Two Harbors' Granite Gear celebrates 25 years in operationThe Two Harbors outdoor gear manufacturer Granite Gear celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and in the past few years it has diversified into tactical and military markets, using the same technologies that built its reputation among backpackers and canoeists.
By: Forum Newspapers, Lake County News Chronicle
For more than two decades, Granite Gear packs have been toted along the Appalachian Trail and through the Boundary Waters. Now, they’re riding the backs of Navy SEALS on special operations in Afghanistan and beyond.
The Two Harbors outdoor gear manufacturer celebrates its 25th anniversary this year, and in the past few years it has diversified into tactical and military markets, using the same technologies that built its reputation among backpackers and canoeists.
“We basically started another business in the last five years,” said Dan Cruikshank, Granite Gear chief operations officer.
Using many of the same components and designs in its outdoor gear, the company’s “tactical” line of 70 items includes packs, packing systems, weapons cases, and more.
The company continues to offer innovations to its core outdoor market while branching into the military market. “We definitely want to keep it balanced,” said Jeff Knight, chief executive officer. “Either way, whether military or outdoors, we’re big believers in building gear not so much for a lifestyle-fashion concept, but for people to really get out there and do it.”
Knight and Cruikshank founded the company as college roommates at the University of Minnesota in a rented house in Minneapolis. They had made a two-week trip in the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness, using the standard canvas and leather packs. Knight thought he could build a more comfortable portage pack and went out the next week to buy an industrial sewing machine.
Cruikshank wanted in on the business. The friends decided to quit school and pour all their energies into making gear. Two years later, they moved the company to Two Harbors because they wanted to get out of the Twin Cities area.
Now a global company with millions of dollars in sales, Granite Gear still builds those canoe packs and its Rock Solid Compression Sacks that revolutionized gear packing. Along the way, Knight pioneered a three-dimensional, molded internal pack frame that delivered both strength and comfort to backpackers. That innovation led to packs that won several industry awards.
“Comfortwise, I still think it’s the state of the art,” Knight said.
Their gear has a reputation for being both innovative and durable, said Sean Quinn, co-manager and hard goods buyer for Trailfitters in Duluth. “Their stuff is extremely strong,” he said. “Everything they do is well thought out.”
About 35 percent of Granite Gear’s outdoor specialty sales are overseas in Japan, China, South Korea, and Taiwan, said Mike Cruikshank, Dan’s brother and the firm’s chief financial officer.
Growth and change
Granite Gear still operates in a facility where it started in Two Harbors, although it has expanded. The company has 25 full-time and part-time employees. Until 1996, the company produced all its gear in Two Harbors. The company has since outsourced production, much of it to Vietnam and China. But the company managed to keep many of its former production staff and move them into higher-level positions. Half of Granite Gear’s employees have been with the company for at least 15 years.
The transition into making gear for the military gained roots about 10 years ago, when military people began attending outdoor trade shows looking for better gear.
Granite Gear landed its first military contract in 2008 with its CHIEF Patrol Pack, now used by Navy SEALS, Army Rangers, and Green Berets.
“The contract was written for up to 46,000 packs,” Knight said. “We’ve already fielded close to 20,000 packs, and we still have a few years left in the contract.”
Outdoor gear still represents about 60 percent of Granite Gear’s sales and military gear about 40 percent, Mike Cruikshank said.
Buyouts turned down
Throughout the company’s growth, Knight and Dan Cruikshank have remained close friends. They have declined buyout offers along the way. “We really care about the people we’ve got here,” Knight said. “We never wanted to take a deal that would have moved the whole deal somewhere else.”
The biggest challenge has always been a very basic one, Dan Cruikshank said. “Trying to make money,” he said. “It always seems like you can make a good product and you might have success selling it, but you might have put more into it than you’re going to get out of it. That’s always been the hardest part for us.”
“We’ve never been extremely profitable,” Knight said. “We’ve gotten by and been able to keep our company growing.”
Two Harbors turned out to be the right place, he said. “It’s been a great place for us to grow a business and raise families,” Knight said.