686’s Mike West Gets Back to Running the Ship
686 founder Mike West will tell you the technical apparel label he founded in 1992 practices the Japanese concept of Kaizen, or continuous improvement.
It’s a set of principles guiding the business amid a recent retooling of the leadership team that places West back at the helm of 686 to refocus and simplify the business’s structure, with the company set to notch its highest-revenue year. The company is also expected to record stronger profitability in 2023 and 2024 in comparison to last year.
Last January, 686 tapped Erik Joule (EJ) to serve as president. He succeeded Doug Sumi, who retired, as West took a step back at the time to focus on creative.
“What that taught us was a lot of great things here, but I think that it brought a lot of different layers to our business,” West said of the changes made last year. “Curiosity brings you to a lot of areas that you just didn’t know about and then you realize basically we were on the right track to begin with. Simplicity is key. Less layers. Less reporting and more actionable items are really important here. I’m not trying to be the biggest company. I want to be really, really meaningful in what we do really well.”
Joule left in August and continues to serve as an advisor to Crap Eyewear in addition to consulting for other companies.
With West back in the top spot, the company turns to the snow season now underway.
“The overall forecast of this season is not only optimistic but it’s becoming very positive early in the season here,” West said.
That’s despite the heavy promotional activity that’s loomed across the apparel industry – something 686 is not insulated from, even if it doesn’t partake in the markdowns as much as some.
“Whether we participate (in promotions) or not, it affects everyone,” West said. “Our retailers, our family. It affects them; it affects us.”
The company more recently added an outlet section to its online shop to clear through slower-moving product. A good chunk of that is some of the more experimental designs that didn’t necessarily resonate with consumers. The aim with the outlet section, however, is not to build out an off-price channel for 686 product, Vice President of Marketing Brent Sandor said.
Reorders have so far been “very positive,” with the 686 sales team hitting above last year’s performance, West said.
“It’s encouraging because you hear what’s going on out there. We’re not immune to those challenges, but there are two (drivers),” West said of what’s leading the season’s uptick.
First is 686’s core technical business, which is performing well. The other driver has been the consistency the business has offered to retailers, which has translated into more reorders or expanded shelf space.
“We’ve been probably one of the most consistent brands out there in terms of deliveries, transparency, (and) product innovation here over a long, long period of time,” West said. “It’s not just a couple of years, but decades. What’s happening is we’re seeing a lot of other brands that probably have not been so consistent.”
The business environment is such that the company has seen more retailers exploring the possibility of growing other 686 categories in their stores to the fill the holes left by others or to increase product that performed well in tests.
Room for Growth
Examples of categories that have seen notable bumps at retail include shells, fleeces, and other cold weather items not necessarily used on the mountain, along with gloves.
“It’s encouraging when we see that,” West said. “When we see a category where we weren’t a category leader and retailers are now giving us face time and saying, ‘Well, we want you guys to actually step up.’ So, we’re assuming that others are either continuing to falter or having a different strategy, while we’re just being consistent in delivery, sell-through, and branding.”
Looking at 686’s revenue drivers by channel, wholesale accounts for the largest share at about 75%. Management is not in a rush to change the mix or grow direct-to-consumer.
When it comes to product, core outerwear still remains strong, according to West. Any pressure coming from macroeconomic headwinds is impacting the company’s non-core business, meaning items outside the fall and winter seasons.
The Next Generation
With the leadership rejigger, there’s greater clarity on where the business is going in the longer term.
An important aspect of that is understanding the next generation of early adopter athletes that’ll help drive future business. That’s where Sandor and the marketing team come into play.
“From the marketing side, what’s great is listening to the athletes more than ever,” Sandor said. “It started 24 months ago, and we’ve been listening to the athletes and I think we’re seeing the new generation of rail riders and backcountry riders in snow, skiing, and snowboarding drive styling to a little bit different place.”
Understanding what that next generation wants is impacting color choices and designs.
Sandor describes this next-gen consumer as having a more curated perspective on the world. They’re also much more interested in being sustainable.
“It’s not in one season, out the next [with the new generation],” Sandor said. “So, it’s a little bit of simplifying some of the vision and really focusing on fits and fabrics, pieces that a customer can buy and actually hold onto.”
While 686 has long been a force in technical outerwear, its successes in more recent years and, in particular, this year via category growth, beg the question of whether West and team have aspirations to grow outside of the core business.
“We get a lot of requests from retailers going, ‘Hey, we love working with you guys. Can you guys just do these things, too, for us because XYZ brand is not really coming through,’ or, ‘We want to work with you,’” West said. “It’s a fine line and we’re going on our 32nd selling season, so I would say we never use our longevity and heritage to determine the future. What we do know (and) what the time has allowed is we know what we are and what we don’t want to be. We don’t want to be everything for everyone.”
“There’s a lot of things shifting (in the business landscape) and we’re someone that’s not shifting,” Sandor added. “We know the path we’re on. We see good sell-in and good sell-out every year.”
All that said, the company’s Unwork collection, the performance-driven offering that builds off of the Everywhere line, continues to do well. Women’s also continues to perform and now accounts for around a third of the business.
While there isn’t a specific growth target for women’s, West said it would be to make it a “more meaningful” part of the business.
50 Years and Beyond
Ultimately, everything driving strategic decision-making is focused on the long game for 686.
“I have this 50-year vision,” West said. “It’s not the next quarter. It’s 50 years. We’re halfway there.”
As to whether 686 taps help in the way of outside investors to reach that mark, it’s a possibility. Although, West doesn’t see it happening any time soon.
“It’s crazy. I’m 52 now and it’s hard being alone as an owner,” West said. “We’ve been entertaining (outside investors) a lot here, but it’s just not the right time. If we don’t need to be everything for everywhere and do this and do that, then we don’t need that distraction. And that’s honestly what it is. We’ve learned those things (in) acquiring businesses, creating new leadership teams, having these layers. Is it really better, or were we doing it the right way in the first place?”
Certainly, there’s a curiosity around bringing on investors, West said, but what’s in focus for him and the team now is being consistent for the market.
That goes back to the concept of Kaizen for 686 and slow, improving growth spanning a long period of time.
“It’s something I’ve always practiced,” West said, “and we live that in different ways, personally and professionally.”
Kari Hamanaka can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.