Lifestyle Manufacturing: Has the time come for a new Colorado ‘Key Industry’?

By Bart Taylor | Oct 14, 2013

Among the reasons I launched CompanyWeek was to showcase Colorado companies making and manufacturing products aligned with sports, recreation, and the lifestyle ethos unique to this region. All three companies profiled this week qualify; each are at a different place along the growth continuum.

The Fat Bike Company has received a lot of press lately because of explosive growth, but also because we’re on our way to becoming an epicenter for cycling-related manufacturing. The Fat-sters in Colorado Springs are only the latest example.

Zum XR’s still under the radar, but Bob Niichel’s technology-drink (my term) is already getting rave reviews. That Whole Foods, among others, sells the product speaks volumes.

Newton Running may be the poster-child, though, for the need to evaluate anew how Colorado organizes its economic development effort to support and leverage the innovation and making that’s underway here in the lifestyle space. Read the profile here, but suffice to say that Jerry Lee and the other founders of Newton have developed a global brand in Boulder, well known in their sector if not their home state.

They don’t manufacturer here, but very few in his space do, including iconic brands like Nike. Lee’s commitment to on-shore shoe making is sincere though; he’d hoped to launch Newton as an American-made product. Colorado still may not be his next manufacturing destination, such is the depth of the challenge to manufacture any apparel in the U.S. (also read our Janska and Loki profiles.) Somewhere in North America, out-of-Asia, would be progress, according to Lee.

But his brand, and success, and the growing ‘lifestyle manufacturing’ sector here beg the question: why not here? Or, why not begin to aggressively promote the state for its burgeoning ‘Lifestyle Manufacturing’ sector regardless of where some its products must be made - even as they’re designed or assembled or conceived here?

OEDIT, Colorado’s Office of Economic Development and International Trade, identifies 14 Key Industry sectors. It’s unclear to me where businesses like Newton or Fat Bike, Janska or Moots, KOTA or Big Agnes, reside in Colorado’s current nomenclature. In Advanced Manufacturing? Sure, some more than others, though this category is intended to highlight the state’s high-tech industrial assets. (Of which there are many). In Tourism and Outdoor Recreation? Not really: it’s a service sector, primarily, and consumers don’t come to Colorado to buy Newton running shoes.

Are innovators and entrepreneurs in lifestyle manufacturing part of Creative Industries? Of course. It’s an amazing sector that supports “nonprofit cultural organizations and government agencies”, primarily, “that produce and present arts and cultural activities”. But it’s not intended to be a catch-all that includes manufacturers.

Where then? The stakes are huge. Imagine a concerted effort including industry, economic development, higher-ed, and business like the sporting brands that make a killing off Colorado’s assets, in a push to position Colorado as the West’s -- the nation’s -- premier lifestyle manufacturing business destination.

Something Independent (S|I) has been storytelling in support of lifestyle companies here for years. They’ll again convene business to recognize the latest of a growing crop of Colorado companies next week at the third-annual Wright Awards. I asked Chuck Sullivan, one of S|I’s founders, whether the state could become an apparel manufacturing ‘hub’.

“At S|I we talk a lot about the intersection of lifestyle and commerce”, he says. “Colorado sits squarely at the hub of this convergence. It’s an attractive place to be. Whether it’s an apparel company, a ski or snowboard maker, a craft brewer or distiller, it’s first a state of mind. Pursuing the business that you love in the place you want to be.”

He gets warmed-up. “Then it grows to point where it’s the place you HAVE to be. And I think you are seeing that here in Colorado. There are quite a few apparel companies in Colorado — SmartWool in Steamboat Springs, Spyder in Boulder, and smaller ones like Shredly in Aspen and Jiberish in Denver. Flylow. Loki. And Pearl Izumi and Pactimo in cycling circles. It’s a good place to be”.

Ah, craft brewers. You’ll find the industry represented in Food & Agriculture, under the cow, which for the nation’s leading craft-brew exporter, may be under-selling Colorado beer. Not to mention our killer beef and ag manufacturing assets.

Beer’s a critical lifestyle component for me. A new industry alignment may do us both some good.