Seven years ago, shortly after he founded POW Gloves in Seattle, Dustin Goss walked in to the local W.L. Gore and Associates office with a PowerPoint presentation. His goal: to convince Gore to allow him to pay thousands of dollars for some of its famously waterproof (and trademarked) material, Gore-Tex.
"They were like, 'Yup, good luck, kid,' and kicked me out the door," recalled Goss, a former financial analyst who started POW at age 26 with $5,000.
"But I'm persistent as hell," he said. "I kept presenting to them every year."
It paid off this summer, when Gore finally agreed to partner with POW beginning with its 2011 line of gloves -- an achievement so significant for a growing brand, Goss said, "it's like winning an Emmy."
More than just one company's success story, the POW partnership allows a peek inside one of the most exclusive operations in the sports world. Gore is not just a $2.9 billion business with 9,300 associates in 30 countries, producing more than 1,000 products ranging from astronaut-suit fiber to implantable medical devices to snowsports outerwear. It is also politically influential, having teamed with the Outdoor Industry Association and other companies, like The North Face and Columbia, to lobby Congress and get the Department of Commerce to lower (or in some cases remove) taxes as high as 37.5 percent on imported breathable waterproof footwear that protects from oil, grease and chemicals. The process was public and heavily vetted by the government, which approved it due to the lack of domestic production on such footwear, as well as the limited cost to the U.S. Treasury. This ultimately brings the end cost of the products down for the consumer.
POW's case is not unusual when it comes to brands beating down Gore's door to get the mammoth company to do business with them. The fact is, Gore can afford to be as selective as it wants to be -- and in many ways it must be, given its position as an "ingredient brand," (product that's used to make other products), explained Seattle Gore associate Doug Graham. "No question, we have an unusual position in the value chain," said Graham, who has worked at Gore for 22 years. "The experience that the consumer has with our product is heavily influenced by the brand hosting it."
This year will be the first time POW has produced more than 100,000 gloves, but volume is not a be-all factor in Gore's partnerships. To wit, Gore is partnering with five other snowsports brands this year and next fall, varying wildly in company size: Patagonia outerwear, Powderhorn ski wear, Volcom gloves and two that have yet to be publicly announced, Graham said.
Much like applicants to Ivy League schools, many more brands pitch Gore than are selected, said Doug Crawford, who is Gore's U.S. gloves leader. The rationale holds that if a product is constructed with Gore-Tex, it is more attractive to people seeking a quality product.
"From the consumer's point of view, it's the best material," said Black Diamond category director Doug Heinrich, who uses Gore inserts and Windstopper in his company's gloves. "And when it comes to kicking down $149 for a pair of gloves, that's a key component."
Gore-Tex is not without competition from other reputable brands such as Polartec, Conduit and HyVent, a point Gore's representatives acknowledge. But Gore has earned a reputation for putting its products (and those of its host brands, which must submit every style to be evaluated every year) through extraordinary testing. The company maintains testing labs at its headquarters in Delaware as well as Maryland, Germany and Shenzhen, China.
"An outerwear fabric, in order to earn the Gore-Tex seal of approval, has to withstand 500 consecutive hours in a washing machine," or the equivalent of 2,000 consecutive 15-minute wash cycles, Crawford said.
To test its partners' gloves, Gore provides them to ski patrollers at a resort in Colorado and one in Europe, soliciting daily feedback on breathability, waterproof durability and ease of liner pullout. The company also employs testers who shovel holes in a sand pit for hours. "We don't run over them with steamrollers or fire weapons at them," Crawford said. "We try to test them very practically."
When a company the size of POW, with just six full-time employees, secures a partnership with Gore, it means its gloves have passed those barriers. "We've been saying we're the best for a while," Goss said, "but ultimately, at the end of the day, this is the gold star on our chest that validates what we've been doing."