Dan Ferenczy navigated the thousands of name-brand booths last month at the Outdoor Retailer trade show in Denver with an exacting shopping list.
Boots and gear capable of withstanding minus-60 temperatures. Clothing for both jungle and arctic conditions. Everything must be 100 percent made in the U.S., and every material -- from the cow that provided the leather to the rubber in the boot soles and the threads in the stitching -- by law must be sourced in the U.S.
Oh, and one final thing: He could only pay cut-rate prices.
Instead of getting laughed off the floor, U.S. Army Capt. Ferenczy was embraced at every stop. The Virginia-based assistant product manager for soldier clothing and equipment was one of several military buyers scouring the show for top-tier gear to outfit America's fighters.
The armed forces for years have pushed top companies in the outdoor industry to improve technology, lower prices and employ American manufacturers. Soldiers' rigid demands have fueled innovation that trickles down to weekend warriors who can credit their warm winter wanderings and dry rainy-day strolls to American fighters. And, more recently, those fighters can credit their warm, dry and long-lasting gear to weekend warriors who are pushing just as hard for toys and tools to keep them adventuring.
"We have learned a lot about durability. There are a lot of testing standards that we have been able to bring across our entire line and brands. So, yeah, there is a huge benefit for us to go through the process of co-developing this stuff with the military," said Danner account manager Ryan Cade, showing off the Rivot, a roughly $100 boot designed with input from thousands of Army soldiers. The boot is built at Danner's factory in Portland, Ore. "There's a lot of pride for us as a U.S. company teaming up with the American Army and helping them serve our country."
And it's not just quality. Lower prices also trickle down from military contracts. Approach a boot company such as Danner with a demand for a burly, warm, Vibram-soled boot that grips in arctic conditions and the cost to make that boot would probably reach several hundred dollars. But then the military says it wants thousands of pairs.
"The military budget can't afford a $400 boot, so we go to work to figure out where we might have efficiencies to gain to lower that price," said Don Nelson, the director of government sales for Danner and company parent Lacrosse Footwear. "When we can say our products are developed with the military, it's a badge or tag of honor that's synonymous with quality."
William Tagye, the government program manager for fabric giant Polartec, remembers a Marine unit commander, just back from Afghanistan, wanting to share an insight with him. The commander's fighters had been wearing Polartec's made-for-the-military GEN III Extended Climate Warfighter Clothing System, a seven-layer kit the warriors called the "waffle suit." The proprietary Polartec and Primaloft fabrics in the grid-fleeced layers were built over the course of a decade, delivering waterproofed warmth with sweat-wicking protection for the world's hardiest combatants.
"He said, 'Since you gave us this gear, it's the first time we have ever prayed for bad weather because now we can outlast the locals,'" Tagye said. "We are providing them with significant military survivability and mission-success advantage."
The military is Polartec's single largest customer, and the company has parlayed that relationship to develop consumer products. Its next-generation Alpha line resulted from work with special-operations commandos who needed base layers and outerwear that kept them warm while not moving for several hours but didn't overheat when they suddenly had to scramble fast and hard.
"They can't take time to dump layers when they need to move," Tagye said. "Those same requirements apply to backcountry skiers, cyclists, joggers -- anybody who is outside when it's kind of cool, but they can take off running, pedaling or skiing without overheating."
Massachusetts-based Polartec employs around 300 workers at a Tennessee factory, where more than half of the work is for the military.
"The military, we don't have all the good ideas. We rarely do," said Ferenczy, who asks his soldiers to fill out 15-page surveys that influence design and development. "The industry by far leads the way for all these technological breakthroughs and innovation. We work with them to find manufacturing, engineering and structural breakthroughs, ... which help them get to the point where these innovations are manufacturable on a mass scale and at a price point where it's attainable for both the government and the consumer."
Denver's Icelantic Skis recently revived its Scout-design ski, which launched the thriving ski maker in the early 2000s, for the Marine Corps Arctic Warfare Team. The company worked with Denver's Serket USA -- which designs and manufactures technical apparel and equipment for the military -- to build the short, lightweight, easy-to-turn skis. The skis have inserts for bindings that Icelantic designed to fit a soldier's winter boot, not a rigid ski boot. The bases have cross-country-type scales for climbing snowy slopes, so soldiers don't have to stop to apply and remove climbing skins.
The revived Scout is designed for fighters carrying heavy loads with a focus on travel, not downhill performance.
"Their needs are so much different than our traditional skier," said Icelantic co-founder Ben Anderson, who hopes to make up to 4,500 more skis for an Army infantry division next season with Serket. "We had a general come out and he'd never skied. We told him it might take a couple hours to get the hang of -- and in 25 minutes, he's climbing up and skiing down, no problem."
It wasn't that long ago that the military went to outdoor suppliers with its list of stringent requirements for outfitting American fighters. But with the industry evolving to meet the demands of increasingly adventurous civilians whose outdoor pursuits can mirror military missions, those government buyers often can shop off the rack or ask for minor tweaks to fit the specific needs of soldiers.
"That higher-level soldier is a lot more in line with some of our elite athletes," said Nathan Jenkin a longtime design-innovation manager for Outdoor Research. The company outfits U.S. Special Forces with gloves and outerwear that have spawned its latest consumer lines, including a waterproof jacket with stretch panels beneath the arms that initially was designed to fit under a soldier's body armor.
"Many of our designs started in our tactical programs," said Jenkin, whose factory of pattern makers and sample sewers can come up with several iterations of a jacket or glove in one day. "These Special Forces guys we are working with are the tip of the spear. All the gear they are going after absolutely has to work and we find their demands align with ours as an outdoor provider."
And with domestic production factories, instead of creating entirely new designs, those ski and clothing makers can quickly adapt an existing product to address soldier demands.
"What we are seeing now is that industry innovation is exceeding what the government can specify, and because those industries are so innovative, the government is reaching out to these fast and nimble manufacturers who can swiftly adjust consumer products to fit government needs," said Dennis Casey, the executive director of the Colorado Procurement Technical Assistance Center, which helped more than 3,000 Colorado businesses secure more than $350 million in government contracts in 2016, enabling the creation or retention of 6,000 jobs. "We are seeing an equilibrium right now."
Among those businesses that Casey helped is Romp Skis, which last year minted a few hundred skis for the 10th Mountain Special Forces (Airborne) soldiers -- all designed and built in Crested Butte. Romp recently landed a deal to make another 1,500 skis, Casey said.
Not only are these military providers such as Polartec providing rural jobs, but much of the initial labor is done through the Ability One Program. Dating to 1938, when legislation authorized the employment of blind workers to build mops and brooms, the Ability One Program employs thousands of workers with disabilities to help companies and nonprofits fill government contracts.
A good portion of Polartec's military work goes through the Ability One Program, Tagye said.
"There's always this 'golden toilet seat' perception of government contracting, but when you look at the individual clothing and equipment market, especially when we utilize that Ability One process, the government is getting a fantastic value compared to going out and buying straight commercial items," said Tagye, a former Marine. "And it's quality stuff. I would have loved to have any of this back in the day."
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