Today, we’re talking with Ben Nobel, the man with the plan (AKA Brand Manager), from Kletterwerks.
Can you give 50 BUILT readers some background on yourself, the company and the events that led up to starting Kletterwerks/Mystery Ranch?
Let’s see, where to begin. Mystery Ranch is the modern Dana Designs by Dana Gleason, for those of you who ever backpacked or skied in the 80’s and 90’s – you might have owned one. Before that, was Kletterwerks – a brand of backpacks built for climbers in the 70’s. Since the adoption of Mystery Ranch in 2000, we’ve grown into a multimillion dollar business focusing on the professional user – Military, Fire Fighting, Hunting, Ski Patrol and Backcountry Guides. 2006 really changed the face of the company when we secured the SOCOM contract – outfitting the majority of the Tier 1 Military Units in the United States. Fire Fighting came next, and we now outfit almost every HotShot crew in the country. The hunting market developed from our own personal lifestyles here in Montana, and of course, we kept our roots in the outdoor and skiing scene. In the late 2000’s we began to gain traction once again in Japan – and with a little nudge from them, we decided to bring back Kletterwerks as our heritage label from a 35 year silence. We kept 3 of the original designs, the Flip, Day and Rock, and used mostly the same materials and color from the 70’s. We launched in Japan 3 years ago, and for the first time in over a decade, we are wholesaling packs in cities around the world. Mystery Ranch is still fully operational and we share production space throughout the US. Next year, we’ll be celebrating our 40th anniversary – with Dana still at the helm.
What has the road been like sourcing American made components for your line?
In actuality, it’s been relatively easy. We have tremendous buying power due to our Military and Fire contracts, which gives us access to top quality, American made raw materials. Our production facilities specialize in building our ENTIRE product line, so we use the same materials for Kletterwerks as we do for Navy SEAL Spec projects – and the same sewers.
Picking a backpack or a bag can be a trying experience. What is it about Kletterwerks that makes them so unique and special?
Totally agree. Well, I think the most unique thing about Kletterwerks is its long and windy history. I was at a tradeshow recently and was setting up the booth and just so happened to hang a Kletterwerks Flip right next to one of our Mystery Ranch Medical kits called a RATS Pack – that is this highly engineered, extremely specialized trauma kit for Special Forces. Next to that was a Hot Shot pack, worn by some of the most hardcore professionals out there (for those of you who know a wildland fighter, you would probably agree) and next to that was a 7,500 cubic inch backcountry hunting frame pack and a deployable avalanche airbag. Random, I know… For close to 40 years Dana has been working towards building the best possible load bearing equipment for people who actually USE their gear and that booth display was a prime example of a man who focused on 1 thing and 1 thing only – build the best backpack in the world. When it comes to talking about Kletterwerks to people, we like to use a metaphor we made up regarding architects: “take a successful architect with 40 years of experience building extravagant custom homes, and look at the house he builds for himself. 9 times out of 10 it’s a simple, refined, elegant structure with clean lines and is very humble. It took 40 years to figure out how to do simple, that well.”
Being in the same spot for so long and having your own manufacturing facility is an amazing thing. Will you please explain for us how this impacts your relationship with Bozeman and how that influences decisions you make as a company on behalf of the town and your employees?
We just hit our 100th employee in our Bozeman factory! I think at this point we are one of the largest employers in Bozeman.
In 1975 Dana moved to Bozeman to set up shop on Main Street, both sewing and selling packs. Since then he’s had a couple spaces for Kletterwerks, one for Mojo Systems, a handful for Dana Designs and now 4 for Mystery Ranch. During the middle part of the 2000’s we were located about 3 miles outside of town, and according to Dana, it wasn’t close enough. He wanted to be back in town. So in 2011 we moved into our current 24,000 sq ft facility right in Bozeman. The factory is open to the public as we have a showroom and are happy to walk people through the sewing floor [so if any of you are in Bozeman, come stop by!]
Bozeman is the heart of it all – it’s where the inspiration came from. We have huge mountains right out the back door that we use for testing grounds, and we couldn’t be more proud of the people who work for us. If you’ve never been to a small mountain town, it’s worth a visit – not only are we designing and manufacturing packs for people around the world, right here in town, we’re all dedicated to this place as home. Bozeman is everything…
Why is it so important for Kletterwerks to market the fact that they are ‘American Made?’
It’s obvious that the American Made trend is coming back in the fashion communities. It’s also a huge part of our success in the hunting market. And as for military, our government contracts are required to be built here, under the 1981 Berry Amendment. We have 5 facilities around the country that build everything from Kletterwerks to military and fire equipment, so having the opportunity to employ hundreds of American sewers is very rewarding work.
Important? Yes I think it is very important for a few reasons : 1) we employ Americans. 2) We get to control quality and construction every step of the way. 3) We have the opportunity to supply products to people in 5 different divisions that pride their consumer decisions on American Made. 4) We are able to help the American textile economy by working closely with our American suppliers. 5) We design and test everything in house, enabling us to make rapid changes as needed. And 6) We all get to work here, doing what we love.
If you could tell our readers one factor that is the greatest threat or advantage to keeping things made in America, and allowing companies like Kletterwerks to succeed, what would it be?
We are fortunate to be able to build products here because of our incredible designers, sewers, finishers, production managers, assembly workers, inspectors, and contractors. Without them, it wouldn’t work.
Do you have any final thoughts that you’d like to leave with our readers?
Dana would probably say: “Have fun”