Gsi Outdoors Siblings’ Business Has Found Its Niche In Outdoor Cookware And Utensils
Nobody in the Scott family has a particularly passionate fixation on cookware.
But the inflatable rafts didn’t sell. And there’s some vague reference to “bouncing shoes” that Ian Scott doesn’t even want to talk about.
So outdoor cookware is just the way things worked out.
“It’s the niche that emerged for us,” Don Scott says.
Ian Scott, Don Scott and Kathy Scott are Canadian-born siblings and partners the operation of GSI Outdoors, a distributor of camping accessories, mostly cookware, with a growing following worldwide.
“That’s where our focus is,” said Ian Scott, president of GSI. “I’d say 95 percent of our business is in camping cookware.”
Many of the items GSI distributes to the likes of Wal-Mart, REI and L.L. Bean are designed by the Scotts. Granted, there’s only so much you can do with a pot or a cup or a spatula, but subtle variations can make the difference between a hot seller and something that sits on the shelf.
For instance, GSI offers a variation on the standard interchangable pot handle that is made up of diamond-shaped cutouts rather than the traditional solid metal strip.
It looks lighter to backpackers.
Then there’s the camping espresso maker.
“We didn’t come up with the idea,” says Ian Scott, “but the factory in Italy gave us an exclusive on the product five years ago, and it’s really been quite good to us. It really helped us jump to the next level of growth.”
“We’ve had other people try to do the espresso makers, and they’ve failed miserably,” says Don Scott.
The Scott siblings say they were always close, so it seemed a natural fit to go into business together 12 years ago.
Born in Penticton, British Columbia, they were in Saudi Arabia for a while, working for various construction companies and projects being directed by a business in which their father was a partner.
Ian Scott eventually found himself in San Diego working for the company that exported the construction materials to the Middle East projects.
“But the export market turned bad,” says Kathy Scott, “and they were closing down that company.”
Ian and Don decided the timing was right to start their own business. The brothers learned of a Mexican cookware factory that was looking for a U.S. distributor.
“So we jumped in with both feet, not really knowing what we were doing,” Ian says.
Kathy, the company’s corporate secretary, soon joined them in the venture.
In the early days, “We shot off in a lot of different directions,” says Don Scott, GSI’s vice president, “but we kept coming back to the cookware.”
“We made some mistakes, then figured out what the formula was to make it work,” Ian Scott adds.
The company thrived in San Diego, growing sometimes as much as 50 percent per year. Then a few years ago, the Scotts began looking to relocate. They wanted someplace with four seasons, closer to their Canadian roots.
Spokane filled that requirement as well as offering Washington state’s particularly friendly tax climate for wholesale distribution operations.
They moved the company here in 1995, bringing 13 of their 15 San Diego employees with them. Today, they employ about 20 people at their warehouse in an old Tidyman’s store at 12th and Pines in the Spokane valley.
Sales, which were between $5 million and $10 million last year, grew quickly after the move but flattened last year, Ian Scott says. But they expect a growth rate of about 15 percent annually over the next five years, although the addition or loss of a single major account - a Costco or a Target - could change those numbers significantly.
The company also distributes its products in Europe and Japan. Some manufacturing is done by local companies, and some in Mexico or Hong Kong or China.
The Scotts are focusing most of the current efforts on cookware and utensils made from a hard, light, unbreakable plasticlike material called polycarbonate.
While most of their concepts are not patented, they protect themselves by investing in the tooling for the products they come up with. If you own the tooling, Ian Scott explains, you have a cost advantage over your competitors that is difficult to overcome.
Over the years, the Scotts have learned what deals to make, and what deals to avoid. They had one recent project turn sour when a Mexican manufacturer couldn’t live up to quality control specifications.
“But we’ve been pretty lucky,” Don Scott says. “We haven’t had many dogs lately. And we had a lot in the first three or four years.”
“The inflatable boats didn’t work,” Kathy Scott adds. “We just weren’t big enough at the time to handle them.”
And then she asked with a chuckle, “How about the bouncing shoes, Ian?”
But Ian Scott cut off any further discussion with a curt, “No.”
Clearly, though, GSI was able to overcome whatever setback was represented by the mysterious bouncing shoes and is prepared to continue its expansion in the world of outdoor cookware.
, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo