Frosty Business

When Ed Kiniry bought Tubbs Snowshoe Co. in 1988, the snowshoe market barely existed. Today, Tubbs leads a thriving industry it was largely responsible for creating.

by Jason Koornick

Ed Kiniry, the owner of Tubbs Snowshoe Co. in Stowe, the snowshoe he designed and the team he brought together have been largely responsible for the growth in the sport's popularity since 1994.

In 1988, Ed Kiniry bought a business steeped in a dying tradition and turned it into a thriving tradition steeped in good business. The 57-year-old owner of Tubbs Snowshoe Co. in Stowe designed a revolutionary snowshoe, then almost single-handedly created a market for his company's products. The plan seems to be working, as the sport's popularity has grown by more than 1,000 percent since 1994, according to the Outdoor Recreation Coalition of America, due largely to Tubbs' efforts to broaden the appeal of winter's fastest growing sport.

"Our business is about building a sporting goods category," Kiniry says. "Tubbs' success was based on the fact that we had to create awareness of the sport in a way that people would respond to. We had to sell an experience."

When he bought Tubbs, the snowshoe market barely existed. Kiniry, who had experience in recreational product development, saw an immense opportunity in the snowshoe business. Although Tubbs had a good reputation and was part of a grand tradition that dates back to 1906, Kiniry understood that the key to the company's success was creating awareness and accessibility to the sport. He recognized that the time was right to introduce snowshoeing to a wide audience.

"The mood at the end of the '80s was ripe for new recreational activities," says Tubbs' general manager, Kathy Murphy, who has been with the company since 1990 and whom Kiniry credits with formulating and implementing Tubbs' marketing strategies. "Before that, snowshoeing was a utilitarian-based activity practiced by mostly technical users. The ski and cross-country business was strong at that time, and people were thinking about recreational fitness. The Olympics in the '80s also raised awareness of winter sports in the United States.

"We took the image of a bearded snowshoer and reversed it with new technology such as lightweight metal frames and comfortable bindings," she says.

Kiniry was born and raised in Springfield. He says he has always been "sports oriented." He played football at the University of Vermont, from which he graduated in 1966. Upon graduation, Kiniry took a job with Wilson Sporting Goods in Cortland, N.Y., although he says he knew he would own a business someday. Soon after he finished college, Kiniry married his girlfriend, Susan Gorman. They have been married for 35 years.

During Kiniry's time at Wilson, he learned about introducing a new recreational product to the market. He worked on the first metal tennis racket, which served to revolutionize the sport and attract a larger user base. "Sales of metal tennis rackets went from $5 million to $500 million in five years," he says.

In 1971, Kiniry moved to Chicago to work for Wilson's professional golf division. He also attended Loyola University where he earned a master of business administration. He later accepted a job with Allied Van Lines in Chicago, "because I wanted international experience," he says.

He moved back to Vermont in 1979 to work for CBI, a business brokerage company in Burlington. "I left Chicago because I was looking for a business to buy," he explains. "It was hard to find good businesses, so I focused on selling them at CBI."

Kiniry worked as a partner at CBI until 1988, when the Tubbs opportunity presented itself. Along with three partners who have since sold their shares, Kiniry bought Tubbs, partly because of his experience with the metal tennis racket at Wilson. The company operated out of an old mill in downtown Stowe that still serves as the company's east coast headquarters and manufacturing facility.

The company was founded by Walter Tubbs in Norway, Maine, in 1906 to manufacture ash snowshoes, skis, sleds and furniture. Snowshoeing enjoyed a mild popularity in the 1920s and '30s when laced wooden shoes cost about $20 a pair. The company's original heyday occurred in the 1940s when Tubbs manufactured close to 100,000 pairs of wooden snowshoes per year, many of which were used by Allied troops in World War II. "Snowshoeing was as, or more, popular than cross country skiing at that time," Kiniry says.

The company moved to Vermont in the '40s, eventually settling in Brandon. Another company called 'Vermont Tubbs' still exists there, manufacturing wooden furniture.

When Kiniry acquired Tubbs in 1998, the company manufactured two brands of products Tubbs snowshoes and Stowe/Mansfield Canoes. The first year under Kiniry's leadership, the company made 1,200 pairs of wooden snowshoes and 300 canoes. In 1989, Tubbs introduced the metal snowshoe. They sold 5,000 pairs that year. "There was no market," Kiniry says.

Ed Kiniry (left) reviews the numbers with David Gadway, a consultant from Gallagher Flynn, and Mike James, Tubbs' chief financial officer.

Soon after, Tubbs acquired Allagash Canoe Co. of Kittery, Maine, in an attempt to grow its share of the canoe market. Kiniry and his team realized that their future was in the growing snowshoe industry, so they sold the canoe brands in 1993. "The snowshoe business was taking off. We were the top brand in snowshoes and were farther down in the canoe business," Kiniry says. "I always want to have the number one brand."

Since selling the canoe companies, Tubbs' focus has been on snowshoes. "We haven't had one moment when it all exploded," Murphy says of the sport's appeal. "We have had good growth since 1994 when the sport was first measured." She points out that in 1994, there were 440,000 participants in the United States. That number has climbed to over 5 million, of which Tubbs' three brands dominate 80 percent of the market. The company brought in over $20 million last year from sales on four continents.

"Our very first goal was to sell $10 million of snowshoes in one year," Kiniry says. "It took us nine years, but then we did it, threw a party and moved on to our next goal."

Kiniry explains that a few years after the company introduced the metal snowshoe, the market was flooded with competition. "We had 18 competitors in the snowshoe business," he says. "We had good success early on and that brings competition."

Despite the competition, Tubbs Snowshoes held a 45 percent share of the market. Its largest competitor was Atlas Snowshoes of San Francisco with a 35 percent share. "Atlas was the only one with staying power and the marketing abilities to compete," Kiniry says. Tubbs Snowshoes acquired Atlas in 1996, consolidating the two top snowshoe manufacturers under the single banner of Winterquest LLC. Kiniry says the arrangement is based upon "the principle of separation."

Atlas, which was founded by a group of young Stanford graduates, has "more of an edginess to their brand," Kiniry says, while Tubbs is known for tradition. He stresses the importance of keeping the brands distinct. "Every market has at least two brands. The two companies have to stay separate in order to compete against each other."

Atlas and Tubbs snowshoes are designed differently. Tubbs has a rotating pivot binding, while Atlas has a hinge system that allows for greater sideways movement. Atlas commands a larger market share on the west coast, and the Tubbs brand sells better in the East.

Murphy explains that the companies share non-proprietary information but guard design and trade secrets in order to foster healthy competition. "We co-leverage our resources to bring different people to market."

Tubbs created a superior snowshoe with the help of strategic partners who contributed to the products' design and materials. There is a partnership with Dupont that provides an exclusive material called Arctec, a nylon co-polymer used as webbing for Tubbs' snowshoes. The company has worked with the University of Vermont engineering department and Dartmouth College to define performance standards. It also works closely with the Cold Regions Research Environmental Lab of the Army Corps of Engineers to test the company's products in different types of snow. Partnerships with resorts such as Stratton Mountain and Trapp Family Lodge helped grow the sport throughout the '90s.

The company commits 2 percent of all sales to research and development. "We have to push the edge of the envelope," Kiniry says.

"An internal team of hard-core outdoorsy types drive our product development," Murphy says. "We get a lot of feedback in different conditions."

Janus Stokes, health and safety coordinator, also does silk-screening, applying logos and designs to the snowshoe decking.

For this reason, factory employees and the product development team are encouraged to hike Mount Mansfield in the winter to test Tubbs' products.

Kiniry says the ultimate engineering goal is "to define the selection process for people more easily." He explains that the design and marketing teams work together to make sure customers can easily choose the right snowshoe. "There are barriers that you can create by making the selection process too complicated," he says.

"We help people make choices based around the kind of experience they are looking for," Murphy says. "We provide products for hiking, walking or running, for easy terrain or hard hikes."

Spike Clayton is the co-owner of the Ski Rack in Burlington. He credits Tubbs with leading the snowshoe industry. "When you are the innovator, you can always stay ahead," he says. "They are a great company in that they invest in long-term success. They could have milked their role as the first snowshoe company but they have really continued to promote the sport."

Clayton says Tubbs' technical contributions to the sport have helped it grow exponentially. "They were the first people to make functional bindings," he says. "Before that, the binding was the literal Achilles heel of any snowshoe. Now customers can understand how to use them and they can go more places with them."

He appreciates Tubbs' Vermont connection. "There are very few products that I can sell that are made in Vermont," he says. "We have tried to sell Atlas Snowshoes, but there is no chance that a customer will buy them when Tubbs is on the shelf. They continue to be our biggest brand."

Kiniry says Tubbs' Stowe address is the greatest benefit of being in Vermont. "Having a snowshoe business based in Stowe with all its heritage, culture and pride of craftsmanship is a good thing." He qualifies the sentiment by adding, "although it doesn't pay any bills. We have an affection to Vermont but we're not tied to it."

Tubbs' recent history invites comparison to another winter sport with roots in the Green Mountain State. Although Burton Snowboards is a much larger company, Kiniry says there are similarities between how the companies have shaped their respective markets. "We both decided to live in Vermont because there is a way of life here. It's an active winter environment with a young demographic," he says, pointing out that the sports also have their differences. "With snowboarding, there is a social experience. People go to resorts with their friends. There's more of a lifestyle associated with snowboarding. Snowshoeing is more of an individual activity that is performed with a small group of people alone in the woods."

The Vermont location also has disadvantages for a growing company. "An element that governs how big this facility gets is finding people," Kiniry says. Tubbs employs between 75 and 200 people, depending on the season. There are approximately 65 administrative positions with the rest handling manufacturing duties. June through December is the busiest production time, according to Kiniry. Since the company uses such a large seasonal work force, it must find people from outside Stowe, a town with only 2,500 year-round residents.

Human resources director Angela Kiniry (Ed's daughter-in-law) organizes an international exchange program that brings Eastern European students to Stowe for three-month stays. During the busy production season, between 18 and 26 exchange students work at Tubbs. "They come here looking to make money but it's also educational. They want to improve their English skills and understand American culture," she says. The students often have second jobs working at Stowe resorts to supplement their income, Kiniry explains. "It provides diversity in the workplace."

Kathy Murphy, Tubbs' general manager, has been with the company since 1990. Kiniry credits her with formulating and implementing Tubbs' successful marketing strategies.

Tubbs' efforts are not unrecognized. In 2000, Ed Kiniry was named Vermont Small Business Person of the Year by the Small Business Administration, although he downplays the honor. "I don't think that a successful business is dependent on one person," he says modestly.

The company recently completed construction on a 40,000-square-foot facility in Grand Junction, Colo., where Tubbs and Atlas Snowshoes are manufactured. The Stowe factory will continue to build the Tubbs brand. Kiniry says having manufacturing facilities on both sides of the country is advantageous. "It allows us to optimize our distribution, since the transportation element is difficult from the east coast," he says.

Stephen Judice and his wife, Kathleen, of Saranac Lake, N.Y., are Tubbs athlete ambassadors. An avid outdoorsman, Judice likes being involved in the grass-roots efforts to turn people on to snowshoeing. "It's tough to get the message out that this is something fun to do for the whole family," he admits. The Judices go to winter events in the Northeast during which they promote the sport and Tubbs' products by leading hikes, participating in races and giving product demonstrations. "We do it because we love snowshoeing," he says.

Judice says that Tubbs' success is due in part to enthusiasm and passion for the outdoors. "The owners haven't lost touch with why they are doing it," he says. "They seem like they are having a good time and that's what the sport is all about."

Originally published in August 2002 Business People-Vermont