40 Years of Osprey Packs History in 14 Photos

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It looks like our friends at Osprey Packs are celebrating their 40th anniversary with the same thoroughness and enthusiasm that they create their functional, comfortable and beautiful products. Which is to say, they’ve got every detail covered. As I write this, their #Osprey1974 photo contest is happening where they’re giving away 40 packs in 40 days.

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They’ve got a cool looking 40th anniversary logo that appears on limited edition, commemorative packs:

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And as I write this, their 40th anniversary party is in full swing at the Outdoor Retailer summer show complete with the largest pack I’ve ever seen.

Osprey Packs making a BIG impression at the 2014 Outdoor Retailer summer show.

Osprey Packs making a BIG impression at the 2014 Outdoor Retailer summer show.

All these promotional fireworks are fine and good but what has impressed me most about Osprey Pack’s 40th anniversary celebration is the video series I just finished watching: Osprey Packs–40 Years In the Making. This four-part series tells the story of Osprey Packs’ success with a level of transparency I’ve never seen before and frankly still can’t believe. It’s beautifully shot, informative as can be, and surprisingly hilarious in places. You don’t have to be a huge Osprey Packs fan to enjoy this series but you do need more than 40 minutes to watch it in its entirety.

If you don’t have that kind of time, here’s my five-minute recap with 14 screen shots of what I consider to be some of the most telling, interesting and downright fascinating moments in the four-part video series.

Episode 1

“My personal philosophy is I enjoy life more if I’m surrounded by things I’ve built myself.” Soft-spoken and unassuming, Osprey Packs founder Mike Pfotenhauer will never be confused with Steve Jobs personality-wise, but when it comes to passion for his product and the process involved with creating it, I have to believe that Mike and Steve would have seen eye to eye on a lot of things.

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In Episdode 1, we learn that in his early years, Mike built everything from bike frames and redwood canoes to his wife’s maternity clothes before deciding to “focus” on packs in 1974. I put focus in quotes because according to the video, Osprey Packs designed everything from bicycle battery packs and wheelchair cushions to a prototype of a “backpack, surfboard tent carrier” for O’Neill.

Mike with his wife and Osprey Packs co-owner Diane Wren.

Mike with his wife and Osprey Packs co-owner Diane Wren.

As the business grew, so did the pressure to find a workforce that was not prone to skipping work when the surf was good or the Grateful Dead were in town. In 1990, Mike and company moved to Dolores, Colorado.

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Dolores, Colorado is a quiet town of 800 people, many of whom had already worked in the building Osprey Packs moved into that had been previously occupied by W.L. Gore.  With just $5,000 in receivables and a small army of new recruits, Osprey Packs embarked on a period of rapid growth that eventually required them to move to a larger facility in nearby Cortez, Colorado in 1999.

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With four seasons and a wide variety of terrain within a two-hour drive for year-round gear testing, Cortez has proven to be the perfect corporate headquarters for Osprey Packs.

Episode 2

The nostalgia trip continues in Episode 2 with a look back at how the office staff grew from 9 people in 1999 to 75 people today.

Mike in the center posing with his lean and mean team in the early 1990s.

Mike in the center posing with his lean and mean team.

Episode 2 also offers a revealing look behind the present day curtain of Osprey Packs where we meet people from all departments of the company and get a feel for the passionate, yet irreverent corporate culture where work and play are pursued with equal enthusiasm. The best evidence of Osprey Packs’ anti-ordinary culture is the footage taken at Mike’s 60th birthday party where the feel-good scene of Osprey Packs employees enjoying each other’s company is comically punctuated by intermittent clips of Mike struggling to free a Jello-O shot from its plastic container. After watching this scene, it’s easy to understand why Osprey Packs made Outside Magazine’s 2008 list of Best Places to Work.

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The festive vibe of Mike’s 60th birthday transitions to the sobering reality of the challenges Osprey Packs faced in the early 2000’s that are candidly explained by CEO Tom Varney. Production struggles, late delivery, high retail cost, inability to grow quickly enough to meet demand all lead up to the agonizing decision to follow the overseas manufacturing path already taken by Osprey’s competitors. The tension and sadness is embodied in the stark image of the last pack to come off the Colorado assembly line that was signed by all of the remaining sewers.

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From this lamentable moment the scene changes to present day Vietnam where Mike moved his family in 2003 to personally oversee the establishment of Oprey Packs’ new office and manufacturing facilities in Ho Chi Min City.

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Amidst the scenes that paint a vivid picture of Vietnam’s frenetic culture that is the polar opposite of Cortez, Colorado, Mike lets us in on the deep irony he felt about his decision to move his entire family to southeast Asia: “I protested against the war in Vietnam. I never imagined that I would go to Vietnam willingly and do business there. It was the last thing I ever imagined.”

Episode 3

Of all the marketing buzzwords that are bandied about in blogs and Powerpoint presentations, “transparency” is the one that few companies have the courage to pull off. Transparency demands that a company be confident enough in its product and secure enough in its own skin to provide customers with an unfiltered view of the organization–warts and all.

In Episode 3, we meet pack designer Le Nhu Quyhn who matter of factly explains the stunning differences between access to outdoor recreation in the United States and Vietnam.

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WHAT?

A pack designer who doesn’t camp? How is that possible? How does that WORK?

Well, as Mike calmly explains: “I think in some ways Quynh’s lack of experience in the end use of the product can be helpful in that he looks at the problems more objectively. He questions some things that might seem obvious to me and shouldn’t be obvious and therefore together, I think we come up with some pretty interesting ideas.” 

The transparency doesn’t end there. Osprey Packs takes you inside the manufacturing facility where Account Manager N.H. Kim explains how a typical hydration pack will have 100 patterns while the same size hydration pack from Osprey Packs will have 300 patterns. After describing how more patterns provide the customer with a more natural shape as well as improved function and convenience, Kim candidly describes what it’s like to work with Mike.

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The rest of the video takes you on a tour of the production floor where seamstresses describe their hours and the working conditions that they all seem to genuinely enjoy.

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In addition to showing that his overseas employees are treated fairly and respectfully, Mike proves that his skills as a pack-maker are still sharp after forty years.

Episode 4

After the detailed tour of the Vietnam office and manufacturing facilities, Mike returns to Colorado in Episode 4 to talk about how the Ho Chi Minh City office and Cortez, Colorado offices work together. Having each office work while the other office is sleeping, creates a situation that Mike describes as “around the clock development.” The time zone and distance are not without challenges to the production schedule–a situation Osprey Packs has admirably addressed with state-of-the-art video conference technology.

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The scene shifts to Mike standing before a lineup of 15 child carriers representing the different styles and improvements he and his team have made over the years.

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Beginning with the first edition where Mike admits: “Some of it doesn’t make any sense, I can’t remember what we were thinking,” the scene cuts to a rapid-fire breakdown of added features including drool pads, a built-in contoured bucket for the child, foam pockets on the shoulder harness, engineered buckles, air flow for the child, hydration sleeve, removable diaper pad, sun protection and rain protection…” It’s a humorous segment that showcases Mike’s deep knowledge of his product as well as his waning patience for the documentary film process where he states: “these are 15 of over 50, but I don’t think we want to go into THAT much detail.”

In the spirit of the transparency that is so evident throughout this four-part series, I will say that the remainder of Episode 4 includes some justifiable chest-thumping about Osprey Packs’ organic growth in the U.S., explosive growth in China and ongoing commitment to innovation and exceptional design. After some entertaining speculation about the future of pack design from various Osprey Packs personnel, the video closes with Mike describing the difficulty he has always had with defining the vision or mission statement of Osprey Packs:

“I’ve never been able to give a very good answer for that. I downright refuse to because I can’t put my finger on it. I think our vision is better defined by what we’ve done and the actions we’ve already taken.”

In the end, we’re treated to a scene of Mike looking relaxed and reflective while sitting in a sample room, surrounded by “the things he’s built himself” as he simply exclaims:

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I’d like to look back at this and go ‘yeah,this all made sense.’ 

I’m quite sure that millions of customers around the world would agree that Osprey Packs make a lot of sense. Their vibrant colors leap off our pack walls, their exceptionally designed suspension systems make it easy to adjust the fit to your body and their thoughtful features make the sport of backpacking even more enjoyable.

Whether you’re an Osprey fan or not, I hope this recap has given you a greater appreciation for one of Eastern Mountain Sports’ most popular brands. If you’re inspired to experience Mike’s work for yourself, check out our full assortment of Osprey Packs at ems.com or stop by the store nearest you for a personal pack fitting.

Thanks for reading and Happy 40th Annniversary, Osprey!!
Jim Darroch