Company Spotlight: Granite Gear

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The company that gained traction on the backs of hikers on the Appalachian Trail and paddlers in the Boundary Waters is now producing packs for Navy SEALS special ops in Afghanistan and beyond. Using many of the same components and designs in its durable outdoor gear, Granite Gear's tactical line of 70 items includes packs, packing systems, weapons cases, and more.

“Whether military or outdoors, we're big believers in building gear not so much for a lifestyle/fashion concept, but for people to really get out there and do it,” says CEO Jeff Knight.

Simple beginnings
Knight and chief operations officer Dan Cruikshank founded the company after a two-week trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wildernes using standard canvas and leather packs. While living in a rented house in Minneapolis and attending school at the University of Minnesota, the pair brainstormed on how to build a more comfortable portage pack and went out the next week to buy an industrial sewing machine.

The friends decided to quit school and pour all their energies into making gear. Two years later, they moved the company to Two Harbors, Minnesota. The rest is, of course, history. Now a multimillion-dollar global company, Granite Gear still builds those canoe packs and its Rock Solid Compression Sacks. Along the way, Knight pioneered a three-dimensional, molded internal pack frame that delivered both strength and comfort to backpackers.

Their gear has a reputation for being both innovative and durable. “Their stuff is extremely strong,” says Sean Quinn, co-manager and hard goods buyer for Trailfitters in Duluth. “Everything they do is well thought out.”

Growth and change
Granite Gear still operates in a facility where it started in Two Harbors, although it has expanded. The company has 25 full-time and part-time employees. Until 1996, the company produced all its gear in Two Harbors, when it started outsourcing to Vietnam and China. (About 35 percent of Granite Gear's outdoor specialty sales are overseas in Japan, China, South Korea and Taiwan, said Mike Cruikshank, Dan's brother and the firm's chief financial officer.) The company kept its former production staff and moved them into higher-level positions. Half of Granite Gear's employees have been with the company for at least 15 years.

The transition into making gear for the military had its roots about 10 years ago. Military people began attending outdoor trade shows looking for better gear. Granite Gear landed a military contract in 2008 with its CHIEF Patrol Pack, now used by Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, and Green Berets.

“The contract was written for up to 46,000 packs,” said chief executive officer Jeff Knight. “We've already fielded close to 20,000 packs, and we still have a few years left in the contract.”

Now, military gear represent rouhgly 40 percent of the company's sales, Mike Cruikshank said.

Buyout offers turned down
Throughout the company's growth, Knight and Dan Cruikshank have remained close friends. They have declined buyout offers along the way.

“We really care about the people we've got here,” Knight said. “We never wanted to take a deal that would have moved the whole deal somewhere else.”

The biggest challenge along the way has always been a very basic one, Dan Cruikshank said.

“Trying to make money,” he said. “It always seems like you can make a good product and you might have success selling it, but you might have put more into it than you're going to get out of it. That's always been the hardest part for us.”

“We've never been extremely profitable,” Knight said. “We've gotten by and been able to keep our company growing.”

Two Harbors turned out to be the right place for the simplest of reasons. “It's been a great place for us to grow a business and raise families,” he said.

Granite Gear Air Zippditty Packing System
Features 30 D SIL-nylon CORDURA– water resistant, ultralight, translucent.  Water resistant zipper, haul loop, space saving shape stacks together. Fours sizes—(0.6, 1, 1.7 and 2.4L). Sold in set of two (same size), or 4 (one of each size).
MSRP $14.95-$20.95, Set of 4 (each size) $29.95,

-Berne Broudy

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