Out with the wool, in with the chews: Honey Stinger moves into former Smartwool HQ
STEAMBOAT SPRINGS — A buzz of new activity has been swarming the Steamboat Springs Airport, but it has nothing to do with aeronautics.
Honey Stinger, the Steamboat-based energy snack company, has officially moved its headquarters to the airport terminal. Until the end of June, the building was home to Smartwool, the wool-knit clothing brand popular for its line of socks and base layers. The transition marks the end of a yearslong plan to relocate Smartwool to a larger headquarters in Denver, an effort complicated by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“It feels great to be nearing the end of our transition,” Smartwool Brand President Jennifer McLaren said in an email. “It’s been a long road to get here, but we are excited for what the future brings.”
Mike Keown, chief executive officer of Honey Stinger, also voiced excitement for the opportunities the larger building brings for his growing company.
After so many changes, Steamboat Pilot & Today wanted to take a look back at Smartwool’s history in Steamboat and trace its skyward ascent to establishing itself one of the country’s most coveted outdoor brands.
From a garage to a corporation
What is now an international, multimillion-dollar company began, as most great things do, with a humble idea. Back in the ’80s, Peter and Patty Duke, New England ski instructors-turned Steamboat locals, started selling socks made from merino wool out of their clothing shop. This material, they claimed, was more durable and comfortable than the synthetic socks popular at the time.
Their first supply of socks, adorned with penguins, sold out as word spread, Patty said.
“People would stop us on the street and pull up their pant leg and say, ‘Do you have more of these socks?’” she recalls.
She and her husband capitalized on the moment, starting Smartwool in 1994 out of the basement of their home. By its third year in business, the company made $3 million in sales, according to Peter, and expanded its list of products to base layers, beanies, gloves and the like.
“We knew we were on the rocket ship,” he said.
In 2002, the couple moved their company to the airport terminal, making some renovations to remove the ticket counters and other amenities that are more conducive to air travel than a clothing business. The next year, Peter and Patty sold their shares of the company to RAF Industries after they lost majority control. It’s a matter they would rather not discuss in detail.
A couple years later, when Smartwool sold to Timberland for a whopping $82 million — it was making just over $40 million a year in sales — Mark Satkiewicz joined the Steamboat company and eventually rose to become president. He described his time with Smartwool as the highlight of his career.
Satkiewicz ushered in several innovative ideas to change the culture there, such as more eco-friendly initiatives. Among his favorite contributions was an annual bike ride company employees took, starting in 2007, to the Outdoor Retailer trade show 350 miles away in Utah. As Satkiewicz remembers, pedaling into the show rather than pulling up in big vans or buses helped Smartwool stand out among competitors.
“Everybody wanted to know about it. Everybody wanted to get an invite,” he said of the ride.
The event remains a tradition for Smartwool employees headed to the trade show.
In 2011, the apparel giant VF Corp. bought Timberland for $2.2 billion, which brought Smartwool under the same umbrella of brands like Jansport and Vans.
By 2018, VF Corp. announced plans to relocate its headquarters to Denver, a move that included Smartwool. This was after the state approved $27 million in tax incentives to encourage corporate leaders choose Colorado over other states.
Satkiewicz, who has since become the founder of the SBT GRVL bike race, was not surprised to hear about the relocation but expressed some sentimentality over Steamboat’s losing the company.
“While I don’t disagree with the decision at all, it’s too bad,” Satkiewicz said. “It was 25 great years of Smartwool making Steamboat a better place, letting so many employees experience the community while working and growing with this amazing company.”
More than that, Smartwool was one of the first major outdoor brands in Steamboat, the forerunner to the likes of Big Agnes, Grass Sticks and Hala. As Satkiewicz believes, Smartwool was instrumental in showing how a business could operate in a small town yet sell products across the globe.
“It really helped put Steamboat on the map for something other than ranching or skiing,” Satkiewicz said.
Smartwool’s economic impact
The legacy was more than prestige. Smartwool’s million-dollar business was a boon for Steamboat, providing high-paying jobs and, through direct sponsorships or trickle-down distribution of wealth, supporting the broader local economy.
An analysis funded by the Steamboat Springs Chamber in 2019 found that Smartwool supported $20 million in Routt County. The average wage of the company’s 70 employees was $80,000, almost double the county’s average. According to the analysis, these high wages helped to indirectly employ another 56 people in the county, such as doctors and restaurant servers who benefitted from the resulting business.
Then there are the intangible benefits of having a major company like Smartwool in Steamboat. The brand itself attracted talented people to the area and supported a growing cluster of outdoor brands, according to the analysis. It sponsored local events and donated to nonprofits.
When the Chamber learned about Smartwool leaving, it immediately reached out to learn more about the change. John Bristol, economic development director for the Chamber, said company leaders understood how the relocation might disrupt the city and the employees who did not want to move to Denver. They agreed to let the Chamber help ease the transition.
“First and foremost, we thought about the people, the friends and family who work there,” Bristol said.
He facilitated discussions on entrepreneurial opportunities in Steamboat and other ways employees could remain in the Yampa Valley. Last fall, Bristol organized a roundtable at Smartwool’s headquarters with presentations from Steamboat business leaders who discussed available jobs and career boosters, such as courses at Colorado Mountain College Steamboat Springs.
Bristol and others at the Chamber also encouraged the people at Smartwool to continue the company’s relationship with Steamboat, a sentiment that continues to this day.
“They were born here, and we want them to still feel as if this is their home,” Bristol said.
Leaving room for new growth
Some, like Satkiewicz and Bristol, expressed a certain degree of disappointment in seeing Smartwool — a source of pride to those who enjoyed sharing a hometown with such a prominent clothing brand — leave for the Front Range. But even those who are sad to see it relocate understand the move as part of a natural cycle, which is just another way of mentioning the cliché, but all too true, maxim that “the only constant is change.”
Businesses come and go. Communities adapt. In a growing city like Steamboat, it does not take long for vacant spots to transition to fresh hands and new concepts.
For Honey Stinger, securing the airport terminal building will allow the company to continue its upward trajectory, CEO Keown said.
A group of business partners and shareholders got their first tour of the new space on Friday, leaving with tote bags full of Honey Stinger swag. Richard Thompson, a managing partner at Factory, LLC, an investment company based in Pennsylvania, said the availability of the terminal building was huge to keeping Honey Stinger in Steamboat.
He and others with say in the matter looked at other options, including the former Steamboat Pilot & Today building, but those did not pan out.
“This was probably the only possibility in Steamboat,” Thompson said of the terminal, adding that keeping the company here was an important consideration as it expanded.
An airport might seem like an unlikely place for budding businesses, but after several renovations under its previous tenants, it now boasts ample open space and cheery natural light. Some employees get views of planes landing and departing from the runway. Outside, some Honey Stinger workers have cultivated a variety of edible plants in raised beds.
The plants offer a tangible example of how Smartwool’s departure has allowed growth and prosperity in its place. Keown excitedly described plans for further renovations, including a workout area in a room currently occupied by office cubicles. He even suggested starting a beehive near the raised beds.
With all the added space, Wendy Mayo, senior director of marketing at Honey Stinger, said she envisions hosting community events like film festivals and fireside chats with its sponsored athletes.
“We really want to root ourselves in Steamboat,” Mayo said.
On the business side of things, Honey Stinger recently expanded its line of products. Samples of them were on display in the company’s lobby, some hanging from a Steamboat Resort gondola cabin, two of which Honey Stinger bought in a fundraising auction last year. Among the new snacks are mini versions of its popular waffles, a regular-sized waffle with added protein and gummy performance chews with caffeine for an extra kick.
The company also hired 10 additional employees in the last year, Keown said, some of which came from Smartwool, including Honey Stinger’s Chief Financial Officer Sarah Mallicote and Senior Director of Operations Kim Kourkoules.
Changing but not forgetting
A few lingering markings of Smartwool’s tenure remain at the airport terminal. On either side of the sidewalk leading up to the entrance are two copies of the company’s logo, the cowboy hat-wearing man, literally branded onto the cement.
Steamboat remains a special place to McLaren, the brand’s president. Apart from being her home, most of Smartwool’s flagship products were designed with conditions of the local area in mind and got performance-tested on nearby terrain.
“From the slopes to the mountain bike and running trails, to the camp spots up on (Buffalo) Pass, we had our own backcountry testing facility right here in Steamboat,” she said in an email.
Though the relocation brings a lot of change, it does not mean Smartwool will not be entirely absent from the Steamboat community, McLaren assured. The company will continue to support local organizations and causes, such as the Steamboat Springs Winter Sports Club and the Yampa River Fund. McLaren hopes locals who felt proud of having Smartwool based in their backyards continue to feel pride in the company.
As she said, “We hope that when this community sees the Smartwool brand name or product in the stores, they will smile and think fondly of all the good times we had together.”
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