How a B.C.-based sporting goods start-up went global

Niche—but high-quality—products helped Genuine Guide Gear succeed in Europe and Asia

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For backcountry skiers who skip groomed trails in favour of fresh powder on unpredictable terrain, the appeal lies in trying something new and going where no one else has. The same could be said of Oliver Steffen, founder and president of Genuine Guide Gear (G3), a B.C.-based sports brand that has become one of the leading backcountry gear manufacturers in North America, especially when it comes to trade.

Steffen founded G3 in 1996 after trying—and failing—to find a high-quality, affordable avalanche probe (a collapsible metal rod that helps pinpoint the location of someone buried by an avalanche). So, he decided to make his own. He took apart the tubing from his tent and used it to build a rough prototype in his basement. Then, he found a market for it.

What began as a tiny home-based venture thrived and, before long, G3 was selling all sorts of backcountry and alpine skiing gear across Canada and the United States, everything from skis, bindings and poles to safety gear like shovels, cords and bone saws that can cut through ice. “At the beginning, things were pretty simple: Make a good product that people need, let them know about it, ship the product,” Steffen says.

But, after five years of strong growth in Canada and the U.S., G3 began receiving calls from ski shops in Europe who were after high-quality gear for their clients. “They had heard about our products and they knew they could sell them,” Steffen says. He wasn’t surprised by the interest, partly because there were so few companies making quality backcountry gear, and partly because he knew G3’s products had universal appeal. “We believe strongly that strong, design-focused product development is appealing to all ski-touring markets and users,” he says. “A well-designed product speaks clearly to the end users, no matter what the language.”

Steffen describes G3’s approach to trade as a “pull strategy” because the company constantly reacts, and adjusts, to the market’s needs. “We’ve never tried to ‘sell’ or push our products,” he says. It’s an approach that has paid off. International trade accounts for about half of G3’s business, which is primarily concentrated around the larger ski touring markets in the Alps, Japan and Norway.

Still, there have been a few hurdles. “It’s a tough go on many fronts, but especially growth financing,” Steffen says. “The big banks don’t want to take the entrepreneurial risks that are inherent with a fledgling global brand, and it holds us back.”

Despite the challenges, going global has been worth it. Steffen says G3 is the only ski binding manufacturer of any significance in North America—in fact, many of the G3’s competitors actually pay royalties on their patents. The company’s climbing skins (detachable strips that adhere to the bottom of skis to provide traction) dominate with 50 per cent or more market share in many regions.

Steffen is proud of the company he’s been able to build. “We are one of the last independent, authentic and wholly owned sport brands with a global reach,” he says. “Our independence allows us to do what we feel is right, pursue our passion for fantastic products and maintain a healthy life-balance.”