BOULDER, Colo. — Fred Kline steers a silver Cadillac DeVille east, away from peaks packed with snow. His boss, Tom Quinn, unfolds a map in the passenger's seat. On this bright November morning, the two men, both 39, are headed to a key meeting for their company, Nextec Applications Inc., a precocious upstart near San Diego.
Quinn watches for an address on Arapahoe Avenue, as they wind past half-frozen creeks. The trees are bare. Quinn is embarrassed about the Cadillac, a reward from the car rental agency for being such a good customer. For the last three years, as Nextec's sales manager, Quinn has traveled the world for a company with ambitions as lofty as the north face of the Flatirons here.
"This is a critical time for us," says Quinn, who took a 20% pay cut and moved his family from Augusta, Ga., to work for Nextec. "The next 18 months could be very, very important."
Nextec is selling more than just the high-tech fabric that's packed in the trunk. What the company is peddling amounts to a head-spinning departure from prevailing gospel in the outdoors clothing industry. For years, in recreational stores worldwide, sales associates have preached two standard pieces of advice for sports such as climbing and sailing: One, if you want to stay dry and comfortable, go with Gore-Tex, the worldwide leader in treated fabric for nearly 25 years. (The name Gore-Tex is so famous that it is misused to refer to products generically, the way Kleenex and Xerox are.) Two, if you don't want to up your odds of dying on a mountaintop, never, ever use cotton--known as the "killer fabric" because it soaks up moisture and steals body heat.
So along comes Vista-based Nextec, a company with 100 employees, that introduced its fabric at a trade show in January 1999, starting with a couple million dollars in annual sales. W.L. Gore & Associates Inc., which makes Gore-Tex, is a Maryland-based company with 6,500 employees worldwide and $1.2 billion in sales.
We're not another Gore-Tex knockoff, Quinn tells potential clients. We use a new, patented technology to engineer fabrics. No one else offers it, and our full-time patent attorney makes sure of that. Our fabric will protect people from the elements. Even after we treat the fabric, and even in freezing conditions, it doesn't change its feel or drape. It doesn't get crunchy or noisy like other treated rain gear. In fact, hikers and other athletes will be able to head out in a downpour wearing--and we can show you extensive test data--Nextec's cotton.
Nextec is catering to a new breed of demanding, restless outdoors enthusiast--hikers and others who are unhappy with what some see as the stiff feel of laminated or coated fabrics and wouldn't mind paying extra for the comfort of a cotton that saves their skin in a squall. These days, industry experts say, a new breed of consumer is searching for the same kind of cool features in athletic wear that they get in laptops and Palm Pilots. In response, companies are offering gear that is "bomb proof" (industry-speak for durable) and "smart," "phase-change materials" that store body heat and release it when the temperature drops. Nextec is promising "performance cotton," and so far, the industry is intrigued.
Some of its most respected names are using Nextec's treated cottons and synthetic fabrics, called Epic. They include Patagonia, L.L. Bean and Timberland, and others in Europe, New Zealand and Japan. Nike is working with Nextec to develop fabrics for golf and other sports. (Imagine, Quinn says, if he could get Tiger Woods to wear Epic cotton pants at the Masters. . .) For the last two years, Nextec has landed on Sporting Goods Business magazine's "Companies to Watch" list in the fibers and fabrics category.
But outside the industry--and, sometimes, even within--Nextec is struggling for name recognition. Quinn, who has a 4-year-old son and 2-year-old daughter, hopes that by the time his kids hit junior high school, they'll be able to point to a jacket and say, my dad helped get Epic off the ground, and everyone will know what they're talking about.
First, though, Quinn and Kline must make a splash in places like Boulder, a mecca of outdoors companies and enthusiasts. Here, they set their sights on GoLite, another young company with a similar industry buzz and reputation for innovation. Last summer, at a trade show, Kline had two meetings with GoLite officials. On this morning, they meet the company's president, Demetri Coupounas.
Quinn leads the presentation before Coupounas and three GoLite staff members, his tone low-key and unhurried. He is blond and green eyed, 5 feet 10, with the build of the star college football player he once was. In a long-sleeve, sea-foam green shirt, khakis and loafers, he has a ruggedly professional look.