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September 2010
From Base Camp to Boardroom
By Heather Head

     What do Jackson Hole, Wyoming, Grand Junction, Colorado, and Charlotte, North Carolina, have in common? Each plays a key role in the success of America’s best-selling men’s pant: Mountain Khakis. Born out of Jackson Hole, and with an office in Grand Junction, the brand conducts its operations right here in Charlotte.

 

Successful Brand Hunting

     The brand was envisioned in 2001 by Jason Perry, an entrepreneur from Little Rock, Ark., who had retired to Jackson Hole. He noticed that many wealthy individuals there were wearing inexpensive blue jeans with top-brand shirts. He saw that they were trying to connect with the rugged spirit of the mountains in their choice of pant, but that their casual options were limited to mid-quality brands. He predicted that consumers willing to pay a premium for high quality tops would be willing to pay a premium for high quality bottoms, if the garment spoke to the image they wanted to convey.

     With that in mind, he created a business plan for a garment that would be designed and developed in the heart of mountain country for connoisseurs of mountain style, but also for successful bankers and business people looking for a pant that speaks to their longing for an outdoor life.

     Although others in Jackson Hole loved the idea, it was two years before Perry found the support that would allow the business to move forward.

On a routine visit to Charlotte in 2003, he met with an old friend from Arkansas, successful local entrepreneur Terry Greenwood, to discuss his business plan. Not long after that, Greenwood met with two other successful Charlotte entrepreneurs, Mac Lackey and Ross Saldarini, and asked them what they thought of the idea. Says Saldarini simply matter-of-factly, “We all thought it was a good idea and a few months later we launched the business.”

     Saldarini says he immediately saw a market for the product right here in Charlotte. He knew that the same people who purchase their weekday wear from Paul Simon and other high-end men’s retailers often like to spend their weekends fly fishing, hunting, golfing, biking, and boating. And while most outdoors garment makers were focusing on more technical gear and making pants as an afterthought to more profitable top garments, no one was producing a high quality, attractive pant that could be worn on a casual Friday or on the shores of Lake Norman on Saturday.

     Saldarini predicted an overwhelming demand for a pant that could go, as their tagline claims, “From base camp to boardroom.”

     Lackey and Greenwood were likewise impressed. The four set to work on raising capital, sourcing materials and manufacturers, fine-tuning design, and building a staff. They decided that Jackson Hole was the perfect location for their product design and development team to imbibe the mountain spirit, while Charlotte was the perfect location for sales, marketing, fulfillment, and business functions. They also established a PR department in Grand Junction.

     Initially, the four entrepreneurs wanted to source their materials and manufacturing inside the U.S. However, they quickly discovered that it would be impossible to achieve the level of quality they wanted at the price point they were seeking ($75-$85 per garment) without outsourcing. They collected recommendations and researched overseas suppliers, and settled on plants in China and Cambodia that also manufacture garments for other high end American brands.

     In November 2004, the Men’s Original Mountain Pant debuted in two specialty outdoor lifestyle stores: Jesse Brown’s in Charlotte and Jack Dennis in Jackson Hole. Saldarini says the sales people liked the product because unlike many of the industry’s high-tech garments, the sales process was simple: “Tell them about the brand, and let them try on the pant. The quality, fit, and comfort speak for themselves.” Consumers loved the pants, and soon the product was moving quickly.

 

Climbing Into the Market

     By January 2005, the company’s leaders were confident the brand would succeed. They were ready for the next step, a major garment makers and retailers trade show in Salt Lake City.

     The trade show was a resounding success. As a result of their efforts there, Mountain Khakis were picked up by 75 new retailers, including some major chains such as REI, Cabella’s, and Eastern Mountain Sports.

     Over the next five years, the brand added hundreds of new retailers and has spread to all 50 states. It is carried by most well-known outdoor stores including the Great Outdoor Provision Company, Mast General Stores, Cook’s, and the U.S. National Whitewater Center. The Original Mountain Pant has become the nation’s top selling pant, and the company has been recognized as one of the country’s fastest growing privately held companies.

     Saldarini says that the product’s success as the top price point among pant garments in a specialty outdoor retail store such as Jesse Brown’s has not surprised the company’s founders. What did surprise them is that the garments are sought after by high-end men’s clothing stores such as Paul Simon, in which a $125 pant was formerly the entry-level price point.

     “So we’re the low end price point in a men’s premium store and a high end price point in a specialty outdoor store,” says Saldarini. “It’s a trend that has developed as the business has grown.” He attributes the development in part to the downturned economy, in which even premium stores are looking for high value at a lower price point.

     And that’s not the only way in which the brand has surprised even its owners. Saldarini holds up a camera phone image of soldiers guarding a village in Afghanistan: “They’re wearing Mountain Khakis,” he points out with a wry smile. “That’s not who we had in mind when we were building this business. But it’s great to see the brand take on more personality than we were intentionally giving it.” He mentions also that the FBI’s hostage rescue team wears the brand.

 

From the Bottom Up

     As might be expected, the company’s growth has not followed the path of most garment manufacturers. Instead of launching massive national ad campaigns and purchasing space in major outdoor magazines, Mountain Khakis from the very beginning focused on what Saldarini terms “grass roots, guerrilla, hand-to-hand marketing.”

     The company partners with “Am-badass-adors,” rugged outdoorsmen and women who love the Mountain Khakis brand and whose involvement in their communities and outdoor activities places them well to communicate the brand to a wider audience. These individuals share their outdoor stories and experiences through blogs and community events, looking good in their Mountain Khakis all the while.

     In 2006, the company executed a “Built for the Mountain Life” tour. They sent two interns around the country in a tricked-out Land Rover LR3. The tour visited roughly 300 dealers and 1,500 events around the country where they conducted in-store contests, educated employees, handed out discount cards, and personally introduced a wide audience to the Mountain Khakis brand.

     “We let the major brands drive traffic to our dealers,” explains Saldarini. “Then we approach our customers from the ‘bottom up’—on the store floor with great looking displays.”

     Of course, an effective guerrilla marketing campaign won’t go far if the product doesn’t deliver on the promise. And Mountain Khakis delivers.

     The signature L-shaped front pocket, embroidered MK logo, and unique reinforced heel guard make the garment brand clear even from a distance. Saldarini points out that it is a difficult but important achievement to accomplish that while maintaining a rugged, classic look.

     But the brand’s distinctions go beyond the cosmetic features that set it apart. For instance, the heavy-duty Men’s Alpine Utility pant is crafted from tough, stain- and water-resistant cotton canvas that is nevertheless soft and flexible to the touch. Seams are triple-stitched, high-wear areas of heel, knee, and bottom are reinforced with a double layer of fabric, and the crotch is gusseted for maximum comfort. The waistband is lined with grosgrain, zippers are YKK, and pockets are deep. They are designed and built to last through three years or more of heavy use.

     True to their mission to look as good in an uptown corner office as they do on the river, Mountain Khakis also offers classic twill options with a more formal buttoned back pocket, suitable for executive wear on a casual Friday. For summer, there’s the Granite Creek Nylon collection, featuring lightweight, quick-dry, wicking nylon with sunscreen protection, or the lightweight stretch twill, the Lake Lodge collection, made from cotton and Lycra.

 

Firmly Seated

     Although the brand’s identity centers on Jackson Hole, Charlotte has played a key role in the company’s growth and development. Besides the jobs and revenue the company brings to the area, they give back to the community through a variety of outdoors, conservation, and community charities.

     The company participates in the “1% for the Planet” initiative by contributing 1 percent of net revenues to local organizations such as the Catawba Lands Conservancy, and national organizations such as the Children and Nature Network. Recognized by the N.C. Conservation Alliance with the 2007 Industry Partner Award among others, the company has also received plentiful recognition within the industry. In 2009, Inc.500 named them among the country’s fastest-growing privately held companies.

     The company also supports numerous outdoor sports teams, most notably Team Mountain Khakis, winners of last year’s criterium biking national championship. When Mountain Khakis leadership decided to provide apparel and funding for the team in 2009, says Saldarini, “it was because we were friends with some of the team owners and some of our employees are bikers. But then we found out that the biking world is a passionate audience, and it was fantastic to see the response we got from the biking community for having been a sponsor.”

     Mountain Khakis has built its brand on authenticity and word-of-mouth marketing that resonates with its audience. They plan to stay in Charlotte and Jackson Hole, and to continue taking their product directly to the people through non-traditional and guerrilla channels. But that is not the end of the story.

     “Now that the company is seven years old, we will continue to market at the grass roots, but the reality is that we’ve barely begun to scratch the surface of the market,” touts Saldarini. “We are going to expand into Europe, Asia, Australia, and New Zealand. And we are going to be marketing at a national level.”

     In addition, the company announced in June a new partnership with one of the nation’s most highly recognized and established outdoor brands, the Remington Arms Company. Established in 1816, the Remington brand is ranked second only to Nike for national brand recognition among sportsmen.

     The partnership provides new resources and opportunities for marketing, and supports the Mountain Khakis development of new product lines for the next season. They expect to offer new pant options and to expand into top garments to complement their pants. Pattern drawings for a small selection of top quality jackets, vests, and long-sleeved tops currently adorn the walls of the Charlotte office conference room, in preparation for offering them soon in the pages of their catalogs.

     Whatever directions the company goes in the next five to 10 years, Saldarini is confident that Charlotte will be a big part of it, and that it will be an exciting ride. He also knows that, whether they are worn to the boardroom or the base camp, sported at the golf course or removed by the swimming hole, Mountain Khakis will stand the test of time.

      

 

 

 

Heather Head is a Charlotte-based freelance writer.
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