Co-owner Kim Cunningham has helped reboot a venerable New England camping brand in Colorado.
Cunningham and here husband, Regis, bought the domestic manufacturer in 2017 from her cousin William Stephenson, son of late founder Jack Stephenson. That’s allowed them to keep the pioneering camping company in the family and to begin rebuilding its legacy.
The Cunninghams’ children, who also work at their other business, Healthy Addictions — a wholesale snack food distributor — help out with Warmlite. “That business, which holds its own, is what afforded us to be able to bring Warmlite in. So we run them together,” says Kim.
Since the late 1950s, Warmlite has manufactured expedition-quality camping equipment, including sleeping bags designed to handle temperatures as low as 60 degrees below zero Fahrenheit, in the U.S. Founded in California it moved to New Hampshire, where some pieces are still made, and is now in Colorado where it also makes products. Stephenson was a contemporary and friend of Asher “Dick” Kelty, who founded his eponymous company.
Kelty’s store originally carried Warmlite goods, Cunningham says. Otherwise, since the beginning, the company has always been a direct-to-consumer company, making enduring legacy outdoors products.
“We haven’t changed many of the designs,” says Cunningham. “Jack graduated from Rutgers University with his masters in engineering, and he did research and development for Hughes Aircraft. He was an avid sailor and avid hiker, and he took all that knowledge and put it together and created the tent and the sleeping bag because he was an avid hiker and couldn’t find gear for himself.”
Stephenson, who passed away in 2017, pioneered the use of ultralight nylons in camping gear, reducing weight while keeping gear strong, created new hoop-based tent designs and inflatable, down-filled, insulated sleeping pads, among other things. “I don’t foresee us ever changing the design on the tent or the sleeping bags just because he pretty much perfected it and hadn’t changed his designs himself in 30 plus years,” notes Cunningham.
“The only thing that we probably have improved upon is a slight design change. We manufacture our own air mattresses and use an RF machine to create the welts for the air mattress. We brought in a system and designed our own valve,” explains Cunningham. They’ve also made some stylistic changes to other products like the vapor barrier shirts just to help keep them looking more current.
Over the years, sales have fluctuated. “In the 1970s and the 1980s, Warmlite was a much, much larger company,” says Cunningham. “Jack probably had 20 or 30 employees. As he aged, he slowed down. I’d say the last 10-ish years of his life, he stopped advertising altogether.”
Cunningham is now looking to revitalize the brand and to increase advertising to help grow it. “The first year we took over we didn’t advertise at all. We just had to learn how to do everything. We really spent that first year updating equipment, repairing equipment, replacing equipment, that type of thing.”
“After that we started doing some print advertising,” Cunningham continues. “This year we’re staying with a couple of print advertisers but we’re moving more to online advertising because that’s where people are nowadays.”
It also reflects the need to reach new potential consumers. Climbing Magazine recognized the Warmlite Custom Climbers Two-Person Tent with one of its Editor’s Choice awards in 2019. Similarly, its tents were visible on an episode of Netflix’s Below Zero. But Cunningham observes: “The bulk of our customers are age 50, 60, and up.” Likewise, “It’s not uncommon for us to see stuff in here 20, 30, 40 years, even 50 years old and come back for repair.”
To help boost sales, the company is again offering quick ship or stock products in the most popular colors in addition to custom options. “They hadn’t done quick ships since like the eighties. That’s something we brought back,” she says, noting that sales are now split between the stock items and the custom orders and colors which take longer to produce.
Since taking over sales have been mixed. Cunningham thinks that a bump in sales during their first year of ownership may have been partly because of a fear that the brand would die with its founder. “The plan is to keep it right now in the family and as the business grows, grow with it. Reinvest the money in it.”
Sales dipped a little in 2019, but were up initially in 2020, she says. “It’s still pretty small but in some ways it’s good too, because . . . we learn and grow with it,” Cunningham says. She adds, “We’re limited financially of how fast we can grow. I wish I had $500,000 to just dump into the advertising but the growth is slow because the business has to be able to pay its own.”
Cunningham reiterates that the company isn’t too interested in seeking other funding. “Thank goodness, because in times like this with the markets so down if you have a lot of debt, it’s a lot of overhead.”
With between six months and sometimes two years of fabrics on hand, the company is set to meet demand. The stock is twofold to meet demand and because some of the fabrics, like the vapor-barrier fabrics used in its clothes and sleeping bags are custom-made by a U.S. manufacturer for Warmlite and it has a 500-yard minimum.
Looking ahead, Cunningham could see selling to some stores, perhaps starting with local outfitters like JAX in Fort Collins. “I want to start small. You know, we’re not big enough to go into REI or places like that. We just don’t have the facility or the manufacturing for it. But to get into a local store, like Neptune Mountaineering in Boulder, something where it was only a couple of stores so that we could actually learn how to do that.”
Challenges: “Our biggest thing is learning how to connect to the next generation,” Cunningham says. She adds, “We might be able to manufacture it, but you’re not going to find us doing hiking Denali or Mount Rainier. So we have to figure out how to meet these people so that they know that we even exist.”
Opportunities: “We’re really just trying to reach this next generation,” says Cunningham. “I totally believe in the product. It’s proven itself for 60 plus years. If we can get that out to more people, they would probably fall in love with it as much as I have. When you can buy a tent and 30, 40, 50 years later, you’re still using that same tent — you’re passing it on to your grandchildren. That’s quality.”
Needs: “One need I can foresee as growth comes is hiring and training new sewers,” Cunningham says. “In time, probably space will become a need.”