BareBones workwear co-founder Stu Nelson took it in stride when one of his apparel suppliers, Modesto-based 5.11 Tactical, opened a store in June just seven minutes away from one of his Sacramento retail outlets. BareBones, he said, thrives on offering customers a variety of brand choices.
“It’s easy to get myopic and think it’s cannibalistic or to say, ‘They’re going to put us out of business, so we’re not going to sell their product anymore,’ ” Nelson said. “I usually try to look at this as a symbiotic thing.”
5.11 Tactical CEO Tom Davin, a U.S. Marine Corps veteran and Harvard Business School graduate, said the company has been very selective about where it puts its stores, opening only six so far, but the initial reaction from nearby merchants selling 5.11 products usually has been: “Really?”
Roughly 75 percent of 5.11 Tactical’s sales come from its dealer network of stores, Davin said, and the goal isn’t to supplant those stores but to expand sales overall as the manufacturer’s storefronts and new advertising efforts expand brand awareness.
Both Nelson and Davin stressed that the key to success for dealers and the manufacturer is in differentiating what consumers will get when they come to each of their stores. Dealers, Davin said, might offer 40 or 50 of 5.11’s products, but in 5.11 Tactical retail stores, the manufacturer offers more than 500 of its own styles. The brand’s dealers, however, will carry products in a range of price points from different manufacturers. And, like BareBones, many sell gear that 5.11 doesn’t offer.
Davin leads a company with a storied history: “Our company grew out of what was originally the Royal Robbins Clothing Co., and you may know that name. Royal Robbins was a big rock climber in Yosemite back in the ’60s, and he was climbing those big rock walls with people like Yvon Chouinard who went on to found Patagonia, and Royal and his wife, Liz, who lived in Modesto at the time, started the Royal Robbins Clothing Co. in the early ’70s.”
Robbins created what became known as the ultimate rock-climbing pants, Davin said, because of its comfortable fit, light weight and multiple pockets. At the time, Davin said, the Yosemite rock-climbing classification system topped out at a difficulty level of 5.10, so there was a running joke among the climbers: “Oh, man, look over there. That pitch, it’s impossible. It must be a 5.11.”
That off-the-charts rating became the name for the Robbinses’ pants. The same features that made them popular with rock climbers also appealed to instructors at the FBI Academy in Quantico, Va., said Davin, who got to watch the adoption of the pants firsthand as he trained officers nearby at the Marine Corps’ Basic School.
“The instructors were wearing a mix of workwear pants, blue jeans and military BDU (battle dress uniform),” Davin said. “They looked a bit ragtag. They had a royal blue polo shirt, so everybody had the same polo shirt on, but everybody wore different pants. ... Nobody was really happy with the pants they were wearing.”
By 1992, Davin said, the FBI Training Academy had adopted the 5.11 pants as part of the standard dress for recruits and instructors, and military, fire and law enforcement officials also started wearing the pants. Modesto food-industry entrepreneur Dan Costa noticed that trend, Davin said, and he offered to buy the Royal Robbins Outdoor business from its two founders in 2003. Ultimately, Costa sold the outdoor clothing company but split off the 5.11 brand clothes that were popular with law enforcement, military and firefighters. Private-equity firm TA Associates of Menlo Park now owns a majority stake of 5.11 Tactical.
The 5.11 brand also still attracts outdoor enthusiasts and has gained a loyal following among blue-collar workers who have discovered the brand through dealers such as BareBones workwear and Work World. The 5.11 pants and shorts are also quite popular with one particular dealer.
“I wear a pair of 5.11s almost every day,” Nelson told me. “I’m wearing a pair of their shorts right now. I’m embarrassed to tell you how many times I actually wash them because they have Teflon on them, and they really don’t get stained.”
At BareBones stores, Nelson said, they do crossover marketing to help consumers understand that the tactical brand can be used for general workwear. The BareBones stores are organized, he said, by function rather than by brand. He sees his small retail chain as an ambassador for many different brands, he said, and he feels that consumers will return to his stores because they want a retailer that isn’t wedded to only one brand.