The View From the Mountain Top
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It is true of the nation, as of the individual, that the greatest doer must also be a great dreamer.”
A love of the mountains and the outdoors—along with a couple of donated commercial sewing machines—led Gary Schaezlein and his college friend and business partner Jeff Jones to start Western Mountaineering 40 years ago.
As rough and tumble outdoorsmen, Schaezlein and Jones had tried all the camping gear out there—The North Face, Sierra Designs, and TrailWise. As they wore through their gear, they began doing their own repairs. “When we took it apart, we said, ‘Hey, we could do this,’” Schaezlein says. “We took over our moms’ home sewers and started sewing and repairing. We started making our own stuff.”
That stuff includes some of the highest quality sleeping bags available anywhere. Western Mountaineering offers 30 different models, including a four-pound model that keeps users warm in up to -40 degrees. “Those are the ones that go to Everest,” says Schaezlein. The company also makes down jackets and comforters.
Getting the company off the ground wasn’t easy, according to Schaezlein. They opened their first 1,000-square-foot manufacturing facility and retail store by working two and sometimes three jobs. “I would get off from substitute teaching at 2 p.m., so we’d work until 10 or midnight.”
The two entrepreneurs caught a lucky break when they paid a visit to a nearby Levi-Strauss factory seeking technical advice. “I went over to ask them, how do you do this? Can you give me some hints? They explained a few things, and as we were leaving, they said, ‘Hey, we’ve got a couple of sewing machines here that we’re going to throw away if you want them,’” Schaezlein says.
Western Mountaineering expanded its product line to include stoves, backpacks, tents, and ground packs. Eventually, the two partners opened a second retail store in Santa Cruz, California, but the high overhead and bad location caused it to struggle. They sold that store in 1989. Two years later, they split, with Jones acquiring the retail side of the business and Schaezlein taking the manufacturing part. “I had to stand on my own now, and it wasn’t quite as easy. I had to be an actual manufacturer and sell to other independent stores,” Schaezlein says.
Today, Western Mountaineering, located in a 12,000-square-foot manufacturing facility near the site of the original store, has grown from 8 employees to 45 and has kept all its production in the United States. “If you look at The North Face, Patagonia, and Marmot, all those companies offshore most everything, and none of them have a factory here,” Schaezlein says. “It’s very competitive cost-wise, but I was never interested in going overseas. I’m not looking to conquer the world. I just want to have control over my business and do my own thing.” To share your story, e-mail Greg Galdabini at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Company: Western Mountaineering
Owner: Gary Schaezlein
E-Mail Address: N/A
Address: 1025 South 5th Street, San Jose, CA 95112
Chamber Member Since: 1994
Number of Employees: 45