Faces In The Game
Life In The The Consolidation Lane
Like many who took up a board-sports lifestyle, Tom Routh woke up one day to find himself in over his head with the booming small business he’d created to keep him riding.
Routh was thirteen years old then.
Now he’s 27 and remembering Central Oregon Skates, the rented space in a Bend, Oregon bike shop where he sold skateboards to his friends. He skateboarded every day and sold 35,000 dollars’ worth of product until succumbing within a year to the high-pressure world of retail.
“I did pretty well for a thirteen year old,” he laughs. “I must’ve been a little more serious than most–or too stubborn to know any better. The funny thing is, everything since then has been related. That’s what got me into snowboarding.”
In what his parents thought was another “phase,” he ordered a snowboard sight unseen out of a skate catalog. After the 1983 Burton Woody, Routh was into snowboarding like his first business–feet first.
“When I started there were only about six riders in the Northwest–Chris Klug, Rob Morrow, John Caulkins, Sanders Nye, Michele Taggart, and Shannon Melhuse on a modified Backhill,” Routh says. Riding with those “Turks” naturally gravitated him to competing–racing and freestyling on the pro tour before slowly moving to the backcountry, often fabricating his own clothes and packs. After concentrating on racing for a few more years, Routh found himself having to choose between that world and designing.
“It was more than two full-time jobs,” he says now. “Although I still enjoy running courses, racing doesn’t pay the rent very well.”
So in 1991 Routh moved to Bozeman, Montana to work at Dana Designs, and a year later he was once again back in his own business–Cirqueworks–the backpack label he started with partner Laura Metzler, who now works for Patagonia.
“It wasn’t a conscious decision to start a company, but to make the product,” Routh says. “I had enough days on the mountain to have insight into the needs of snowboarding and mountain life in general. Since it’s such a gear-intensive sport, you struggle with your gear to move efficiently in the backcountry.
“We needed to broaden our offering in the marketplace, so we got into the general outdoor category, mainly mountaineering and backpacking–very high-end, technical, internal-frame packs. As a small manufacturer we knew we couldn’t compete with the low end. We saw a need for a better product and were able to be involved with snowboarding without depending on the industry. Had we focused on snowboarding packs from day one, we wouldn’t have survived.”
Cirqueworks was able to grow by leaps and bounds then. The business climate at every level of the sport now seems filled with pre-millennium tension–a lot going on, but caution and a wait-and-see attitude rule.
So what happens, to the reluctant businesspeople who live and know snowboarding, whose commitment and innovation ushered in the boom? Many leave the sport, find a job within an existing company, or ply trades in the freelance world, like Routh, now doing contract hardgoods design for MLY snowboards and clothing design for Moonstone. His experience makes him a valuable freelance artist, but by no means has Routh given up on Cirqueworks. This time he’s looking to partner with more capital to drive the business so he can focus on what riding has taught him best: designing.
The situattion’s irony is not lost on Routh, “Snowboarding represents new ideas to these outdoor companies entrenched in the 80s that now need a new direction,” he says. “But certainly in snowboarding there’s not going to be the same kind of drive and innovation we’ve seen. The days are over when somebody could have a good idea, make mistakes, and still succeed.
“You can look at the history of the ski market and see the same trends, it’s just been super condensed in snowboarding, happening in a third of the time. In a matter of five years, snowboarding evolved to what took skiing 40 years. It’s a natural maturing and balancing, just like the stock market–if it booms, it’s got to retract. It’s going to be a lot harder to make healthy long-term decisions when companies have to answer to shareholders’ profitability demands every quarter.”
So how do peaceful snowboard warriors wage against the machine? “Personally, I’m trying to find a balance between work I enjoy and lifestyle,” Routh says. “That’s a goal you don’t ever necessarily achieve; it’s ongoing. With Cirqueworks I paid my dues, learned a lot, and have no regrets, but looking forward it’s much more important to not sacrifice personal objectives for work.”