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When the going gets tough, Cactus Equipment steps up

cactus equipment idealogWhen Idealog editor Hazel Phillips moaned about the lack of quality tramping products available in New Zealand, Cactus Equipment shareholder Ben Kepes told her to wash her mouth out. In this story, she eats her words. 

When Ruapehu Alpine Lifts HR manager Jane McGechan lost her Cactus Equipment Patrol Pack from an underslung load of a helicopter on the mountain, she gave it up for dead. Ruapehu’s conditions are famously harsh, particularly during winter, and finding it in the snow would be near impossible.

Imagine her surprise, then, when it turned up three months later after a scientist preparing for a study on alpine plants found it in Broken Leg Gully. In spite of its winter holiday submerged in a freezing cold stream, the pack had only suffered a split seam and the odd broken buckle. The only other things to survive its fall and the ensuing winter onslaught were a water bottle and McGechan’s Cactus Equipment Dreadnought pants.

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Cactus shareholders Daryl Warnock (left) and Ben Kepes carry out product checks in the company’s Christchurch headquarters. PHOTO: Dean Mackenzie

It isn’t the only story you’ll hear involving Cactus Equipment gear’s famous hardwearing quality. There’s a hilarious YouTube video of shareholder Rob Gray putting a range of supposedly tough pants (including a Cactus pair) into the ‘washing machine’ (a concrete mixer) and throwing in a handful of ‘fabric softener’ (gravel). Cue likes.

And there’s punter Steve Slatter’s tale of how his Cactus pants saved his life after a snake’s fangs failed to penetrate the tough fabric. Slatter was burning his annual firebreaks around his timber farm in South Africa when he felt a hard impact on his left hip, just below the belt. He saw a 2.5 metre-long snake retreating. It reared up to his waist and opened its mouth in anger. Slatter directed the fire hose at it as self-protection and the snake departed. He then dropped his pants to see if he’d been bitten, but the Cactus trousers had seemingly prevented the fangs from penetrating.

Slatter’s pretty sure the snake was a black mamba, whose bite is lethal, especially to the human torso. He got a mild bruise later on, but otherwise escaped unharmed.

“I fully realise you can’t advertise your pants to be snake-proof,” Slatter posted on the company’s Facebook page, “but they certainly make it more difficult for fangs to penetrate.”

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Planting an idea

Cactus Equipment is a rare jewel in the outdoor gear trade right now, standing out amongst the mainstream offerings from big chains prone to mass discounting such as Kathmandu and Macpac. Its origins aren’t too different from just those chains, though.

Cactus got its start about 22 years ago by a keen climber, tramper and mountaineer, Gwilym Griffith-Jones. He started out making chalk bags for climbing, then got onto making bigger packs for tramping and climbing. The products were hard-wearing and tough as nails from the start, so the name fitted well. Griffith-Jones’ mother was propagating cacti at the time he started the business, so she suggested calling it after the hardy plant, as it thrives in harsh outdoor environments.

“It seemed to fit, so it stuck,” says now chief executive officer and shareholder Daryl Warnock. “Gwilym just really loves tinkering and making stuff. When he was climbing and mountaineering, he decided he wanted chalk bags and other gear, but all of the packs available at the time weren’t what he wanted. They were too heavy and complicated, so he made a really simple lightweight pack, the Deep Winter [a 65-litre pack that retails for $549]. It just kept going from there.”

cactus equipment idealogGriffith-Jones, the youngest person to ever have completed the grand traverse of Mount Cook, was soon joined by climber and surfer Rob Gray and consultant/advisor/investor Ben Kepes, who’s also an outdoor enthusiast. Gray and Kepes brought industrial design and financial acumen to the business. Gray works in the shop and is the front desk sales guy.

“Rob’s got one of those minds where he can figure out how stuff goes together and where the potential problems are, where the stress points are when things are constructed and what’s going to break, what’s going to wear out and how to avoid that happening,” says Warnock. “He’s quite good at that. He’s really good with machinery in the factory as well to allow us to make something with the machinery we’ve got.”

Kepes has the fun task of being “the finance guy trying to sort out a creative person like Gwilym, who doesn’t really get into money and planning”. Kepes plays the role of the “shrewd numbers guy”. Together, the three seem to make it work pretty well.

Before long, clothing was added to the range, often through serendipitous experimentation. The company’s popular Supertrousers – predictably hard-wearing pants for skiing, mountaineering and what-have-you – came into being after a machinist had the idea of making ski pants out of pack canvas.

“They turned out to be pretty amazing but too heavy for most people,” Warnock says. “But through a bit of trial and error, the guys found a better canvas for the trousers, tested it on a construction site for a couple of years and ealised they had a great product on their hands. The pants are super- popular – people rave about them the same way they do about the packs.”

Design is huge for Cactus products, but probably not in the way you might think. These days, when you buy a flash new tramping pack, it’ll typically have all the bells and whistles – everything from special loops for walking poles to tiny snack pockets, and more zips than you can shake an ice axe at. Not so for Cactus products. They design with Occam’s razor in mind: if it’s simpler, then it’s probably better. Function is favoured over form.

cactus equipment idealogAs you’ve likely gathered by now, endurance and longevity is of utmost importance, so synthetic materials with a high embodied energy are used, with strength at the core. Goodbye, lightweight disposable products that will break after a couple of uses.

Simple is better, so designers are in the habit of constantly questioning whether or not a feature is really necessary. And processes that will enable easy repair are paramount, because they’d rather have you send in your product to be fixed than throw it out and buy another. Sustainability is therefore absolutely important, and Cactus is always looking for more friendly processes and materials.

Staying true to its roots is another aspect of the business that’s vital; Cactus still manufactures its products in New Zealand, with a small team based in Christchurch. It’s not without its hurdles. “Manufacturing in New Zealand is way more expensive than manufacturing in China,” Warnock says. “No question about that. We also have less access to new technologies, both in manufacturing processes and in materials. But the advantage we do have of small local manufacturing is the level of ongoing support or customisation we can offer. We can monitor and ensure our quality and address any issues extremely quickly.

“We can also do short runs of product, which can be less risky and require less capital up front. We can do small runs of custom manufacturing in short time frames that just wouldn’t be possible or economical offshore.”

Warnock also points out that in spite of all the attention that hi-tech and so on gets in New Zealand right now, it’s important not to lose sight of the fact that a vibrant product-based economy is still valuable. “We like to think we’re doing a good thing by adding to that.”

There still exists, though, a barrier to using the latest manufacturing technology, when you’re doing it locally. “Huge factories in China can justify spending a million dollars on a machine that can make something automatically, whereas we’re still making it on a sewing machine. So there’s that scalability, really. And then there’s access to the latest, greatest wonder fabrics – but we seem to make do without them and our products don’t fall apart.”

Warnock, unlike many in the outdoor equipment industry, isn’t easily drawn on the big outdoors chains and doesn’t really see them as relevant to what Cactus is doing. “If we view them as competition, it’s tough,” he says. “In some ways, though, we’re not really competing with them. We’re offering an entirely different product. We’re offering more than just a pack or some apparel at a huge discount. We’re offering a level of backup and ongoing support that is uncommon these days. A customer is really buying into a long-term relationship.”

It’s that relationship you see playing out on the company’s Facebook page, where customers are active in posting pics of themselves using (well, abusing) the gear, and talking about how much they love it. By contrast, other outdoors stores’ pages are littered with complaints, examples of poor customer service, and branded posts that are too overtly commercial. “In some ways, they are driving business to us as more and more people are becoming disillusioned with products manufactured to a price point, which inevitably fails.”

One of the benefits of local manufacturing is that if something goes wrong it can be addressed on the spot, rather than the company finding out when it gets 10,000 units arriving in from China only to discover something’s back to front. “It’s really easy to change and modify things.”

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New lease on life

Being Christchurch-based, Cactus was affected by the February 2011 earthquakes. Previously housed in an old brick building, the guys knew a week or so after the first quake that the building wasn’t likely to last.

“We heard that on the Thursday,” Warnock recalls. “We’d signed a new lease on Friday and moved our factory the following weekend. It was crazy times and we had a lot of support from our loyal customers and friends. Luckily we made it through the huge February quake OK, and weren’t in the red zone so we pretty much managed to keep going right through.”

It was a tough time for the staff but Warnock describes them as a “pretty committed and resilient bunch”, as outdoorsy people tend to be.

“It’s turned out now to be a blessing in disguise. Our new building has a small retail area that has turned out to be good for us, both from a financial aspect and from the fact we are having an even closer relationship with our customers.”

So if you wandered into the store in Christchurch, you’d be greeted by “real, genuine, down to earth staff who are passionate about what they do and the products we sell”, Warnock says. “The people who work here really believe in what we do. Their enthusiasm for the business and the products is genuine and it shows. We love selling stuff to new customers especially because we know they are going to love it.”

Just as well it’s a passionate environment for the customer to experience – the company now pretty much only sells direct, either through the store or online. They used to sell some products through outdoor chain Bivouac but recently stopped, due to the high cost of manufacturing locally. “It’s forced us to sell direct. There’s just not enough margin in it for a wholesaler to get an adequate margin to sell our packs,” Warnock points out. “We’ve got a few people who sell our clothing because I guess they’re used to getting a lower margin on it.

“The cost of manufacturing in New Zealand is so high that if we were to add on the margins that everybody in a typical wholesale retail sales model expects, it would just be astronomically expensive and nobody would buy it.”

Warnock also believes in the company having a direct interaction with the customer. Part of that is ensuring they get the right product for their needs. “We can help ensure they get the right pack, for example, and if it’s a bigger pack, we can fit it to them and customise and tweak it if we need to. And online we can email backwards and forwards to the customer or call them if we need to with questions. You end up with a happier customer because they’ve had a direct experience with the people who make and sell the projects rather than a retailer who’s there to clip the ticket.”

Too tough?

Here’s the rub, though, with robust products: there’s no built-in obsolescence. Brands selling lesser quality gear can (theoretically) count on breakage to prompt recurring purchases. How does a company like Cactus grow and prosper when its products are so hardy there’s little chance of customers needing to come back to buy a replacement?

“We don’t have huge aspirations to be a large corporate,” Warnock says. “We love what we do, what we make and making our customers super happy. We want to be able to keep doing that. It’s only possible to do that in a certain sized business.” Cactus is growing “steadily and organically”, says Warnock. “Our customers are our best ambassadors. Word of mouth is huge for us. We sell a product to a customer who is stoked with it, they then buy more products from us, tell their friends who are stoked, buy more product and so on.”

Or a shareholder – not looking at anyone, but for the purposes of this article we’ll call him Ben Kepes – tells a magazine editor to wash her mouth out, so she buys a ski pack and a pair of gaiters and becomes a Cactus convert for life. (Just saying.)

“We’ll keep working on new products, slowly though – we have to get it right! With a bit of Kiwi ingenuity we reckon we’ll be able to keep doing this in a way that is cost-effective and provides a return to the owners and staff.”

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Rob Gray, Ben Kepes and Daryl Warnock put Ben in the bag to show the hardiness of the fabric. PHOTO: Dean Mackenzie

One of the ways Cactus has branched out is in making custom products, such as walking satchels and panniers for New Zealand Post.

“They’re still using them and still buying them from us – when they eventually wear out!”

Another custom client recently was Hydroscapes. Cactus made PFDs (personal floatation devices), a type of fancy lifejacket for kayaking, with loops on it for river rescues. Backpacks for a sheep drenching company was another custom product.

“We’ve done quite a bit of custom work for various business and some of it is profitable, some not so much,” Warnock says. “People often underestimate the time and effort that goes into getting a well-resolved product but those who do end up with a good solution. And we’re here to back it up.”

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Warnock tests the strength of a Grippin Belt, used for everything from holding up your trousers to lashing skis to the roof of the car. PHOTO: Dean Mackenzie

Short runs can end up costing the client a fair whack, but they get exactly what they want, and in a timely fashion. “So much of the stuff we do just wouldn’t be possible, let alone economically viable to get them done offshore. There are times when we do send stuff for people to be made offshore when they want 10,000 units of it. We can’t do that here – it would tie our factory up for a month.”

It isn’t all packs and trousers. Cactus has a whole industrial section, with utility vests, hi-vis gear, and more, and a medical section with products such as O2/NOX sleeves and EMT packs. Then there are radio harnesses and phone and pager pouches. Not to mention its renowned Patrol Pack, the ski pack of choice for ski patrollers all over the country.

Doing it better

Looking to the future, R&D will continue to be a side focus but in a sustainable, quiet way. “We’re always looking at what’s going on, but we’ve kind of got our style of product and we operate within that – making stuff that’s heavy-duty with machinery that we’ve got available to us. We’ve got a few projects in the pipeline, some new ideas that we’re working on but they’re a little way away yet.”

And although there’s increasingly a focus on hi-tech, there’s nothing to stop Cactus being a high-quality local manufacturer, adding to “the diversity of the place”.

Most of all, says Warnock, they’ll keep on doing what they do, and trying to do it better.

“We’ll keep working towards getting more and more people aware of us and be better at looking after them. We’ve got some exciting projects on the go at the moment, the next couple of years are going to be pretty busy.

“But not too busy to get out in the ocean or in the mountains doing what we do to feed our souls!” 

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