We’re back at it, bringing you another installment of Meet the Manufacturers. Today’s unfortunate soul… er, interviewee, is Mike St. Pierre of Hyperlite Mountain Gear (‘HMG’ to spare some bandwidth). You may have heard about HMG’s products from the likes of Backpacker Magazine and Backpacking Light. The HMG factory is cranking out some well thought out and innovative gear from a historic textile mill turned lightweight gear manufacturing operation in the far reaches of the US. In talking with Mike, it’s clear this is only the beginning of great things to come from Hyperlite Mountain Gear. Settle in with a refreshing beverage and have a looksee!
Hi Mike. Thank you for talking with us today. Please tell us a little about yourself. When did you begin hiking and backpacking, and how much time do you currently spend outdoors?
I started hiking and backpacking in my teens and have been doing it as much as I can since then. Despite my schedule at HMG, I try to get out on a few long (7-10 days) trips per year. My three passions are music, food and the outdoors. I have worked in all three industries and ultimately decided I wanted to pursue starting a gear company. I knew that I wanted to be connected to the outdoors but didn’t want to be a guide This company allows me to exercise my creative side.
Your brother Dan is the other co-founder of Hyperlite Mountain Gear, correct? How is it working with your ‘bro? Are you able to find time to get things done between throwing headlocks on each other?
Dan was an essential player in the start-up of HMG. He helped me set up some of the foundational systems and documents. Similarly, he is helping some of my siblings as they start their own businesses.
What are each of your respective roles in the company?
Dan currently serves on the board. I am company CEO, and spend most of my time on product design, testing and R&D
Which of the following best describes your personal backpacking philosophy: Super Ultralight, Ultralight, Lightweight, Conventional, Sherpa.
Year round, I would say my philosophy is Ultralight. But I enjoy going Super Ultralight in the summer months.
Would you say that your customers have a similar backpacking philosophy? Who is your gear ‘made for’?
HMG’s core customers have a very similar backpacking philosophy, but part of our mission is to help educate people about going light. As we do this, we are bringing new customers to this movement. We believe that our gear is made for anyone who enjoys getting out in the wilderness. Our goal is to help educate them about lightweight wilderness travel and how accessible it really is.
Can you tell us some of the ways that Hyperlite Mountain Gear designs differ from others?
We combine the lightest weight materials with the most functional designs. Our designs are not overly simple, but they are minimalist. From the beginning, Hyperlite Mountain Gear has utilized Cuben Fiber and studied its applications in the sphere of outdoor recreation. There is always a learning curve involved in using new material, and Cuben Fiber was no exception. We’ve spent a lot of time understanding Cuben Fiber’s unique properties and have found innovative ways to use it. We trail test prototypes to perfect the details before we begin selling our products. We have several guides and industry professionals who use our gear on their trips. They return with feedback and if needed, we make product adjustments.
You seem to be ramping up your backpack lineup with several new models recently released. What’s your approach to pack design?
Our product development efforts in 2011 were focused on packs. We regularly receive requests and feedback from professionals on the trail. Based on these responses and from our own internal analysis, we have developed a product line that meets the needs of our dynamic customer segments. In 2011, we’ve introduced several new packs:a new mid-sized Porter Pack, an Ice pack designed specifically for the ice climbing community, and a 4400 cu in capacity Expedition Pack. In 2012 we will turn more of our focus to shelters and tents, using the same approach to filling out that line.
Where are your products currently manufactured?
HMG’s manufacturing facility is located in an historic brick textile mill complex on the Saco River in Biddeford, Maine. The textile industry was incredibly important in New England in the nineteenth century, but largely died out as the commodity-type product manufacturing moved overseas, and these beautiful buildings sat empty for decades. So it’s exciting to be working with twenty-first century materials and participating in the rejuvenation of these mills.
Way to go on keeping it local, in the old buildings even. What are your thoughts on off-shore manufacturing?
Manufacturing off shore is not a viable option for both economical and philosophical reasons. While HMG might save in labor costs by manufacturing overseas, shipping even these lightweight products is expensive and caries negative environmental consequences that are not congruent with our mission. Perhaps even more importantly, manufacturing here in the US gives us much greater control over quality and makes its much easier to build and test new product designs. The quality of our products is absolutely critical, and having the manufacturing co-located with our design space allows us to keep tight watch on our production standards. Domestic design and production also allows HMG to stay flexible and responsive to our customers’ needs and to the competitive environment. Our manufacturing facility is located in a former cotton mill building, which has been employing Maine workers for 125 years. I like knowing that today Hyperlite Mountain Gear is doing the same thing.
Would you say the term “cottage manufacturer” is appropriate for your company, or do you prefer something else perhaps?
I think the term can be limiting. We enjoy being a small company. I try as often as I can to be the voice that the customers hear when they call. But HMG has cutting edge designs and production capabilities and we take pride in our extremely high quality control standards that are not typically associated with cottage industry manufacturers. Additionally, we know that to achieve our goals of getting a broader cross section of people enjoying the outdoors, I won’t be able to be that voice on the phone forever.
The key thing we are striving for as we grow is to never lose touch with our identity as a company nor our intimate relationship with our customers.
What would you say to the folks out there who aren’t familiar with the smaller independent manufacturers and what to expect in terms of customer service, and product quality? Is there anything about your products, business, or the cottage industry in general you’d like to emphasize?
Personal attention is one of the benefits of a small company. We actually respond to all e-mails and a real person, often me, answers the phone when our customers have questions or concerns. The true cottage manufacturers put out some innovative, often custom, products and play a significant role in pushing this industry forward, but often these manufacturers are so small that their lead-times are long and quality can be inconsistent. I see Hyperlite Mountain Gear as having the best of both worlds: the design innovation and direct customer contact of a cottage manufacturer along with the production capability, short lead times (usually we ship orders in one day) and the quality control of a much large company.
So, are there any new products on the horizon that you can tell us about?
I have lots of new innovative ideas for shelters which we expect to roll into our product line in 2012.
Can you tell us what your personal “big three” items are for a typical 3-season, 3-day hike?
Windrider Pack, Echo I Shelter System and sleeping system (Neo Air sleeping pad, and an old school 40 degree bag from REI)
Just for fun, what’s one of your favorite pieces of gear made by another manufacturer?
Caldara Cone by Trail Designs – it’s just a great little ultralight stove.
What do you think the future holds for lightweight and ultralight backpacking?
I think we are only now seeing the beginning of this movement. As HMG and our competitors continue to build great products and educate customers about lightweight backpacking, I have no doubt it these products will be the future of the outdoor industry. In the next few years I see the lightweight approach becoming accepted by the mainstream outdoor enthusiast.
Do you have any advice for backpackers who are considering the transition to light and comfortable travel?
Don’t hesitate. There are lots of great resources to help you find the right gear. Once you try it, you won’t want to go back!
What is your vision for yourself and your company going into the future?
I’d like Hyperlite Mountain Gear to be a leader in making lightweight backpacking mainstream.
Complete this sentence: “I hope that Hyperlite Mountain Gear products will …”
…continue to stand out as cutting edge gear built with the highest quality standards that make it easier for everyone to enjoy the outdoors.
Mike, many thanks for talking with us about your shop and gear! Is there anything else you’d like to add, or any sage advice to bestow upon those reading this interview?
Just thanks to you for the opportunity and interest in Hyperlite Mountain Gear. Now let’s all get outside!
To check out some of the gear mentioned in the interview, head over to the HMG website at: www.hyperlitemountaingear.com. For those of you on Twitter you can follow Mike and company as @HyperliteMGear. On Facebook Hyperlite Mountain Gear has a page that you can like and use to stay up to date with what’s going on over in Maine. Do you have questions, comments, or Winnebago Man-esque rants? If so, give our comment form a try, otherwise let’s do as Mike suggests and commence getting outside! Hike It. Like It.