But we’re selling to them, and we have a good relationship, actually. It’s really our bread and butter right now.”
Two days later, REI, which furloughed a majority of its retail and field staff until mid-July, put in an order that was 38 percent lower than its original ($277,000 instead of $447,000) but still up from the prior year. After a three-week shutdown, RockyMounts did $100,000 in wholesale sales and $22,000 in direct-to-consumer sales its first week back in business. (Hitch racks, the brand’s most popular product line and the main source of its income during that period, range in price from about $300 to $650.) Noyes and his staff were cautiously optimistic. “We’ll see if this is something we can maintain,” Early said at the time. “Bobby’s doing his best to clear things up for us, but there’s always an air of feeling like every decision is a guess.”
Product development has been a casualty of the pandemic at countless outdoor brands, RockyMounts included. Noyes scrapped plans to release a new hitch rack this year—developing one costs about $250,000 and requires regular trips to Asia to coordinate with producers. Doing so stung, as Noyes had already spent $150,000 on development, but he had no choice. However, instead of an eight in terms of fearing for his company’s future in late March, by the third week of April, his dread had dropped to a two.
“It’s a new way of doing business from a month ago, when we had a really good, growing brand and then a bomb got dropped on it,” Noyes said. “We’re picking up the pieces and reacting to what’s left of the market. There are still people out there buying car racks, I’ve found.”
The first quarter of 2020 could have been worse; RockyMounts’ sales were down 12 percent from 2019, better than publicly traded Thule (down 13 percent in the Americas), Shimano (down 15 percent), and VF Corporation’s Outdoor group, which includes the North Face, Timberland, and Smartwool (also down 15 percent). But by the end of April, RockyMounts was down 65 percent from the same month the previous year, deepening concerns about the future.
Then the tide turned in a way no one could have predicted. Dealer orders sprang to life as states started to lift public-health restrictions. Despite the disastrous April, after the first week of May, RockyMounts’ year-to-date sales climbed to within 5 percent of 2019’s record pace. It was enough to inspire hope, yet employees remained wary. They knew that any surge in outbreaks over the summer or fall could erase the progress. “There’s still a stigma to this thing,” Noyes said.
The Bike Boom
Though RockyMounts cratered in April, the rest of the bike industry boomed. Sales numbers released in June showed that the industry as a whole was up 75 percent over 2019—eclipsing $1 billion in a month for the first time ever, according to the NPD Group, which tracks global retail sales. Full-suspension mountain bikes, gravel bikes, electric bikes, kids bikes, and even stationary trainers all showed huge growth. Performance road bikes and triathlon bikes were among the only segments to decline, but they had been suffering before the pandemic.
RockyMounts’ uptick in early May seemed to be following the industry’s lead, delayed, perhaps, by the sequence in which consumers were making purchases—they’d buy bikes first, then racks to transport them, even if they were staying closer to home than they would during a typical May. “I’m seeing this bike boom that we’re getting dragged along with as an extra tailwind,” Noyes said in mid-June. “It’s amazing.” He had recently called a friend at a major bike manufacturer to order a new gravel bike, and the friend told him the company was so busy that even its employees weren’t allowed to place discounted orders, let alone friends of the company. “Other manufacturers are telling me the same thing: ‘We’re at capacity,’” Noyes said.
“The smart guys are trying to figure out how buying habits will have evolved. Others are hoping things go back to the way they used to be. And I think they are smoking crack,” says Lou Patterson.
Bikes weren’t the only outdoor products flying off shelves. Sales of camping, running, and paddling gear all were up significantly, according to NPD data provided to Outside, with only climbing gear taking a dive. “I’m optimistic about what we’re going to see during the rest of this summer,” said Dirk Sorenson, NPD’s executive director and sports-industry analyst. “Will outdoor fare better than other industries? I believe so.”
Patterson, Noyes’s 67-year-old confidant, thinks the bigger questions are long-term. He and others at RockyMounts have been trying to predict how their customers will adjust their lifestyles after the pandemic. For example, Noyes sees urbanites shifting away from public transportation and turning to bike commutes. He and his engineer are working to design products to better store those bikes when space is at a premium. He pushed back his ski-rack orders, unsure if resorts will open come late fall.
“There are way too many retail brands, both in the outdoor industry and overall—way too many people fighting for the same customer,” Patterson says. “So I do think the virus is going to accelerate some bankruptcies.” As for how the outdoor landscape might look in 2021? “Most people I talk to don’t have a clue,” Patterson continues. “The smart guys are trying to figure out how buying habits will have evolved. Others are hoping things go back to the way they used to be. And I think they are smoking crack.”
As for RockyMounts, May sales got hotter as the month wore on, then turned scorching. It became the highest-grossing month in company history, doubling the previous record. (Noyes declined to disclose dollar amounts but said they sold 2,500 hitch racks.) RockyMounts then surpassed last year’s June sales the first nine days of this June. Year to date, the company was up 38 percent. “It’s fucking crazy,” Noyes told me on June 16. “Literally two months ago I was fearing for the longevity of this business and thinking about what I was going to do for the rest of my life, and then the switch flipped.”
The company wasn’t advertising and turned off pro deals at the end of May. “There’s no reason to discount stuff right now,” Noyes said. His warehouse was almost empty. He’d hired two temporary workers to help out. Whereas Amazon orders had carried sales during the early phase of the pandemic, dealers like Backcountry and REI had since overtaken them to once again become RockyMounts’ top sales channels. “In general, the vibe is different,” Noyes said from his office. “When things were heading south, everybody was looking at their feet because the phones weren’t ringing and there was nothing going out the door. And now there’s no time for banter. We’re just drinking from the fire hose.
“Of all the stuff that’s blown me away,” he added, “we’re not even trying to sell. We’ll have a marketing meeting, and we’re like, We don’t need to do anything. We’re succeeding with not doing anything.”
Noyes’s main focus was moving into RockyMounts’ new building in late July. He had started getting up at 5:30 A.M. again. “I’m hustling like I used to,” he said. “I have renewed energy and passion.” His PPP money ran out in late June. He said in April that his only goal was to end the year with his staff intact, but now he thinks sales could finish up 25 percent over last year’s record.
Noyes doesn’t expect business to return to whatever the new normal is until 2021, which is why his every reflection and opinion is tempered by an it’s-not-over-yet tone. He and his staff have been bracing for a second COVID-19 wave for months—as has much of the outdoor industry, which could require a new round of creative maneuvering similar to what it used to survive the first shutdown. “I don’t think we’ll feel like we’ve turned a corner until society has a sense of ease,” Noyes says.
That might not happen for a while. But Noyes’s usual optimism is resurfacing. For the moment, at least when it comes to his company’s survival, he feels like he can exhale. “I’ve told all my employees, ‘We don’t have anything to worry about now. We’re good,’” he says.