Volume 26, Number 2 February/March 2018

Vista Outdoor intends to follow active consumers wherever they may go
Three years ago, in the wake of the formation of Vista Outdoor, I spoke with the company’s executive leadership about the direction of the new enterprise. It was clear they intended to nurture the many well-known brands—Savage, Bushnell, Federal Premium, to name but a few—under the new Vista umbrella. But while we were talking, I got the sense of a much bigger picture, one that included outdoor companies that weren’t in the immediate orbit of the shooting sports.

These executives were much too savvy and experienced to have tipped their hand, but it was obvious at the time that Vista Outdoor wouldn’t be a company that merely tended to its current brands. The company clearly wanted to add to its portfolio, especially with outdoor-related brands that complemented its existing lineup.

And so it came as no surprise when Vista announced the acquisition of CamelBak in August 2015, Giro and Bell bike helmets and Blackburn cycle accessories in April 2016, and Camp Chef, a leading provider of outdoor cooking solutions, in the summer of 2016.

Those acquisitions all fit into Vista Outdoor’s strategy, which is “to deliver long-term value through acquiring complementary, market-leading brands that will benefit from Vista Outdoor’s balance sheet, distribution network, and sales and marketing expertise.”

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Camp Chef allows Vista Outdoor to tap into the market for well-prepared food in the outdoors.

Camp Chef seemed to be a particularly good fit for Vista Outdoor because it has a nimble and responsive product-development process. Another key factor is that outdoor cooking has changed dramatically in the past few years. Outdoorsmen of all stripes now expect to eat well in camp. The days when a can of cold Vienna sausages and a box of Saltines constituted the major meal of the day are long gone. Camp Chef also held appeal to a wide range of consumers who pursue a variety of outdoor sports.

“Camp Chef continues to grow its market share in the outdoor cooking category, and the brand serves many of our current consumers who are engaged in a wide variety of outdoor pursuits,” says Dave Allen, president of the outdoor products segment for Vista Outdoor. “Acquiring Camp Chef strengthens our leadership position in outdoor recreation, and allows us to enter the growing camping and outdoor cooking market.”

That’s what’s known as “synergy,” an often misused word in corporate-speak. But Vista Outdoor seems to grasp its true meaning. When employed correctly, synergy can become a force-multiplier for the brands involved.

“Whatever your individual outdoor recreation pursuit—be it mountain biking, skiing, golfing, camping, hunting, going to the range—we know there is synergy between the brands under our tent that allows us to leverage expertise from one to the other,” says Amanda Covington, Vista’s senior vice president of communications and government relations. A runner, hiker, and skier, Covington has also enthusiastically embraced hunting, and has found the experience has helped broaden her appreciation of the outdoors in all its varied forms.

As an example of the synergy found at Vista Outdoor, Covington cites the launch of the Savage A17 semi-auto rimfire rifle and the simultaneous co-development of the A17 Varmint Tip .17 HMR cartridge for which it is chambered. As a stand-alone firearms manufacturer, Savage engineers had never been able to work together with ammunition engineers on a joint project. But as part of Vista, they now had access to CCI, the engineers of which pride themselves on building specialty ammunition. Working together, the two companies created something truly special.

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The synergy between Savage Arms and CCI helped create a pair of innovative products.

Covington sees similar synergies elsewhere in the company, and these can help Vista Outdoor deal with the ever-evolving vagaries of the business. One such vagary is selling to the Millennial generation.

“Used to be, if you got into a sport, you went deep,” says Jessica Klodnicki, vice president and general manager of the outdoor recreation division of Vista Outdoor (a group that includes Camp Chef, CamelBak, and Jimmy Stykes standup paddleboards). “In essence, they would say, ‘I’m going to identify myself as a hunter or a cyclist, and I’m going to go deep. I’m going to buy all the gear, and I’m going to buy the most expensive stuff.’ Well, the Millennials are changing that. What’s happening now is that they’re dabbling. They’re grazing across multiple sports and multiple categories.”

This dabbling, Klodnicki believes, is causing some softness in outdoor categories. “Because these guys aren’t specializing, the gear they do buy is a less-expensive version. They’re also trading, renting, or borrowing. I think this is because they don’t expect to be doing any particular activity for a very long time. Now, if that is how the consumer behaves, you have to be spread across multiple categories to pick up the slack.”

Klodnicki admits Millennial purchase-and-use decisions may also be driven by their particular economic circumstances. “They may live in a small apartment with no storage or work in jobs that pay less,” she says. Either way, their behavior requires manufacturers and retailers to adapt. This inevitably creates friction, as some operations don’t wish to alter their business model.

But where some see only challenges, Vista sees opportunities. Covington stresses that Vista’s acquisition strategy isn’t focused on simply buying any brand, but on buying brands that are leaders in their field. “We look for companies that are top performers and market leaders,” she says. “Bell and Giro [helmets and goggles] are strong brands, and when you think hydration, you think CamelBak. I think you’ll see that our brands are coming together with ways to package things to enrich a consumer’s outdoor experience.”

The growth of the ATV and side-by-side market is another category that interests Vista. “Given that this business is blossoming, we’re really exploring the category for Bell,” says Klodnicki. She believes CamelBak is ripe for broader market exposure. “We’re exploring beyond the current categories. It really is all about connecting with an active consumer who could benefit from hands-free hydration.”

Klodnicki also notes that Vista Outdoor can give a brand access to customers and partners it may not have had on its own. “As part of Vista, you now have a deeper relationship with customers and partners that makes exploring those options more readily available.”

All too often in corporate acquisitions, the acquired company is forced to adopt the corporate philosophy of the parent—for better or worse. That’s not part of Vista’s DNA.

“Our acquisition model is to let those brands maintain their brand ethic and be true to who they are to their consumers,” Covington says. “That’s important. At the same time, the value of being part of a large portfolio is a pool of strong talent and resources that allows us to plug in to something new, allowing us to create additional opportunities for organic growth.” (vistaoutdoor.com)

—Slaton L. White

—Camp Chef Photo: Tess  Rousey