Ten years into his company Stio’s successful run, Stephen “Sulli” Sullivan built Stio to be a product of the Mountain West — and Jackson Hole. And he hopes it remains that way.

“My goal was to build a meaningful business that could contribute back to its community in a small mountain town and be able to try to pull that stunt here in Jackson,” said Sullivan, 56.

In a wide-ranging Monday interview with the News&Guide, Sullivan, Stio’s founder, reflected on his still-growing company’s decennial: an anniversary that marks 10 years of building a team and designing clothing and other outdoor products that have found their way onto outdoors people’s backs, brows and buttocks all over Jackson — and all over the country.

And all the while, Stio stayed the course.

A decade after he launched Stio with a 10-person team, Sullivan has continued to design, develop and market products behind Smith’s.

He relies on what he calls the “authenticity” of life in a mountain town to invest in sustainability, create winning products that consumers want, discard their less successful counterparts, grow his team to over 100 people and wade into a crowded market, competing with giants like Patagonia.

Sullivan told the News&Guide that Stio’s annual revenue is now north of $50 million, and called Yvon Chouinard’s now-global outdoor apparel behemoth his “direct competitor.”

Estimates put the larger firm’s annual revenue at between $800 million and $1 billion.

Sullivan feels that Stio is competitive for a few reasons, mountain town “authenticity” first and foremost. One is that it mostly sells products directly to consumers, rather than wholesale to other businesses. And that, Sullivan said, helps Stio cut out the “white noise” of business-to-business sales and get to know its customers well.

“In 30 days we can tell you if it’s a winner, if it’s a good merchandise player, or if it’s a loser,” Sullivan said. “We take the losers and move them down the road, and we move the winners and the merchandise leaders forward and build collections around them.”

Mountain living ain’t easy

But the thing Sullivan kept coming back to was “authenticity,” something that he said has been born out of operating out of Jackson Hole. Being based in the mountains, in his mind, helps create gear oriented toward living in the mountains — and playing in them.

“There’s something inherently authentic about our brand that is resonating with people, and that is because we’ve lived this mountain lifestyle and our product,” Sullivan said.

But even as the company has enjoyed 50% year-over-year revenue growth since it started — something “that’s starting to get pretty real,” Sullivan said — being a lifestyle brand is being complicated by the attractiveness of the lifestyle and the place the brand calls home.

“It’s not a business-averse town, but it’s not a very welcoming town for trying to build a national and global business,” Sullivan said, pinning the blame on one thing.

“It’s plain and simple,” he said. “The cost of housing and the dearth of housing.”

Sullivan added that the “shine is off the Jackson Hole thing,” which used to be a draw for potential recruits. But now, Sullivan said, people are looking to live somewhere more affordable.

“We have people making six-figure salaries that have a tremendous challenge finding just a basement apartment here,” Sullivan said.

That doesn’t mean Stio is going anywhere.

“The business is always going to emanate from here, the product is always going to be developed here,” Sullivan said.

But he thinks some other functions like finance and operations can be dispersed. Stio’s remote workforce has also done well during the pandemic. Ditto the company’s e-commerce.

So Stio is starting to think differently about growth — and where that should occur.

“There’s a pretty high probability that at some point we’ll have another office in another location, so that we’re able to recruit to a location,” Sullivan said.

To continue to grow the company is exploring opening an office in Utah.

And, to continue to take care of employees in Jackson, Sullivan said he’s thought about trying to build housing, but the scarcity of private land and high prices gets in the way.

He’s looked at buying condos and apartments as well but met similar challenges and said he’s starting to consider some sort of housing stipend for its Jackson-based employees.

“It is likely that people that are working in Jackson — we will eventually have to have some type of abatement there because it’s just gotten crazy,” Sullivan said.

Opening its eyes

And it’s Stio’s employees who are pushing their employer to keep up with the larger outdoor industry — and its attempts to reckon with and improve its record on inclusion.

“Unfortunately the outdoor industry has a bad rap — and quite frankly a deservedly bad rap — because it hasn’t been that embracing of minority culture,” Sullivan said.

But, he said, in the past year that’s started to change at Stio.

Employees have joined an employee-led diversity, equity and inclusion council. The firm has made a commitment to hiring a more diverse group of brand ambassadors, partnered with Camber Outdoors — a nonprofit that works with outdoor industry firms to make their culture, systems and hiring more equitable — and committed to diversify who models for the company.

The goal, Sullivan said, was to “try to represent the totality, again, of all the people that are interested in participating in the outdoors.”

“I think a great thing that’s happened this last year is that people are embracing that more,” Sullivan said of Stio’s and the industry’s efforts to become more inclusive. “It’s actually been quite eye-opening for an old guy that’s been in the outdoor industry for a long time to see just how passionate and how important our team believes this is — and I believe it is.”

Sullivan acknowledged that Stio has a ways to go in terms of better representing and hiring people of all walks of life, socioeconomic status, gender and ethnicity.

The company’s staff is fairly homogeneous, Sullivan said, and his firm is working with Camber to set up a better “precedent” for hiring a more inclusive group of workers — a goal that Sullivan said is being helped by experimentation with hiring workers who live and continue to work outside of Jackson.

And, in Jackson, the firm is continuing to partner with Coombs Outdoors, which seeks to break down racial, socio-economic and cultural barriers to outdoors access. Stio sponsors the nonprofit and hired high school interns in Coombs’ inaugural summer internship program.

Sullivan again credited his staff for leading the charge. He said Stio has benefited from “having some really passionate, very talented, very bright young people come into the business that have opened the eyes of some of the old-timers like me.”

What’s next for Stio?

Sullivan said he hopes Stio continues to grow.

And he didn’t rule out a sale somewhere down the road.

He sold his first company, Cloudveil, twice.

“At some point there probably will be some kind of transaction and transition to some other ownership,” he said. “That doesn’t mean that the business would change that much.”

Sullivan said he plans to stick around even if that happens.

“I’m in a really fortunate position to absolutely love what I do,” he said. “I love creating products and taking that product to market and seeing people enjoy using that product and the outdoors.”

In addition to the flagship retail store just off Town Square, Stio now has brick and mortar presence in Teton Village, Park City, Utah, and Boulder, Colorado, with another store planned this spring in Bend, Oregon, and other retail locations planned for 2022.

In another 10 years, Sullivan said, he wants Stio be one of the outdoor industry’s top five brands.

“We’re already very rapidly getting there from a revenue standpoint,” he said. “And I hope that we’re in a position to do more from an environmental, DEI and conservation perspective.”

And, at the end of the day, Sullivan wants the company to remember its roots: as a community business emanating from Jackson Hole — and the mountains surrounding the valley.

“I really hope that it stays a mountain brand,” Sullivan said. “I really hope it stays a mountain company.”

“There’s a pretty high probability that at some point we’ll have another office in another location.” — Sulli Sullivan founder of stio

Contact Billy Arnold at 732-7063 or barnold@jhnewsandguide.com.

Teton County Reporter

Billy Arnold has covered government and policy since January 2020, sitting through hours of Teton County meetings so readers don't have to. He moonlights as a ski reporter, helps with pandemic coverage and sneaks away to climb when he can.

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