Icebreaker relocation heats up apparel scene
Portland Business Journal - by Robin J. Moody Business Journal staff writer
Cathy Cheney | Portland Business Journal
Icebreaker is warming to Portland.
After locating an expanded global design center here in January 2007, leaders at the New Zealand-based purveyor of merino wool sports apparel will move the company's U.S. headquarters to Portland from Idaho.
"It's not easy to build a high-talent team in a town with only one flight in a day," said Icebreaker CEO Jeremy Moon of his decision to relocate U.S. headquarters from Ketchum, Idaho.
The move to Icebreaker's new headquarters office in the Pearl District will be final in mid-2008, when about 12 employees from Idaho will join the 20-plus person work force in Portland.
The $100 million company is looking to buy a permanent headquarters building that could ultimately house 80 workers. It employs 200 workers worldwide, including about 50 in the United States.
Icebreaker is also opening its first U.S. store, at 1109 W. Burnside, on Dec. 4. The 2,600-square-foot Touch Lab will showcase the company's full line of high-end garments, spun from soft wool of merino sheep, raised in the Southern Alps of New Zealand. Products include leggings, T-shirts, sweaters and base layers; retail prices range from $50 to $200.
The company operates six other retail stores globally, including in England and New Zealand, but most of its sales come from the 2,000 outdoor stores worldwide where Icebreaker garments are sold.
Kortni Henke, the soft goods buyer for the Mountain Shop in Northeast Portland, told the Business Journal in January the she had started carrying the Icebreaker line two years ago, and has increased orders over time.
"It's done really well for us," said Henke. "We were nervous about how well it could be received at first, though, because of how expensive it is."
Icebreaker entered the U.S. market three years ago, and sales here comprise about 15 percent of the company's revenue. Moon predicts U.S. sales will grow to 35 percent of revenue in another three years. Icebreaker's U.S. President Troy Ballard left the company in September, and the company is looking for a new stateside boss.
A local designer with experience at Nike Inc., Sandy Larowe, is heading up the Portland design center and serves as Icebreaker's vice president of product design. Designers in the Portland office will collaborate with another smaller design office in Wellington, New Zealand, where Icebreakers is headquartered.
Moon leads a design collaborative in New Zealand, Better by Design, that helps businesses use design as a central competitive strategy. Integrating design into all facets on the business is one of Moon's key business philosophies, and he hopes Icebreaker's expanded design department will speed innovation.
"It's not that hard to run the finances and logistics," Moon said. "What's hard is strengthening design and innovation."
Moon, 38, founded Icebreaker in 1994. The company originally sold just underwear, but branched into apparel about two years after it was founded.
The company has a strong sustainability streak. It pays New Zealand merino wool farmers premium prices for a guaranteed supply of the soft wool in exchange for the farmers' agreeing to strict environmental and animal-welfare standards. Icebreaker is the largest purchaser of New Zealand merino wool, and recently inked a $50 million, four-year contract with wool producers there.
Most activewear is make from petrol-based fabrics, which are generally nonbiodegradable and over time take on odors that can't be washed away.
Icebreaker also operates offices in Melbourne, Australia; Vancouver, British Columbia; and Hamburg, Germany.