A Brief History of the Foundation of Sierra Designs
The creation of Sierra Designs was an act of friendship and encouragement from David Buschman. Bob Swanson and I were working at the Ski Hut in Berkeley at the time where we had met in the fall of 1963. Bob used to play handball with David who was effectively retired at age 35 after having sold his business U.S. Peroxygen. Ever the consummate entrepreneur he frequently asked Bob why he was not in the, what we now call the Outdoor Business. Bob of course usually replied that it was really only a question of money. Later David dropped out of sight for some time traveling to Africa and elsewhere.
One day in mid 1965 he returned. We were invited to a weekend of sailing by an old friend of Bob’s, Ron Dunton, who lives in Santa Cruz. During the time at sea, David again asked the same question but this time to the two of us. Our answer was an easy one, “Well David if we had your money we would” At which point he simply said, “Well make me an offer”.
At that time, from the late Forties until when we went to work for him, George Rudolf (pictured above on the left with George Marks on the right) was the only person in the Bay Area who was really in the business. He not only had a thriving retail store, The Ski Hut, but he also had Donner Mountain Corporation which imported many of the articles for use in the mountains, boots, rucksacks, climbing hardware and all the other things that we know of today. In addition to that he had a budding manufacturing enterprise, Trailwise, which was involved in the production of modest amounts of clothing, tents and sleeping bags. After my return from Europe where I had been teaching English for three years, I went to work for him in early 1961 until the fall of the year when I left on an adventure job to Antarctica. I returned in the early part of 1963 and went back to the Ski Hut. There it was that I met Bob and we became friends, and still are now more than 40 years later. I became very involved in the Trailwise division of the company while Bob was in charge of the mail order department. During our tenure at the Ski Hut we gained valuable skills which served us well in the coming years.
After that fateful day of sailing on Monterey Bay, we sat together and estimated the amount of money it would take to open a business in competition to our current employer. We settled on the grand sum of $25,000 which of course was really not enough. Later after we were started, we had to go back to David for more and he extracted some more of the ownership of the company from us in return. That turned out to be a very good investment for him in the final analysis when we sold the company about seven years later.
We had all come from diverse backgrounds, Bob grew up in New Jersey, David in New York and I in the San Francisco East Bay Area. We all had some experienced in one or more of the outdoor activities, backpacking, canoeing, rock climbing, high altitude climbing, skiing, winter camping and just general outdoor experiences. We were all pretty well educated and had some skills that were not the usual. David was the oldest at about 36 then, and I was next at 34 and Bob at 32. At that time in our lives, we were all ready to do something so when the chance came we put our hearts into it.
In mid October of 1965 we quit our jobs after offering to join George Rudolf in a sort of partnership with us doing the manufacturing and he doing the marketing. He was not inclined to accept our offer so we promptly resigned our positions. He was not too happy with our plans as we were two of his best staff members and losing us to become competitors was not easy. Years later we reconciled and became good friends after that. He was even an investor in our later enterprise, Walrus Tents.
We then went to work, first to find a place to set up the shop and then to equip it with all the tools we would need. The first order of business was to register the company and to set it up legitimately. The last thing we were asked for was a name and a logo. We had some stormy sessions tossing out names for this little company and we had some good laughs about the various suggestions. Finally Bob suggested the simplest of names, Sierra Designs, named after our own wonderful outdoor playground. Next was the logo which was designed by Al Marty, an ad agency consultant. He gave us several sketches to look at and almost at once, Bob and I picked the same one which became the famous logo that it was for so many years. Al said that was his choice too, so it was unanimous.
Bob and I then went to work on the location, 137 Tewksbury in Point Richmond, a building that now belongs to a group of which I am a partner. The building was pretty bleak inside so we cleaned it up, painted the walls white then built the tables we would need for this kind of sewing operation. Bob and I did all of the work and we did so with such enthusiasm that the hours just fled by. We worked every day for such long hours it is difficult to even recall how we managed to do it all. The first month or so was dedicated to the set up and then we went to work on the product line and the marketing plans. We had a natural division of responsibilities, Bob in charge of marketing and accounting and I in charge of manufacturing. We collaborated on all of the designs. We hired our first two sewing ladies, one from our neighborhood, Reba McWhorter who out lasted us all. Bob and I were out of the company by 1984 and Reba was still there for perhaps another ten years. She is in fact still the record holder for the longest term of employment at Sierra Designs. She and I worked together at great lengths in the design of many of the products that we produced. My mother Marie Marks was another great help as she was a superb craftsman when it came to some very complicated sewing techniques. She and I created some of the most ingenious sleeping bags ever seen up to then. Many of our little sewing tricks are still being used in the industry and in fact world wide.
Within the first six months we had created a full product line of outdoor products (see catalog 1966~67) which amazes me today to think that we could have done so much in such a short time. In addition we had a catalog, 2,000 copies for the one and only printing, a small retail shop that people were soon talking about and sending us customers where we managed to sell all of our prototypes and seconds. It became a well known secret and soon word of mouth was one of our better forms of advertising. We had some small place ads too. We attended the early trade shows where we put our products up for sale. Soon we had a small but active dealer list.
Among them was a small shop in San Francisco, The North Face, proprietor, Doug Tompkins. (see 1966~67 catalog, page 18, in the cagoule) later he almost cost us the whole enterprise as he was on the verge of bankruptcy when he managed to sell his company to two brothers who subsequently sold the company to Hap Klopp and Jack Gilbert who promptly went into the manufacture of the products that we had produced for Doug. That was the beginning of years’ long of rivalry between TNF and SD. During that period we were always trying to outdo each other so the products from both companies only got better and better as time went by. Doug prospered in a new enterprise which was a line of women’s clothes. It went under the names of the various styles, but later was simply known as ESPRIT. He managed to recover most if not all many times over of his lost investments in the outdoor industry.
We worked in the Tewksbury shop for about three years. We started out as two people but by the time we left in 1968 we had become 28 and tensions were high. There was just not enough room for all of us to work and to not get into each other’s way. David bought the building at the corner of Fourth and Addison in Berkeley for which he was handsomely rewarded when we sold the company as the CML group grudging agreed to buy it from him. As it turned out, that was a good investment for them too, as they subsequently sold it too and did well on the investment. Now more than 35 years later, it is the home of the Dark Horse Trading Company warehouse. It has weathered wonderfully since those days when we turned that old paint factory into the center of the outdoor world of the time. It was on the Japanese tour bus schedule of stops. We felt like rock stars.
We were in Berkeley for several years until we moved to Oakland. By then we were under the management of the CML Group to whom we had sold the business in 1971. This was the beginning of the end of the true company as it was slowly but surely becoming something that it had not been. Corporate dictates were coming down and we were forced to make certain decisions. It was also the time of serious competition as we had so little up to then. One day in 1978 I came to work to find a notice on the power pole outside our door advertising sleeping bags that looked all too familiar. In fact this was the first sign of a new company in town, Snow Lion, one Bill Simon proprietor. He had taken our line of sleeping bags to Hong Kong where he had them duplicated to the last detail. Suddenly we were faced with the loss of our entire network of dealers to this new company. After years of telling me what a genius I was, the dealers all rushed to the new kids on the block and bought all the sleeping bags they wanted that were the equal to ours and for a much better price. So much for genius George. However when I woke up to what was happening it was getting late. Our sales manager of the day wanted to abandon all the great sleeping bags we were making and to get out of the sleeping bag business entirely. Fortunately we were still in control of the company so I told him we would not abandon our sleeping bags but to make them even better so no one would really want to copy them. That was the beginning of the high end sleeping bags, the Cloud Series (see catalog 1979) which kept SD in the sleeping bag business to this day. The bags in spite of their high cost were very well received and sold well. As a side note, we had over estimated the number of bags that would sell with the nice ivory lining, so we had many yards of fabric left over. We later used it in the tents and they were stuck with that color matched with blue for many years and are only now finding other colors.
Our tents were winners from the beginning. The Glacier Tent was the star of the line and received many letters from people who had experienced incredible conditions and wrote to tell us that they were safe in their tents in spite of horrendous conditions. The 3-Man tent was inspired by one of my neighbors, Tom Edwards, a tug boat captain who was a bee keeper. He told me that the hexagon was nature’s most efficient use of space and besides, I would need only three poles, a tripod. He was quite right and the tent was a wonderful winner for several years. It only weighed 8 lbs and as long as it was just at 8 lbs it continued to sell in great numbers. One day though we decided that in spite of being just about perfect we made some changes to the tent and it went over the 8 lb weight. Sales dropped of precipitously so we had to backtrack as fast as we could.
The tent sales were always one of our strongest products but then suddenly the world became obsessed with “Domania”. With the introduction of TNF’s Ovalintention, Moss tents and the JanSport Trail Dome, the outdoor world was never the same. All of our rigid tent pole styles were abandoned leaving us with huge stocks of poles that finally ended up on the scrap heap. They just lost all sales interest in favor of Domes. I tried to convince dealers that the domes were inherently unsafe as they were not staked down for the most part, and indeed they were sold as not needing to be staked down. They looked good in the show rooms too. It was only later little by little people begin to hear of tents blowing away over cliffs, into rivers and even out to sea. One story had it that the occupants of a dome tent with a “bathtub” floor were awakened one morning by some people in a canoe. It seems that the tent began to float away when the tide came in on the beach where they were camped.
Faced with this dramatic shift in market tastes, I decided that we needed a dome tent too, but one that would not compromise my principles. Thus was born the Octodome tents (see catalog 1978). They were inspired by the dome of St. Peter’s in Rome, which is in fact two domes one over the other. Using some gothic arches and the double dome principle I made the tents with the flysheet integral with the inner tent. We made three styles, a large dome, a smaller one and a two man tent using the same construction design. They were very well received and even patented, but they were soon altered by the person in charge of manufacturing as too expensive and complicated. Soon they were shelved as no longer a viable design. By that time I had lost all influence in the direction of the company and was soon to end my tenure there all together. I was no longer inspired and was obviously a super numery to the company. I was invited to seek employment elsewhere after being given a year’s notice. Pretty generous though when I think back on it. Bob had already left the company to try other things and in later 1984 invited me to join him in another enterprise, The Walrus Tent Company, but that is another story.
As to the former employees, there must be hundreds of alumni by now. Most worked for a while and then moved on to other interests and many lost their jobs after the final closing of the manufacturing plant, as did most others in the outdoor business. The move to Asia was inexorable and could not be stopped. It was just inevitable. I remember clearly one day sometime after we were in Berkeley, a visit from Doug Tomkins who suggested to me that we close up the factory and go with him to Hong Kong where we could get all of the products made there for much less. I was shocked at such an idea as we had a social conscience in those days and all I could think of to say in response was “but Doug, what about all the people?” his response to that was not really something I would like to repeat here now. But I was stuck in time and eventually not only would I be swept aside, but I would end up here in Asia for what now looks like for the rest of my life.
Among the many notables who are members of this alumni association are such luminaries as Bob Woodward, (SNEWS), Paul Kramer & Jack Gilbert (much later) of Mountain Hardwear fame, Henry Gruchacz currently of Erickson Outdoors, an early pioneer of the company, and many, many more who all made significant contributions to the success of the company.
After the acquisition of Sierra Designs in about 1971 by the CML Group, along with Kelty Pack we entered into a dual relationship with Kelty that lasted until Kelty Pack was sold to another large company. Sierra Designs later was passed around from one company to another. The first one to take it after CML was The North Face, winning the final round of our years’ long competition. Much later in 1993 the executive staff of the company, comprised of Paul Kramer, Jack Gilbert and some others attempted to buy the company from the then owner of TNF Bill Simon. That was also somewhat ironic as he was driven out of Berkeley when he had his first company, Snow Lion which folded up even though it managed to knock off all of our best designs. He went to Hong Kong where he was known as Odyssey until that ended too. He refused the offers from Paul and Jack’s group so they resigned en masse and set up shop across the street (so to speak) and started the new company Mountain Hardwear which now ten years later is doing very well under the Columbia Sports umbrella.
My tenure came to an end in late 1984. In fact it was a mutual parting of the ways as I had become something of an unwanted expense to the company and I had lost all enthusiasm for my job. I had little to say about any thing and the product line was dictated by sales and not by design. Not much room for imagination anymore. At the end of 1984, I joined my old partner, Bob Swanson in a new adventure the Walrus Tent Company. That lasted for almost 10 years and then it was time to start over again where I am now currently engaged in the exciting world of sourcing for anyone who would like me to watch over their production here in Asia.
My time at Sierra Designs was of course my major work and it had a long lasting affect on my life. It is also something for which I take great pride. I learned so many things during that period, and they serve me well to this day.
Yangzhou, Jiangsu, P.R China
February 26, 2004
The creation of Sierra Designs was an act of friendship and encouragement from David Buschman. Bob... Read Story
Starting Out After getting the business set up in October of 1965, and renting a building in Point... Read Story
Author George R. Marks was co-founder of Sierra Designs in 1965 Bob Swanson, (1933-2016) , my co-... Read Story
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