For Montana Clothier, Gone Fishin' Is a Way of Business
Fished for thousands of years, these rivers have inspired writers and artists. And sometimes even business owners.
When he was 15, K.C. Walsh spent a summer on one of those rivers, the Bitterroot near Missoula, fishing with his grandfather. "It was just a magical time. In the back of my mind I always thought, how am I going to get back to Montana?" Walsh says.
More than 20 years later, in 1992, Walsh was in his mid-30s and after years of moving around, he was looking to settle down in Los Angeles. His wife was pregnant with their first child, but the Big Sky State and its rivers filled his thoughts.
Almost on a whim, Walsh decided to swap a good job as a management consultant, a long commute, high housing prices and smoggy air of Southern California, for an uncertain future in Bozeman, Montana.
At least, he thought, there'd be fishing.
But a year into the new life, he heard that Life-Link International Inc. was looking to sell its Simms Fishing Products division. Started in 1980 by Jackson, Wyoming, fishing guide John Simms, the company had moved its wader factory to Bozeman in 1988, but the division was struggling to stay solvent. Despite the company's problems and stiff competition, Walsh decided to buy it and become president of Simms Fishing Products.
Back then, there were nine wader manufacturers in the U.S. Today, Simms stands alone.
For Walsh, now 59, the key to success has been keeping manufacturing in Bozeman and signing a licensing deal with W.L. Gore & Associates to make waders out of its Gore-Tex fabric. While the tough but flexible material is more expensive than the neoprene most waders had been made from, Simms could make rugged waders that customers were willing to pay a higher price for -- $800 for some models.
"We're able to employ more people by building things here," Walsh says, although he has gone overseas since 2008 to source Simms' less expensive waders and much of its other fishing gear like gloves and vests. Still, products made domestically account for about 40 percent of Simms' revenue. "I'd sure like to see that grow over the next five years," Walsh says.
Chapter 1: Keep the Factory Close To Home
In 2012, Walsh decided it was time to outfit a new factory space. Trying to keep up with double-digit growth was no longer viable while operating out of an overcrowded and increasingly inefficient warren of buildings in a Bozeman industrial park.
In the old buildings, the windows were set too high for outdoor views and there was no air conditioning, which tended to wreak havoc on the adhesives used to make the waders watertight.
For its new headquarters and factory, Simms Fishing Products took over a defunct hardware store about eight miles outside town and a few minutes' drive from the Madison and Gallatin rivers. The new space is filled with natural light, with windows looking out on the mountains and high prairie. Housed under one roof, production is faster and employees spend more time together -- both inside and out on the nearby rivers, where the company can find its origin.
When Simms, the fishing guide, constructed his first waders in order to get into a river rather than fish from the shore, he used neoprene, the same fabric used for wetsuits. Now Simms uses neoprene mostly for the booties that are glued onto the Gore-Tex waders.
"Breathable waders didn't exist before the Simms Gore-Tex waders were introduced," says Rich Hohne, digital marketing and public relations manager for Simms. The material has made Simms waders a top choice with anglers who depend on gear that can stand up to harsh treatment but are easy to move in.
Simms also will repair virtually anything that happens to the wader -- another benefit of having a U.S. factory. From a distance, fly-fishing looks like gentle sport. But barbed fishhooks can rip a wader and sharp branches from submerged trees can snag the loose-fitting clothing.
Marie Stull spritzes isopropyl alcohol on a pair of well-worn, but leaky waders to find pinhole leaks that let in water so slowly an angler may not even notice until she is soaked. Stull stops up the leaks with a special sealant and puts on custom patches where she thinks it's necessary.
"We recommend they send their waders in every now and then for a checkup," says Stull, who like Walsh moved to Montana from California for the fishing. "It's preventative. Find the problem before it gets big."
That hands-on help is part of Walsh's plan to make Simms more competitive and has helped move the company beyond the narrow world of fly-fishing. The company is already making products for the multimillion dollar sport fishing industry that includes televised events like the Bassmaster Classic. That new edge is drawing more people to Bozeman not just for the fishing but also to see how Simms waders are made.
"People from all over the world love to stop by and say hello," Hohne says.
Chapter Two: Staying In the River
"Fishing gear performs best if you're not thinking about it," says Diane Bristol, Simms' senior director of organizational development and community outreach, whose main role is keeping employees happy. She's been with the company since it was based in Wyoming, and she tests the equipment every time she steps into a river to fish with her husband and son.
The majority of Simms staff fish, so they're out using the product in the environment it was designed to handle. Real world testing by Simms staff and fishing guides around the world gives the company immediate feedback on new designs and the performance of its products.
"Our mission has always been to make the very best products to keep anglers out on the water longer," says Walsh, who tries to spend 50 to 70 days a year fishing, although he's a little behind schedule for 2014.
Ultimately, it's "unconscious comfort" that Simms calls a success: If an angler can forget about the gear altogether and focus on the fishing, the product has worked. Sometimes it's also a matter of survival if you are in a rushing river filled with bone-chilling snow melt, tumbling rocks and sometimes trees uprooted during spring runoff. "The reason we feel so strongly about making quality waders is that it's most important if you are submerged," Bristol says.
Waders may look simple, but they have to keep you warm and dry, be easy to move in and not so bulky that they weigh you down when you walk a river. "Waders are really hard to make. The best performance and design features are from folks who really understand the product and use it," Bristol says.
%VIRTUAL-article-sponsoredlinks%Clay Krull and his colleague Jaime Locke are two of those people at Simms. They work side-by-side and trade stories about fishing trips, like bonefishing in the Bahamas, as they craft Simms' signature waders.
Locke, an engineer by training, used to run a photo lab in town and considered "fishing his talent," he says. A friend who did design work for Simms suggested he apply for a job, even though he knew nothing about pattern making. "I learned everything on the job," he says.
Locke designs pattern layouts that make the most of the Gore-Tex fabric with the least amount of waste. At $45 a yard, the fabric is the most expensive part of the wader and nearly half of the cost of each pair.
Krull, Simms' lead fabric cutter, lays out Locke's blueprints on his 16-yard-long cutting table. Wearing a metal mesh glove, he guides a fabric saw through various thicknesses of the fabric, cutting along razor-thin lines all designed to minimize waste.
"I think I've cut the patterns for 99.9 percent of the waders we've made over the last seven years," Krull says.
The patterns that Locke prints out and Krull cuts are filled with lines that come within a fraction of an inch of each other. Any waste, which is generally thin strips of fabric, is collected for recycling in a bin simply marked "Gore."
Chapter Three: Work and Fish
"Rivers, lakes and oceans were first. Today they are elixirs indicative of health. The more time immersed, the better we feel."
The poetic language is part of an ode to fishing printed in capital letters on the walls of Simms' new lobby.
It's also a call to action for employees. Although not everyone fishes at Simms, they are encouraged to and to do it in the products they make every day. Every employee gets a discount on fishing equipment to make it possible for them to wear and use the same products their customers do. There's also free test gear, employee-only sales and angling classes to help everyone feel welcome in the sport that pays their salaries.
"Achieving our business objectives is only one component of how we define success at Simms," says Hohne, who also teaches fly tying and casting. "More important to our long-term prosperity is the engagement and well-being of our employees."
That was the impetus behind Simms' Fishing Fridays, a program started in 2013. As long as employees spend Friday afternoons on the river, it's considered part of the workday.
Fishing helps workers better understand the equipment they are making and it's good for morale, Bristol says. "Factory labor is hard work," she adds, so to attract people to those types of jobs, the company had to formalize what had already been some nonwage perks.
The goal in the first year of Fishing Fridays was for Simms' 132 employees to rack up a total of 720 days on the water. Employees exceeded that by more than 500 extra days. But the business also expanded, Hohne says.
"Who knew that you could increase productivity by offering to let your employees take time off to go fishing?"
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