CEO revives EMS by returning the firm to its roots

Will Manzer is careful not to curse the 18 inches of snow that has left him short-handed and answering his own phone line at his Peterborough office on this early January morning. He sees obstacles as opportunities that keep people and businesses fit and focused. By avoiding the safe, popular path, he has found rich camaraderie and possibly a winning formula in doing what he loves.Manzer has taken the same approach to turning around the New Hampshire-based Eastern Mountain Sports, one of the East Coast’s largest outdoor outfitters. In 2003, he left Manhattan, where he led Perry Ellis’ menswear division, to take over as chief executive of the 44-year old iconic mountain gear company – a company he thought was losing its mojo by following the big-box retailers and trying to be everything to everybody.And while the company was making money, he said, “We lost our purpose. The country is over-retailed.”His plan was to buy out the conglomerate owner, American Retail Group, and return EMS to its authentic roots as a gung-ho gear shop. By 2004, with his buyout deal completed with financing partnership from Connecticut-based J.H. Whitney Capital Partners, Manzer began to sharpen EMS’s focus by diving deeper and deeper into this small industry alcove.He closed 22 of the 87 EMS stores and began to transform the culture and the store portfolio by hyper-focusing on outdoor adventure enthusiasts, known as “gearheads.” This meant shedding such popular items as sweaters and khakis – which made money – to make room for items not only for mountain climbing, but also adventure sports, including kayaking, mountain biking, trail running, backcountry skiing, and telemark skiing.‘Knowledge and passion’Not since Alan McDonough and Roger Furst – the original owners, who, as legend has it, started the company because they couldn’t find a place to buy an ice-climbing ax – has there been a leader at EMS who was a passionate user of its products.Manzer’s knowledge of the company came from being a longtime customer. His management team periodically takes to the mountains and offers all employees sabbatical-like, non-paid leave to reconnect with the outdoors.It is easy to see why the nickname “Mad Dog” has stuck to Manzer. The lean, scrappy 155-pound triathlete seems to be a natural leader to such a concentrated, committed band of thrill-seekers. Although at 58, he’s old enough to be his target audience’s grandfather, few would know it by looking at him. When talking about EMS or recreating in the great outdoors, Manzer takes on an almost evangelical tone and intensity. His sentences are quick, packed with power and occasionally include supporting statistics, but never idle chatter.He rapidly moves from the importance of renewing the federal Land and Water Conservation Fund to the value of outdoor recreation to combat obesity to the latest trends in retail.”Our creed,” he said, “is knowledge and passion – not broad appeal.”Serving a niche, he said, makes it easier to attract and retain employees, and their firsthand expertise with the product improves sales, customer service, enhances product development and keeps management aware of emerging trends. From top to bottom, Manzer said “We hire people that walk the walk.”Six years into his ownership, Manzer’s success has been slowed by a tough economy. This industry, he said, “is not recession-proof, but is recession-adverse.”Still, he said “2009 was a pivotal year. We dramatically changed the company.”By closing stores, cutting staff, investing in technology to better manage merchandise, rebranding the company’s image and maximizing its resources, EMS dramatically grew its average transaction by $10, increased sales per square-foot, and energized the culture. But, he said, the “real indicator as to where you are at is how passionate (we) are about our cause.”While online sales continue to take a bite out of brick-and-mortar retailers – this past holiday season it jumped to 10 percent of all sales – Manzer doesn’t see it as a threat to his business.While EMS sells products online, he said the purpose of those sales is to drive more customers to the stores. EMS has an advantage, since it manufactures one-third of its product line (the rest comes from like-minded suppliers, like The North Face, Big Agnes and Black Diamond).”Our customers can’t stand an overbuilt product,” he said.But that doesn’t mean the stuff is inexpensive. EMS sleeping bags start at near $100 and go up threefold. It is easy to see how climbers, as Manzer noted, spend $3.50 for every $1 they spend actually climbing.Natural resourcesEMS gets lots of customer feedback, not to mention loyalty and exposure, by hosting various schools and adventure programs, from rock climbing to geocaching, an outdoor treasure-hunting game.Recently, EMS became the official outfitter for the Mount Washington Observatory and is working with the New Hampshire Division of Parks and Recreation to attract younger people to the parks. Giving back is important to Manzer. “I want to do my part,” he said.Despite the logistical challenges of getting his products to market, he said, New Hampshire is a great place to live and do business, but he worries about how the state cares for its natural resources.The state’s “quality of life is critical,” he said, adding that he thinks the state should do more to market the advantages of moving businesses to New Hampshire, especially the new crop of socially conscious business leaders.Manzer turned passionate when talking about preserving and promoting the state’s environment and is frustrated that people don’t see what he calls the trinity of “conservation, access and recreation.”He said leaders have “squandered this gift,” and too often, when the dialogue turns “to their long-term benefits, their eyes glaze over.”His words carry clout, since his business appears to be finding success in an often-ignored market.Outdoor recreation and tourism is big business, especially in New Hampshire’s North Country, generating $4 billion, or 8 percent of the gross state product and 53,000 jobs, according to one study.But Manzer then related back to his dual passions – EMS and the outdoors. “It’s a work of love,” he said, “but we don’t always have the resources.”