THE INTERVIEW: Rick Hemmerling
If you love the outdoors, chances are you’ve heard of ExOfficio. You may have worn it bonefishing in Belize, rafting in Costa Rica or trekking through Africa. You might even be wearing it now. Founded in 1987, the company that pioneered innovative clothing such as the Baja, Air Strip shirts and the Amphi-Pant continues to lead the travel and adventure wear industry in design and functionality. They make garments that block the harmful rays of the sun and BuzzOff, clothing that repels man’s least favorite companion, bugs. Now it’s Tofutech, a soy based product that’s part of the vanguard of the green fiber revolution. Ex Officio was recognized three years in a row on the Inc. 500 fastest growing private companies and ExOfficio.com was chosen as one of the best small business web sites by Inc. Technology Magazine. I caught up with co-founder Rick Hemmerling recently in Seattle at the ATTA summit.
Where have you been lately?
I was recently in Jakarta, Hong Kong, Taipei, Shanghai, Qingdao and Tokyo.
Do you get to test products in the field?
Always. I make a point of testing most everything we make in the activities and conditions the product was intended for. It not only provides a continued test of product quality but also helps determine slight revisions to features to make them perform better in future production runs. Field tests also lead to some of the best product innovations we have developed so it is a necessary activity in addition to being fun. One of the most memorable field tests I led was one on our Buzz Off clothing line. We called down to the southern most tip of the Florida Everglades and asked them what 2 weeks of the year would have the highest mosquito infestation. They told us it was so bad that no one could stay in that area overnight. So of course we went and I must say I was not mentally prepared for the volume of mosquitos that we encountered. Thanks to Buzz Off, I left after 4 hours with only a couple of bites that would have normally yielded hundreds in that high bite environment. The biggest problem I had was keeping them from flying in my mouth while walking through them.
Tell us a bit about your background and how you came to found ExOfficio?
I grew up on a wheat farm in an eastern Washington state, 20 miles outside of a town called Lind, population 400, not counting cats and dogs. My parents had immigrated to the USA in the mid 50’s and were told by distant relatives that there was work in that area. That wasn’t exactly the case but spent every dime they had to get there so decided they had to make the best of it. Looking for some adventure after all those years of dirt clod fights I "immigrated" to Seattle. For a while I was a professional student completing various trade degrees in drafting, engineering, electronics and eventually completed a university program in graphic design/visual communications. That led me to my first career as a video and film grip working on television commercials in the Seattle area. I worked on many that live in infamy for Seattleites as the worst ever made. There was the Jack Roberts appliance commercials with the famous "I won’t be undersold", as Jack proceeded to cut an appliance in half with a chain saw and then there was the very staged Pay-N-Pak home supply commercials that repeated "Once you try the Pak you’ll be back" a minimum of 300 hundred times per commercial. At least with Jack Roberts the director’s call for action was truly action! As I was wondering what to do with my melting pot of knowledge I ran into a local garment executive Joe Boldan and we decided to start a new company which became ExOfficio. It truly took wings when we received a request to manufacture a basic outdoor shirt to be used for fly fishing.
Not being fly fisherman at the time we were intrigued by the precision and expertise that went into the making of a fly rod and reel as well as the fly line and flies themselves. Certainly someone that appreciates this precision and balance would also appreciate a well crafted garment – so we thought and proved to be right. We also found a much larger vision — performance engineered travel clothing and we have fly fishing to thank. During our research and interviews we found the need was greater for high performance travel clothing so one could go destination fly fishing while packing lighter and smarter with a versatile wardrobe.
What passed for "adventure clothing" back in 1987 when you started out?
Back then if you said "travel" or "adventure," people would have pointed you to Banana Republic who still had the mystique of travel and safari even though they had already abandoned that for fashion. When we started and mentioned our clothes were adventure clothing it left people scratching their head. Activity specific outdoor clothing was available and it was highly concentrated in cotton at the time even though some great fabric breakthroughs had happened. Most innovations were rooted in outerwear designs and the performance sportswear concept had not yet surfaced. One of our main goals was to take what had been done in outerwear and translate that into sportswear.
It took quite a few years for outdoor retailers to understand that what people were using for their outdoor activities had characteristics suitable for international travel and they would be the best place to purchase travel garments with "built-in" technology.
What were some of the early challenges that you faced when developing new clothing?
Wow, where does one begin? The first shirt I designed was the Baja Plus. Remember my background was not garments so I designed outside of normal parameters since I didn’t know any better. The Baja had an original ventilation system that could open and close along with many other features. The pattern had over 60 parts and pieces so the first obstacle I ran into was that no factory wanted to make it. Also in order to make it in quantity it required a long assembly line otherwise if would be hard to make it efficiently. Obviously, I eventually found someone that was willing but the first few runs were wrought with many quality issues. If there is someone out there with an original, I apologize, and hope you were skilled at sewing all those buttons back on. We survived the Incredible Hulk shirts that you could tear in half off your body and the Aqua colored Amphi Shorts that turned your skin green. Our designs and approach was eagerly accepted but our execution took a little more time. Now ExOfficio sets the standard for quality in the industry and so it could be that we were destined to go through some "challenges" to get to higher ground. Unfortunately, garment making is not an exact science so "challenges" still happen from time to time but our process keeps it to a very low percentage.
Tell us about Buzz Off, what it is and how it came about?
Over the years I would be approached by many people claiming how ExOfficio had changed the way they traveled and how we had taken care of so many travel packing issues — except bugs. I looked at many possible cures over the years but none of them lasted or it was something that had an interesting odor. Some fabric breakthroughs were made via anti-bacterial research when they found certain chemistries also showed the ability to repel insects. I was one of the first in line since it solution eluded us for so many years but later found that all insect repellant items needed additional government approval in the USA and Canada. That proved to only be possible if you were a rocket scientist or a brain surgeon – luckily we found both at Buzz Off Insect Shield or should I say they found us. They had heard about my quest and thought they should inform me that they had been working on the same issue for the last 7 years and knew I was in for an uphill battle. I was on the next plane to meet with them and 2 years later the ExOfficio Buzz Off apparel became the first EPA approved insect repellant clothing in the United States. The process binds Permethrin, a man-made duplication of a natural ingredient found in African Crysanthemums to the garment. It is invisible and odorless and is effective against mosquitos, ticks, ants, flies, chiggers and midges. I was just on the phone the other day with Don Young owner of Newland, Tarlton Safari’s in Kenya and he said that Buzz Off had changed his customers lives on Safari noting that a large amount of them came outfitted in ExOfficio Buzz Off apparel.
And about Tofutech, which uses natural soy fabrics?
ExOfficio’s Tofutech is an exciting breakthrough in the new "green" fiber revolution. Soybean fiber technology was invented by a Chinese textile chemist who was able to spin fiber from the remains of the exhausted soybean plant. Exhausted meaning that the beans had been harvested and the plant oil extracted and then the remains after that are processed to create the fiber. Soybean farming also does not require high pesticide use for high yield which has been the problem with cotton. Soybean fiber has a silk-like hand and drape and is the highest strength natural fiber currently in production. Soybean fiber also has natural sunblocking properties and numerous beneficial amino acids that are helpful to the skin. ExOfficio’s Tofutech knit styles come in 100% soybean and soybean/polyester blends.
And how does your sun block apparel work?
We approach it in different ways but the goal is to achieve a minimum 30+ UPF rating which we consider highly protective against ultraviolet penetration which is the cause of skin cancers.
This can be done by weave structure, dyes or chemicals applied to the fabric. UPF (ultraviolet protection factor) is the rating given to apparel versus SPF which is given to sun tan lotions. SPF is a rating given to indicate the increased time it would take before your skin burned versus the time it would take without an application. So an SPF 15 allows you to stay in the sun 15 times longer. UPF is rating that indicates the amount of ultraviolet radiation that penetrates the fabric. A UPF 30+ indicates that 98% of all UVA and UVB radiation is blocked from passing through the fabric. The biggest problem with UPF ratings is that they chose to use a similar number system as SPF so the two are often confused. Many people wonder if enhanced UPF is even necessary in clothing since you don’t really get sun burns through the fabric but what they don’t realize is that it is the sub skin penetration of ultraviolet radiation is what causes a lot of damage that can lead to cancers. We have fabrics that only rate a UPF 5-10 and due to their weaves cannot be enhanced to reach a 30+. That is why we treat and rate many of our garments so someone that needs to be careful in the sun can count on the garment to do its part.
On what kinds of trips do you find that people really appreciate your kind of gear?
We cover the very adventurous traveler through the urban traveler. Our adventure items have performance fabrics along with functional features such as insect repellency and climate control ventilation systems. We recently outfitted a full length assent of the Nile River that was made into an IMAX movie called "Mystery of the Nile."
Our clothing took the team through serious conditions for 116 days and the clothes are still being worn today. The urban travel items use similar performance fabrics but the styling is traditional and features focus more on travel security. These are great for Asian and European city tours where street style is necessary.
I love the comments we receive from consumers taking ExOfficio along for the first time and can’t believe that the clothing could have made such a difference. Wrinkle resistance, moisture wicking, ventilation systems, security pockets, convertibility just to name a few, do a lot towards a comfortable trip.
How often do you travel? Is it usually for business or pleasure?
I usually take 3 international and 6-8 domestic trips per year. Most are for business but I do get some pleasure in there. My wife and I have 5 kids (3 of them adopted from Siberia) so family pleasure trips are tricky. We do take the herd to Florida or Kauai every year.
Is there a special place you’d like to visit?
I still have a Biblical tour along the Mediterranean on the list and need to do some more exploring in South America. Parts of Africa are on the list. Hey, this is a trick question! I still have a lot to experience and plan to.
What can’t you leave home without when you travel?
My laptop, digital camera, credit card, passport and ExOfficio clothes. An inflatable hangar helps dry shirts quickly after doing a quick wash in the sink.
Where are you off to next?
Back to China and Taiwan after a trip to the east coast.
What do you like about travel? And what do you detest?
I love the experience of various cultures, traditions and their food. I hate going to experience a culture only to find a McDonalds and a Kentucky Fried Chicken at the other end. America, please stay in America!….except for Starbucks.