FOUR CORNERS – The two-story photo of Wil Flack intently stripping a fly line in some Caribbean locale leaves no doubt among visitors to Simms’ headquarters what the Montana-based business is all about.
“Helping to facilitate memories and great experiences for anglers is what we do,” said Rich Hohne, brand communications manager for Simms Fishing Products. “When our gear is working best, you don’t notice.”
The meeting rooms upstairs are even named after favorite fish species, and mounted tarpon, marlin and bonefish adorn the walls. Just behind the office entryway – on either side of a ping-pong table – flat-screen TVs show an endless loop of fly-fishing videos.
Like its angler-oriented headquarters, Simms’ products and advertising are selling a story line that fishermen want to step in to – to be that grizzled-looking guy with a landing net standing next to the fishing shack on the spring creek, or to hike into the Patagonia outback to cast into virgin waters. Even Simms employees have bought in.
“We have a really fish-obsessive culture here,” Hohne said.
So obsessive that employees who are caught up on their work, and have the approval of their supervisor, can take Friday afternoons off to fish – just to fish, though, not to clean the house or go grocery shopping. There are even sheets of paper posted around the building with employees’ names and marks for how many days they fished each month. Conservation groups sometimes give a talk during the lunch hour, and there is a fly-tying desk in the break room.
“We really try to do as much as we can to get people out on the water and experience what we produce,” Hohne said.
Diane Bristol, Simms’ manager of employee and community engagement, has been with the company since 1988 when its headquarters were still in Jackson, Wyoming. An avid angler, she likes that she’s been able to grow within the company, working up from customer service.
“Most people have to leave companies to progress their career,” she said in an email. “I’ve done it with one company and helped grow Simms into a powerful brand.
“It’s also really fantastic to do what you love with a company that has a purpose to help anglers have their best days on the water. That definitely gets me out of bed in the morning.”
Simms Fishing Products is the sole U.S.-based manufacturer of fishing waders – there were nine in 1993 – although it does produce many of its other products, like sportswear, overseas. Inside a bright, remodeled 60,000-square-foot hardware store that they moved into in 2012, 137 people – the bulk of them in manufacturing – cut, stitch and glue together waders that are shipped to more than 450 specialty fly shops in the U.S. and Canada, 38 other countries as well as big retailers like Bass Pro Shop and Cabela’s.
“For us, we kind of have to be here,” Hohne said of the Gallatin Valley. “This is the hub of fishing in the lower 48. The made-in-Montana story is really powerful, too.”
The business was born out West in 1980 when inventor, fishing guide and now artist John Simms began making gravel guards to keep small stones out of angler’s boots. From his Jackson, Wyoming, home the business grew very quickly. He was soon receiving orders from Japan, New Zealand and South America. When the company got too big and no longer interested him, he sold it. In 1988, the new owners moved the business to Bozeman where it employed 15 people.
In 1992, K.C. Walsh moved with his family to the same outdoorsy Montana college town, leaving behind his job as a Los Angeles management consultant. A year later, he bought Simms and not long afterward began making waders out of Gore-Tex’s more breathable waterproof fabric. Simms is now one of two W.L. Gore-certified wader factories in the world and the largest.
“That was a real groundbreaker for the fishing industry,” Hohne said. “Here we are 21 years later making the best waders.”
Walsh told one interviewer that the company’s mission remains the same as when it was founded: to keep anglers dry, comfortable and safe and to help them fish wherever they want.
It’s not an easy process. Building the new G4Z stockingfoot wader is a 100-step process that involves about 22 members of the Simms manufacturing team, Hohne said. Just to learn how to run the Gore-Tex taping machine, which waterproofs all of the wader seams, takes about four months of training.
Simms has been helped along the way by Montana State University, which assisted the company in developing what’s called a lean manufacturing process: a system that manufactures products with less effort, space, money and time.
Some anglers say that Simms’ gear is hard to beat. The company also produces everything from insulating and breathable base layers to wear inside waders to wading boots, gloves, jackets and sportswear.
“Women’s waders and sportswear are a huge grower for us, and footwear,” Hohne said.
But at Four Corners at least, waders are still king.
“They’ve established their reputation for quality in the outfitting industry and more specifically in Montana,” said Chris Fleck of Stillwater Anglers in Columbus.
Simms’ waders are the only ones Fleck carries in his small shop.
They aren’t cheap, though, with Simms top-of-the-line waders with built-in boots selling for $700. The company’s popular G3 Guide stockingfoot wader sells for $500. That’s a price point that definitely narrows the market, yet they come in 18 different sizes – not just small, medium and large – with the attention to detail that only a smaller manufacturer can provide.
“Usually, people are way more into buying waders at the end of the season when we put them on sale,” said Sam Harris of Bighorn Trout Shop in Fort Smith.
So when Simms discontinues a line of gear and the store can cut the price by 25 percent, sales really increase.
“The first thing the customer says is about price,” said Fleck, who has toured the factory. “But Simms gets the finest materials and components from around the world. That helps to explain the cost. And I like the Montana angle.”
Those anglers who do make the investment in Simms’ top-shelf waders are doing so for a very good reason, Harris said: “Anything to do with a warranty they are super quick. That’s one thing I like. And I can get any product within one day and repairs in about two days.”
The repairs are done in the Bozeman warehouse, speeding the process for Montana anglers. A free tune-up is offered to wader buyers in the first year.
“Our thought is we want to take away the anxiety of being in a leaky pair of waders, which is miserable,” Hohne said.
An extensive study conducted by pro anglers James and George Anderson of Yellowstone Angler in Livingston named Simms’ G3 waders the best of the bunch in its 2013 Wader Shootout. They ranked high for breathability, comfort and durability, among other benefits.
“An extremely nice wader that has proven to be bulletproof,” George wrote in the review on his website. “Absolutely the best fit and best bootie in the industry.”
Being based just outside of Bozeman – “By far the most prosperous city in Montana,” according to Paul Polzin – may help offset that beefy price tag with a more affluent clientele base close, as well as numerous fishing guides.
Polzin, Bureau of Business and Economic Research director emeritus at the University of Montana, also said there aren’t many of Montana’s roughly 3,000 manufacturers who are selling overseas like Simms.
“They demonstrate that you don’t have to be big to achieve economy of scale, as long as they keep their costs down,” he said.
And given that their products are not very large or real heavy, shipping costs for finished products aren’t as limiting, Polzin said.
Perhaps more challenging is finding experienced help in an area where the unemployment rate is traditionally low. That’s become less of a problem, Hohne said, since the collapse in the housing industry and since the Simms brand has grown, although some Bozemanites groused when the company moved out of the city limits to Four Corners.
Although not touting numbers because the business is privately held, Hohne said Simms is seeing “consistent, small growth.” Daily Finance reported in May that Simms “products made domestically account for about 40 percent” of the company’s revenue. And Angling Trade reported in 2012 that Simms was seeing a “19 percent compounded annual growth rate.”
Hohne points to a recent rise in Montana fishing license sales as one indicator of a healthy fishing industry, and noted that as the company has branched out into sportswear it is reaching other anglers besides those who are fly fishing. Walsh, the company’s owner, sees plenty of room for a natural expansion into the saltwater fishing market. And this week Bristol is traveling in Italy and Norway to visit Simms’ European partner.
John Simms, who founded the company, told Wyoming PBS that his life “has pretty much been driven by curiosity and the need for excitement.” He was always dreaming up ways to do things better. It seems that Walsh has latched on to that same ideal with fervor.
“K.C. is on board and pushing this agenda,” Hohne said. “We’re already looking at plans to expand.”