As all seasoned fly-fishermen know, rivers tend to reach a kind of perfection in the waning light of the day. The drift boats have left the water, wind that foils a back cast often subsides, and the mercury-like water of the river reflects the greens, browns, and yellows of the surrounding grass, brush, and poplar leaves.
The magic window starts slowly as trout begin to feed on hatching insects, dimples pockmark the surface as if light rain is falling. Then, the feeding reaches what appears a boiling point that reveals seemingly impossible numbers of fish. Many outdoor pursuits have a golden moment during the course of a day, and for dry fly fishermen—the highest form of the experience—this is it.
Too, as any business consultant will tell you, being ready for opportune moments in life is a key part of success—however you define it. For Vista Outdoor CEO, Chris Metz, a part-time Montana resident and avid fly- fisherman, studying Bozeman, Montana-based Simms Fishing Products was something that began nearly a decade earlier. The iconic company makes a wide variety of clothing and gear designed for discriminating anglers. Simms was the metaphorical 27-inch brown trout that lurked in the shadows and only surfaced occasionally and, cast as they might, no one was able to land.
That is, until Metz recently closed the deal by making the perfect cast at the right moment. You don’t get to be CEO of one of the world’s largest outdoor companies (some 40 brands in the portfolio with nearly 7,000 employees) without a deft presentation. He got to know Simms owner and executive chairman K.C. Walsh over the years, and it became clear that Walsh was most concerned that the company go to the right owner—one that shared the company’s vision to engage in the fly- fishing community and continue to support conservation causes.
“Across Vista, we lean hard into conservation and supporting our lands and waters,” says Metz. “But we try and make our brands as bi-partisan as we can. I don’t care if you’re left-wing or right-wing, we have no interest in alienating anyone. To do so, in my opinion, is no-win. I’m not a legislative expert and that’s not our job.”
Casey Sheahan, 66, who was brought in by Walsh from Patagonia, in part, to help ready the company for sale, shares that world view despite Patagonia’s well-known history of political activism. That company turned heads with their Vote the Bastards Out ad campaign prior to the last election. Though it wasn’t exactly clear who the “bastards” were, one could guess. Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard has taken on the persona of Hayduke, the environmental crusader in Edward Abbey’s classic, The Monkey Wrench Gang. Can a line of Patagonia Hayduke! clothing be far behind?
Sheahan told Forbes last year, “As a company, we need to stand for something, or we stand for nothing. We demonstrate that with our conservation, by standing for healthy fish and habitats.”
That mantra is manifest is their company slogan, You get one life. Fish it well. The line serves as a brand parable speaking to what it means to be both an angler and a steward of the places fish call home—that is, the give is more important than the take.
Walsh acquired Simms in 1993 and grew the company into both a practical and aspirational lifestyle brand. I was once a part time resident of Montana (for about a decade), and Simms clothing was standard issue within two miles of any river in the state.
The functionality, durability, and good looks of their clothing and gear have been the hallmark of the brand for years. Put on a pair of their waders (made in the USA, by the way) or one of the Guide Jackets and your tendency is to become a brand ambassador. Therein lies much of the success of the company.
“We think Simms has the potential to become the next North Face,” says Metz. “Fishing is one of the more vibrant areas in the outdoor space but fly fishing—though smaller as a category—is growing faster than other sectors of fishing. It seems to be recession resistant as well.”
With lockdowns forcing people out of cities across the country, Americans have been flocking to the outdoors and Vista is one company that has been a beneficiary of the broader movement to get back to nature. Profits in 2021 and the first half of 2022 were robust, and the company has completed seven acquisitions in the last 18 months, banking that the trend of people wanting to get outside isn’t just a fad.
“We see Simms as an anchor to a new fishing platform within Vista Outdoor,” says Metz. “Think of fly fishing as the center of the dartboard—not far outside the bullseye could be rods, reels, lures, and the like as we go broader within the category.”
For Metz, it’s a two-way street. “We look at it both from what we can bring to Simms and what they add to Vista Outdoor. We build what we call centers of excellence and thought leadership within the company,” he says. “We ask what technology, platforms, and data trends we can leverage to create more effective loyalty and affinity programs for companies that we acquire…to say nothing of our ability to source merchandise from more and better suppliers.”
As many companies across the outdoor industry scramble to build direct-to-consumer channels, Vista Outdoor will take a methodical approach. “As we acquire brands that have retail storefronts—like Simms,” says Metz, “we are organically becoming more direct-to- consumer. In the past, we relied on others to tell our story, but now we want to control the narrative. We want to be anywhere someone wants to shop. We also want to be mindful that we’re a consumer products company first, not a retail company, so we’ll be careful and thoughtful about how we approach retail.”
Much the way he landed Simms.