It may have been 20 years ago, but Rich Hager still recalls how his fingers ached as he helped his good friend and now business partner Bill Gamber unload a shipping container filled with sleeping bags.
“It was 7:30 a.m. in the morning and why wouldn’t somebody want to work with Gamber,” Hager said with a smile. “He needed help unloading the container, and I told him, ‘It’s freaking cold outside.’”
At the time, Hager had no idea Big Agnes would become one of Steamboat Springs’ best-known outdoor manufacturers with a reputation that circles the globe. However, Hager saw the promise. A year later, he and Len Zanni invested in his friend’s idea and helped Big Agnes earn its spot in the outdoor gear industry.
That first container held about 1,500 sleeping bags and 2,500 pads. Today, the outdoor gear company still sells sleeping bags and pads but has added tents, camping furniture and apparel to its inventory. Gamber said the company now unloads hundreds of shipping containers per year and sells 500,000 items.
The company leased and remodeled the old Steamboat police station at 840 Yampa St. last summer, and the nearly 8,000-square-foot space is now home to company headquarters and more than 40 employees.
Big Agnes also has a repair center west of town, a 30,000-square-foot warehouse and distribution center in Salt Lake City and third-party warehouses in Canada, Europe and Asia. In all, Big Agnes has more than 70 employees.
“We just wanted to make better camp gear. … A better sleep system was sort of the original idea,” Gamber said. “We introduced three sleeping bags and two pads that first year. The bags all had the same system just different temperatures and insulations — one was down and one was synthetic.”
Gamber moved to Steamboat in 1990, after starting BAP — Bwear Action Products — in 1985 while living in a college dorm in Pennsylvania and selling his wares out of the back of his car in college. By 1995, the business had move into its iconic location at 735 Oak St.
He quickly fell in love with Steamboat’s active lifestyle that included skiing, biking and camping. That love of camping led to the creation of Big Agnes in 2001.
“It was probably about a year from the time we had a concept until we were delivering finished product. When I look at it now I think, ‘How did we pull that off?’” Gamber said. “We just wanted a more comfortable sleep system — a system where you did not slide off the pad.”
Gamber said the original sample was sewn in Steamboat at BAP. He then took the prototype to a couple of seamstresses in Grand Junction who had opened their own custom sewing shop after working for Marmot.
“They would do small production runs, and they were Gore-Tex certified, so they could make sales samples for companies, and they made samples for us,” Gamber said. “So we went to the Outdoor Retailer show in Salt Lake City with the samples we made in Grand Junction.”
The Big Agnes sleep systems drew a lot of interest from retailers, and orders started coming. Gamber had hoped to manufacture products in the U.S., but because materials and resources were hard to find here, he was forced to produce his bags overseas.
“It’s been 20 years of bliss,” Zanni said of his involvement with Big Agnes. “It really has been a lot of fun.”
Hager is also thrilled he took the chance on a start-up company.
“I was tired of working for someone else,” Hagar said. “I had helped Bill start Big Agnes with all the accounting and software. … I liked the product, so I was kind of drawn to it.”
After selling a home he had built in Clark, Hagar invested that money into the business, and he’s never looked back.
Gamber said the ownership group owes a lot of its success to the community it calls home and to the outdoor, active lifestyle that is found in Northwest Colorado. He said he often gets feedback when he’s at the grocery store, as well as ideas for new products.
“You have to make good products, because your friends are going to call you out if you don’t,” Gamber said. “Big Agnes has been lucky enough to have one ownership, and that’s me, Rich and Len, great employees and just awesome support from this community.
“We keep talking about we just celebrated 20 years, and now, we’re like, OK, what’s the next 20 years look like.”
To reach John F. Russell, call 970-871-4209, email jrussell@SteamboatPilot.com or follow him on Twitter @Framp1966.