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How The Alaskan Gold Rush Kicked Off A 125-Year Outdoor Brand Tradition

On July 17, 1897, the steamer SS Portland docked in the small frontier city of Seattle. Word quickly spread that she was loaded with two tons of gold, worth around $103 million at today’s prices. That started the Great Klondike Gold Rush, and huge fortunes would be made over the next several years.

People like Clinton C. Filson saw opportunities in the tremendous flow of people through the area spawned by the offer of quick wealth. With the Seattle Chamber of Commerce touting the growing city as the “gateway to Alaska,” the Washington port quickly became a primary jumping-off point for potential prospectors headed for the Yukon. Filson, who had moved to Washington in 1890 and opened several general stores in the area, relocated his business to downtown Seattle. With experience under his belt in outfitting prospectors who had been mining gold in Washington’s eastern Snohomish County, Filson founded the C.C. Filson Company, providing the prospective miners with clothing, boots, blankets, and outdoor gear for the harsh Alaskan environment.

The gold rush would last just a few years, but Filson was in it for the long haul. As that first boom ended, he took advantage of the burgeoning Western logging business, introducing clothing and gear for the timber industry. He also began doing the same for outdoors activities like hunting and fishing. That kind of rugged outdoor gear has remained the centerpiece for Filson in the decades since.

In those early years, Clinton Filson himself built a reputation for listening to feedback from his customers and incorporating their suggestions for improvements. As a result, his company is still thriving today. “We look at focusing on things we know work well,” said Neil Morgan, who was appointed President of Filson last month after helping grow the company’s sales by 54% since he joined in 2016, serving in various roles in project management, operations and marketing, and was most recently Vice President of Business Development. “We look to take care of the whole customer.”

Morgan is well-acquainted with the high quality, durability and premium construction of Filson’s products, since he first got to know the company as a customer himself. “I was working on Wall Street and living in New York, and found and bought some Filson products in a local shop there,” he said. “They fit my aesthetic, and I picked up a few more pieces. I appreciated the look and the materials.”

When Morgan says he appreciated Filson’s products, he really means it. A few years later, he made what he described as a “transition” in his life. “I was working on what I wanted to do with my life,” he said. “I moved to Seattle, got connected with the company, and actually started work in the retail store before moving into marketing and product management.”

He’s not alone in that admiration of Filson’s products, history, and philosophy. Ten years ago, the newly-formed Bedrock Manufacturing, owner of the Shinola brands, purchased Filson from The Cambria Group and Brentwood Associates for an undisclosed sum. “Bedrock was started by Tom Kartsotis, who also founded Fossil Inc.,” said Morgan. “The story on that was all about what we were able to offer Bedrock. We have generational customers and a strong brand that offers tremendous growth opportunities to expand across the country and internationally.”

The company’s founding principal of being closely tied to its customers remains as well. Like many brands, Filson has taken some lumps in recent years for moving a part of its production overseas after previously being a staunch made-in-America brand. However, the company has since re-shored some production. And it continues to get high marks online for paying attention to customer concerns and complaints, and still delivering personal replies from its customer service personnel.

Filson also maintains its strong ties to the world of forestry. “We’re very proud of our relationship with the U.S. Forest Service,” said Morgan. “We were outfitting their rangers all the way back in the 1940s, and we’re renewing that today. We’ve established a partnership with the National Forest Foundation. And we’ve played an active role in helping restore old fire lookout towers out west. We’ve helped fund that with customer donations and with order round-ups, and we’ve contributed about $100,000 in the last five years.” The restored towers can be rented at as backwoods lodging, further helping funding of critical Forest Service initiatives.

The company’s current business focus is to maintain the high level of product quality that has had customers coming back for decades, and spread that loyalty to new generations. “If you buy a piece from Filson, it will last you a very long time,” explained Morgan. “Then it will last a family member a very long time too.”

Filson is also seeing fairly typical business ups and downs. “We’re currently seeing supply chain challenges, but we’re still seeing consistent growth year over year,” Morgan said. “The pandemic shifted a lot of our business to ecommerce, and 60% of this year’s sales will be through ecommerce.” That being said, the company is also engaged in a push back into bricks and mortar retail outlets too. “It’s our aspiration to open ten new stores between 2023 and 2025.”

Long-term, the focus is firmly on continued growth. “We’ll continue to do category expansions for sure,” said Morgan. “We’ll be looking more and more at international. We established a partnership in 2021 to grow in Europe.” That agreement established WP Lavori in Corso as Filson’s distributor and licensee for the European markets.

There’s plenty of opportunity closer to home yet, too. While the brand is well-known in the western U.S. and in urban markets, there’s still opportunity to expand its appeal. “Our challenge is customer attention,” Morgan said. “How do we get new customers to explore the brand?” That’s where the added retail stores come in. “We want to get the customer to come into the store and check out the brand, even if we don’t get an immediate sale. Filson is a brand that will continue to focus on a very high-quality product, and on engaging with our customers in a way that meets what they need.”

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