I’m excited to speak with Keith Bornholtz today about his new role as CEO of Gathr Outdoors, Parent to GCI Outdoor, ORCA Coolers, Klymit and Rightline Gear
Keith and I talk about the recent announcement of their rebrand as Gathr Outdoors, his Outdoor career, and their rebranding process with a new look and trajectory that is very much focused on outdoor.
Brought to by Thrive Market
Which outdoor activities do you prefer?
“I collect outdoor activities. It’s a hobby,” Keith says, “I’m certainly not a pro, or even an expert or enthusiast in anything.” He goes on to say that he played youth sports growing up, and then in high school as well. While in college at San Diego State, he took scuba diving as an elective class, got hooked, and even worked at a dive shop. He also enjoys mountain biking, stand-up paddleboarding, camping, and hiking.
You started with Gathr in May, have you gotten into a routine yet?
Gathr is going through acquisitions and rebranding, which have created some challenges and a lot of work for Keith. “I like being involved in solving a lot of challenges and I’ve known over the years as I’ve gone through my career that I can get bored easily,” he says, “And so if I’m not being challenged, I’m not busy. I’m really not all that happy. And this has been a perfect opportunity, with so much to do, and so much growth, and such an exciting time.”
What’s keeping you so busy?
“In December of ‘19, pre-pandemic, the company acquired Orca, a fantastic brand in the cooler and drinkware space. And then more recently, even a more aggressive pace, with GCI Outdoors in April of ‘21. And then Klymit in September of ‘21. And then just in October, Rightline Gear, based in Asheville.” Keith says that “that brings on a whole ‘nother level of work…When you look at it, it was really a pivot or demarcation in the business.”
Keith is enjoying the workload, and says “it’s super exciting and there’s a lot of fun changes in some of the talent that you have to start recruiting for different skillsets.” He has “worked with the leadership team to start around a purpose followed by values,” he says, “Then you get into kind of the strategic choices, and then that’s followed by structure, and to be able to accomplish that work, I had to get my feet under me to start understanding the business, and the opportunities, and the things that we were good at and core competencies. And then, work through that process of building a strategic roadmap.”
What’s your philosophy regarding tackling challenges?
“I think in any time you embark on a new opportunity or challenge, you do what you can to understand what you’re getting into and you have your timeframe… going in you try to assess things and understand as an outsider looking in, and then when you get in and you get under the hood and roll your sleeves up, you start to validate some of those things and they aren’t what you thought…something’s a little bit different,” Keith says. “So what I can say in that sort of reconciliation between what I thought, and now what I know, is the opportunities for what we’re building – this tremendous family of brands. It’s exceeding my assessment, the opportunity, and what I think we’re going to be able to accomplish collectively.”
He goes on to elaborate about his purpose, saying “this whole idea of being welcoming and meeting consumers that want to experience the outdoors where they are…If it’s the first time that you’re going to put on some boots and spend an hour just walking around in the hills, making that connection and having a great experience, when you come back it means that you’re going to want to go do it again. And that’s good for people. It’s great for getting people together and making a moment and a memory. And oftentimes that builds into a hobby, which then becomes something that really unlocks a passion. How exciting to be part of an industry that does that and can do that for people.”
One of the things you mentioned is your reaction to change versus that of other people – talk a little bit about that
“As I go through my career, I’ve gotten a lot done,” Keith says “fortunately, I try to be pretty self-reflective, and one of the things I’ve learned about myself is I’m a bit of a change junkie. And I mean that, I guess, in the best way…I enjoy a challenge.” He continues, saying “I had a pretty good motor. I like to do what I do. And I get inspired by having an opportunity to be thinking about new things, and how to build things, or fix problems, or whatever it is. And that results, obviously, in a lot of change, whether it’s changing my career or change that I’m driving as a leader.”
Elaborating on how that compares to other people, Keith says “I like change, but for the vast majority, particularly in a larger organization, and change…change stacks up like public speaking – people are just uncomfortable. And it’s one of those double-edged swords. I recognize, myself, that it gives me energy and I like it. And I think I’ve gotten fairly good at driving change over time. But the flat spot, the thing you have to watch out for, and be cognizant of, and think about, is as I’m creating that change in an organization, there’s a lot of people that it makes really uncomfortable.”
How has this role been different from your previous roles?
Keith says “It’s funny, I was thinking about that, and you always try to draw parallels. How do you look at things or think about things that you may have done successfully in the past and apply them? I think first off was a major personal move – to move across the country and step into a new industry. But when I look at the business, there are actually more similarities than differences. I’ll give you an example of how I think about it…So I came most recently from the pet industry. And when I think about the pet industry it’s a passion-based industry. It’s rooted in the fact that people love their pets….Everybody sees it on the news today. The humanization of pets. And people are spending tons of money on services and accessories and food for their pets. And it’s because they have this incredible passion – they love their animals.”
Comparing that to working in the outdoor industry, Keith says, “I think the outdoor industry…is also rooted in a passion. And consumers. They get into activities, and they buy gear, and they go places, and they spend time outdoors, usually with the people they love, because they’re passionate about it.” “Maybe they’re not passionate when they start, but certainly folks that make a habit out of a particular activity become passionate about it. And I think so much about the consumer, and from that standpoint the pet industry, and some of the other industries I’ve been in are very similar to outdoor.”
“I think those types of similarities give me some comfort in how I’m starting to see things as more of a newcomer, at least on the business side.”
What was the catalyst that drove the rebranding now that you have this collection of brands?
“I was looking at where we’re headed and what we’re doing and how we’re building it and was just really focused on what this could mean…” Keith says, “But it changed, and it changed for me in a pretty organic fashion.”
He goes on, admitting “I think we made a natural organic decision to rethink the corporate identity. So what we did is we brought everybody together and it wasn’t easy…we set out and said, ‘okay, the process is going to be – what is our purpose? And then what are our values? What are the strategic choices we’re going to make that are just going to guide us?’”
“And then, as I mentioned, you start getting into structure and things like that. So you start at the beginning with values and people are coming with different histories and different experiences, very scrappy and entrepreneurial for the most part. Now we’re collectively coming together as one. And we’re trying to figure out like, what does this mean? And, we settled on a really clean, but powerful, purpose statement.”
“Our purpose is to inspire time spent together outdoors by promoting a passion for adventures big and small.”
Give us your perspective on the overall outdoor business in the next 3-5 years
“I’m stoked. I’m super pumped,” Keith admits, “Yeah, I think it goes back to what I said before, that I love it because it’s an industry rooted in consumer passion, right? People love what they do. And it’s so varied in what that might be. I think these types of categories that are passion-based, or at least have a large component of that, they change sort of consumer engagement and perspective.”
“And there’s a logic to it,” he says, “but when you take this idea of passion and think about it from a business perspective and make that connection, one of the great characteristics of this category is you have this installed base and it’s installed because if somebody has this great experience spending time outdoors a couple things happen – number one, they’re probably buying some gear. It’s going to make it easier and better and more fun, and they’re going to get better at it faster. The second thing that’s so cool about it is once you’re committed, and you own some gear, and you had a good time trying something, you’re probably going to go back. And that makes it even more powerful because you’re spending more time doing it, potentially expanding how you’re engaging.”
Elaborating on how the outdoor industry’s customer base is self-sustaining, Keith says, “That doesn’t happen with some of the other consumer products categories. And so I really liked that characteristic of this experiential install base. I think a great experience creates more frequent experiences, just creates great business opportunities.”
Gathr includes some strong, traditional, camping-related brands, how will you expand Gathr’s position in outdoor recreation and sporting goods
“We do have some strong brands,” Keith says, “I think across the entire platform, every business we’re in, they all have just a ton of upside. First thing is, there’s new consumers that have eyes have been exposed to some of these brands. They’re strong in that when you talk to a consumer that’s engaged with PrideSports, or with Klymit, or with GCI, and they have the product, right? They have the tent, they have the sleeping pad, they have the chair, the fans – they love it. They’re like, ‘this is a good product, it’s a great value,t’s high quality,’ all those types of things.”
Keith then goes on to say, “our opportunity is how do we market these products and amplify them and get them in front of people that want to be outside? They care about quality, they care about value, and they have, hopefully, a collection of interests or outdoor occasions where one of our brands in that portfolio just meets them where they are.”
Where does your drive and passion for business come from?
“I guess it’s probably a little bit how I grew up,” Keith says, attributing his drive to his upbringing by his hard-working single mother. “I recall from an early age seeing how hard my mom worked and she was just committed to making sure we had a good life and all that. And at the same time I found her to be really tough.”
“She wasn’t digging on being an average either…I wouldn’t say that I was a great student, but did what I needed to do in school and all that. And I remember bringing home a “C” and she just looked at me like, ‘huh, “C”, you know what that means? Yeah. That’s averaging, I think you show up and get this right. Is that good enough for you?’” Keith goes on to say that being raised in that way of thinking “hardwired how I grew up and I liked to think through problems. I think the challenges are interesting and when things get easy, I get bored…I’ve always found myself throughout my career looking for new challenges or new opportunities to go figure something out. And I’ve tried to take learnings from managers and bosses that I’ve had, good or bad, and apply those things.”
“If you’re not learning something, if you’re not thinking about something, then what are you doing?”
What are your favorite podcasts?
“I listen to Snacks Daily, cause it’s a quick little snippet. It’s [about] what’s going on in the business world and gives you a broad, quick overview of different tastes. Yeah, I like it. And it’s fun,” Keith says.
His next suggestion is “Tim Ferriss’s stuff… He’s pretty prolific in terms of how much content he puts out. And so you could find something in that you’re not interested at all or something that you’re like, wow, this is awesome.
Finally, Keith recommends The Outdoor Biz Podcast, saying“As I got into the outdoor industry, I started listening to [The Outdoor Biz Podcast] more, because I find…ways to get connected, and learn about different trends and different folks in the business, and how people were thinking about things.
Do you have any advice for folks looking to get into the outdoor business?
“When I’m managing people, I like to encourage people and I like to challenge them,” Keith begins, “I think a lot of people that gravitate to outdoor activities decide that they want to be in the industry. It’s natural….And I think the risk of industries like that is you’ve got to bring something more than the fact that you like spending time doing an outdoor activity. This is a competitive business. There are smart people building great brands, doing really smart things with really sophisticated retailers and pros…You’ve got to bring more than that.”
“Don’t just show up as a fan…come with an opinion, come with an approach,…if you’re going to go to a company or a segment within the outdoor industry show up with why you think you can make a difference…’Cause there’s opportunity, certainly, to make a difference, to grow…My advice is – think hard about how you can make a difference. Make that part of your mission to get into the industry. And when you get in…stand out.”
Do you have any daily routines?
Keith loves walking his dog and riding his Peloton bike to decompress from the challenges of being CEO at Gathr, saying “It fulfills a couple of things for me. One, it’s good exercise, no doubt. The second thing is, it’s competitive. I get on the thing and I see somebody in their fifties and I’m like, I could beat that guy. I can get a better outcome than that…. And I think for me, those two things are valuable, but maybe the most valuable is just that 30 minutes where you’re just decompressing, getting a great sweat in. It’s efficient, effective.”
He goes on to say, “if I don’t have a lot of time for stuff, whether I’m walking the dog around the block or just stopping off on a weekend for an hour and walking around, I really, especially as you get a bit older, just value time walking around outside.”
Do you have any favorite books?
“An author that I like just because he makes me think is probably Malcolm Gladwell. Super digestible stuff. Looks at a lot of historical things we take for granted about what you think versus what you know, and I love the idea of unpacking it or looking at something through a different lens. It’s that whole thirst for learning that I have. And I think he does that. He makes me think about things in a different way.”
Do you have a favorite piece of outdoor gear under $100?
“I’m a big fan of the Kershaw Leek pocket knife,” Keith says, “ I had this knife that I’ve had for a number of years, sharpens up great, super light, fits great in your pocket.”
He also recommends the Rightline Gear Moki Step, saying “most people that participate in the outdoors usually have a truck. And one of the things that’s so challenging about a truck is getting your gear on top, or in my case, I have a Jeep and it’s removing those panels when the weather’s nice or even washing the top. So this Moki step – you open your car door or your truck door, and everybody has that D-ring where the door latches. So the Moki step actually goes into that latch and it settles into a position where you can step on it and easily get to the top of your truck or car.”
Is there anything else you’d like to say to our audience?
“I appreciate very much the interest in Gathr Outdoors and where we’re headed as an organization. It’s fun to talk about what I spend all my time doing and I’m super proud of our team and it’s just been great. I appreciate the time.”
What’s the best way for people to reach out to you?
“Probably the easiest way is just to find me on LinkedIn. Or And then KBorneholtz@gatheroutdoors.com, if you want to send me an email.”