May 23, 2023

Stephen Sullivan and Stio- Inspiring Connection with the Outdoors [EP 382]

Show Notes

Outdoor-Biz-Logo
Rick Saez
Stephen Sullivan and Stio- Inspiring Connection with the Outdoors [EP 382]
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I began looking forward to this conversation as soon as it dropped on my calendar. Stephen Sullivan and Stio Inspire Connection with the Outdoors through their values and beautifully made outdoor products. We talk about the inspiration for Stio, his outdoor pursuits, and how their Pine Cone logo came to life.

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Show Notes

What was your first exposure to the outdoors?

We packed our stuff up and moved to Colorado and I had been a big hockey and soccer player when I was a kid. There was no hockey in Grand Junction, which I never let my mom live down. Now both my boys are hockey players and I ended up coaching them later in life, but I got into skiing and so, you know, I think skiing was probably my first real kind of entry into the outdoor community and the outdoor world.

How about your beginnings in the outdoor business or the outdoor industry side of things?

That’s actually a little tied to my Uncle Joe as well. So his girlfriend at the time, whose name was Betsy Clark. She opened what has gotta be one of the first true outdoor specialty stores in the country. I mean, there might have been 50 or a hundred of ’em at the time, but she opened a store called Lewis and Clark in Grand Junction. When I was 12, I got a job in the back room. I’ve always been a pretty handy kid and kind of knew how to put stuff together. And so I got a job actually mounting cross-country skis for her, which led to me going out on the sales floor.

What was the inspiration for Cloudveil?

The real inspiration behind that was I had a friend who is still a guide, was an I F M G A guide who had gone over to live in Chamonix for a winter in the early nineties. And he came back and brought me a pair of pants that were made of a Schoeller material, what’s now known as soft-shell. I just became obsessed with them and, you know, ended up backcountry skiing in them and just thought that the textile wasn’t being utilized in the current market. So the idea that kind of got Cloudveil started was to build a soft-shell jacket.

Somehow I found the guys at Schoeller and Tom Wine Bender, who was the president of  Schoeller North America for a long time, who is still, a dear friend. He sent me five yards of fabric and I made a jacket with a local seamstress. I got another buddy in here in Jackson, a guy named Brian Cousins, inspired by the concept as well, and we just decided to give it a go.

And now Stio, what inspired Stio?

Well, two things. Cloudveil didn’t end particularly well. We had been bought and sold a couple of times and we were owned by Spyder, the ski wear brand at the time. They eventually approached me with the opportunity to try to buy the brand back and I had a really strong financial partner and we tried to do that. We spent about seven months trying to come to terms on a deal and, literally basically got left, at the altar on a deal. I had to non-compete for about a year and a half. So I had some time to really stew on what had gone well with Cloudveil and what hadn’t gone well, and what I wanted to do differently.

And there were two things that really stuck out to me, the. The first thing was Cloudveil was a very top-of-the-mountain brand. It was all about really technical outerwear was kind of the forte. And I really wanted to build a brand that covered kind of more of the totality of the mountain life. Not just top-of-the-mountain stuff, but everything you could wear. As we term it here, all the way down to the boardwalk. Because you spend a lot of time in the outdoor sportswear you wear on a daily basis and, probably a little less time in the backcountry. So it just felt to me like trying to find that balance that really just showed off the totality of the mountain lifestyle. That was important. T

Then the second thing that was a real catalyst for me was as Cloudveil grew, we found that the retailers started just segmenting us. Like they did anybody else, and they would say, okay, well here’s the allocation of dollars we have for your hard shell, your soft shell, your fleece, your base layer, whatever it might be. And we were developing some pretty cool creative products at Cloudveil. We had, we had some pretty talented designers and, cutting edge at the time too. And the retailers weren’t really buying it. They were buying the more standard-issue stuff. But we opened a retail store in the last couple of years we had Cloudveil and we had a very small direct business. And those channels were buying the more creative product. So I really felt like there was this opportunity to be more creative, to maybe bring a little more of a dose of fashion. A fashion element into the line and, and to still make, you know, beautiful technical outerwear, but also make a beautiful sportswear collection.

Then the other thing that really was resonating with me was that I felt like there was a hole in the market that, nobody was purely focusing on the direct consumer channel. And although we’re fairly omnichannel now, at the time when we launched the business, we basically put a catalog in the mail, turned our website on, and we opened a retail store all in the same month. And we focused specifically on that direct consumer channel to start. And it’s worked out pretty well.

I love the story behind your logo. Share a little bit about that with us.

Our logo is, is a, is a Whitebark Pine Cone. It’s a modern abstraction of a Whitebark Pine Cone. And we were going through, an initial study and we brought in some folks to help us kind of build the ecosystem in its infancy and around our value set and the value set that we wanted the brand to espouse. We went through a lot of different logo concepts and a woman that had worked for us at the time was the first one that said, you know, what about a pine cone? And I thought, oh, that’s a cool idea. And then we got some graphic samples of that and I said, “you know, I think it really needs to be more of a modern abstraction of a pine cone because I want the brand to feel modern.”

But the whole concept was that we wanted something that really grounded us in kind of the place we are in, which is the Yellowstone Ecosystem. And we wanted something that reflected nature. And it turns out that the pine cone is a fascinating thing. Shortly after we launched the brand I went on a family trip to Italy and you can’t believe where the Pine Cone shows up. It’s on the staff of the Pope. It’s got all these incredible meanings. So I think that was just serendipitous that we came up with that logo. But we really wanted it to reflect back on the plight of the White Bark Pine and the Yellowstone ecosystem and around the Intermountain West.

I love how you have the daily reminder idea. I’m wondering if you have any thoughts on how we might expand that daily reminder idea to help protect the places we love, maybe as individuals or as an industry.

I think for us as brands and companies in this industry, it’s really important to focus on doing the right thing. That’s one of our core tenants is to do the right thing. And so, you know, we’re trying to move towards a goal of a hundred percent sustainable textiles at some point. One of our core tenants is to do the right thing. So we’re trying to move towards a goal of a hundred percent sustainable textiles at some point.

We’re in the high fifties right now on that and growing every year. We’ve been a climate-neutral company now for our third year in a row. We spend a lot of time as a company thinking about how we can get our employees outside. We have a flexible PTO policy. It’s very similar to an unlimited policy where we encourage people to take a minimum of three weeks and if they are doing one of those lifetime trips, like the Grand Canyon or going on an expedition or doing some big travel, we would encourage them to do more. We published a stewardship report every year to acknowledge all those efforts. And we launched Stio Second Turn for reusing lightly worn products and reselling them and giving people a discount on new stuff.

So I think for us, the obligation is to continue to show people how the outdoors can have such a terrific impact on your being, your psyche right? And your health, your wellness, and so we spend a lot of time doing that.

What other outdoor activities do you participate in? You still ski a lot, sounds like.

I do, I always have a goal to be on skis a hundred days. That sounds audacious to a lot of people, but for me, that is just a, you know, a quick lap on the King or quick hike up Glory on the pass. It’s not like a full ski in the village for a whole day, but I ski a lot. I mountain bike and gravel ride a lot. I flyfish a ton. Those are my big core passions in life right now.

Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into the outdoor business or grow their career if they’re already doing something in the industry?

I love this question. I’ve had this one very frequently and I’ll be really honest with you. I think one of the best things people can do, people are always trying to, especially kids getting outta college, they’ve just gotten a degree, and they’re trying to figure out what they want to do with their career. They’re enchanted with the outdoor industry, but, but it’s a big business now. And it’s a real business and you need expertise. One of the things I think is the best thing somebody could do to get into the industry is to go work in outdoor retail. I truly believe that it was so foundational to me, and understanding what customers are looking for. Understanding merchandising how to represent a brand effectively to a customer, understanding the marketing, you see it all in an outdoor retail store.

It’s where the rubber meets the road and once you understand how all the stuff behind the scenes comes together when that customer’s standing there asking you a question about a jacket or a pack, then you understand, you get a sense of how it all is important, each piece of that puzzle. I think it’s great preparation.

Do you have any favorite books or books you give as gifts or a favorite podcast?

Podcasts? My favorite podcast going right now. There are two of ’em. I love the Rich Roll Podcast. I hope you’ve heard that. I think he does a really good job. And I’ve been really into Mill House lately, which is Andy Mill, who is a former ski racer. He used to be married to Chris Everett, and Andy’s one of the preeminent tarpon fishermen in the world. He lives down in the Keys most of the year now. He’s got a podcast that’s been pretty fun to listen to. He’s gotten a real wide diversity of not just, you know, fishing guides and fisherman, legendary fisherman. But he’s also had people like Huey Lewis, who happens to be a really avid angler. So I’ve gotten a kick out of that recently.

Do you have a couple of favorite books?

One of my all-time favorite books was The River Why by David James Duncan. I also really loved the book, The Emerald Mile by Kevin Fedarko.

What’s your favorite piece of outdoor gear? Under a hundred dollars.

There’s not a lot under a hundred bucks anymore, but I came up with kind of a fun one, I think. I would say ski crampons.

Is there anything else you would like to say or ask of our listeners?

The only thing I’d say to the listeners is just, you know, support brands and products that align with your values. I think it’s really important that it’s not just the companies, with all the people out there in the world, but supporting your local nonprofits, support causes that are important to you. Some of the things we do here that are just so rewarding are we’re a big sponsor of the Doug Coombs Foundation, The Conservation Alliance, and Camber Outdoors. I think those things are really important because they help perpetuate the outdoors for all of us.

We will be offering listeners a code for 25% off their purchase. The code is for one-time use and excludes any third-party or sale items. Offer expires July 1, 2023. Code: OUTDOOR2023

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