Trailblazer: Mic Mead and Adventure 16
A degree in forestry from Purdue University in hand, Indiana native Mic Mead headed west to California in 1955 to fill a two-year obligation as a Navy officer. "Thus began," said Mead, "a 40- year stay in San Diego."
A four-decade stint that saw him migrate into the business of making and selling outdoor gear. "I’d always wanted to own my own business, and after getting out of the Navy, I started by designing and building houses then adding a carving business."
Along the way, he became involved with an Explorer Scout troop whose leadership was keen on making 16 mm adventure films. They called their film making enterprise "Adventure 16." "Soon," Mead recalled, "the troop started making their own gear and selling it out of a garage close by my carving shop." Among the eager gear-making young scouts was one named Wayne Gregory who would later make a name for himself in the outdoor business.
In 1968, a Girl Scout troop brought a tent made by the scouts to A-16 to get poles. After much alteration and the addition of arrow shaft poles, the result was what Mead contends is the first crossed pole dome tent to come to market.
Two years later, Mead financed and incorporated A-16. "It was a manufacturing operation making tents, 800-fill down sleeping bags, packs and some accessories, like the first net- front, see-through ditty bags."
Among his most prized products of the time were packs. "We came up with a Kelty conversion kit that was very successful. It was a hip carry system with a padded belt that for the first time moved the pack’s carry point forward." Then, there was his patented telescoping frame that "allowed everyone to get a perfect pack fit."
A-16 eventually branched out into more retail locations in 1972, around the same time that Mead tried to save sleeping bag manufacturer, Snow Lion, from bankruptcy. "My banker said not to do it," Mead said, "so I founded Black Ice in Reno with Peter Benjamin as a partner and Bill Simon as our off-shore contractor." (Simon was founder of Snow Lion and later the owner and CEO of The North Face.)
Through the short-lived Black Ice venture, Mead came to own the Granite Stairway Mountaineering retail store in the San Fernando Valley as well as its wholesale division.
A-16 grew steadily, adding more stores. Mead said its retail success was due to six factors: "The regular publishing of the Footprints instructional newsletter that went to a mailing list of 100,000 customers, a great class and outings program, free slide shows at the stores that would draw up to 500 people, always selling top-flight gear, stores that were deliberately funky and filled with all sorts of country antiques, and training, training, training. Our mantra was: ‘Don’t oversell. Make the friend and the sales will follow.’ And they did."
As manufacturing shifted to the Orient in the early ’90s, A-16 phased out its factory and started selling goods made by others.
In 1995, Mead took advantage of A-16′s Employee Stock Ownership Plan and retired back home to Indiana where he lives on a 40-acre former children’s camp where he had worked as a young man. Today, he spends his days nurturing his own "wilderness," is involved in local government, sculpts and helps his wife with her antiques business.
Looking back on the outdoor business in the ’60s, ’70s and now, Mead said, "To me, the customers back then were totally dedicated to and loved the mountains. Today, the customers seem to be more sports activists who participate in a lot of outdoor recreational activities, but are not the pure wilderness buffs that we were."
He also said he believes that stores that don’t teach wilderness skills are set up for failure. "They have to remove whatever intimidation and barriers that beginners have of being out in the wilds if they expect to build their businesses."
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