Yet again, another post unrelated to tech. But this one goes even deeper than any tech story.
For around 24 years (details are hazy) Cactus Equipment has been making backpacks and outdoor clothing right here in New Zealand. It was first started by Gwilym back in the day in a not atypical story of a climber simply wanting some gear for himself and some spare cash for trips. Back then, in the early 90’s, New Zealand had an amazing outdoor industry – companies like Macpac, Fairydown, Tika, Hallmark and others were invariably founded by outdoor enthusiasts wanting to make themselves some cool gear – rather than being focused on building businesses, they simply wanted to make some good stuff and have enough time to go play in the wilderness.
The last 20 years has seen the outdoor industry decimated and not one of those mentioned brands still exists as a New Zealand manufacturing company – they’ve either been brought out, gone bust or moved to a model of importing Asian made product. At the same time, a huge number of brands have been conjured up out of thin air, all of which purport to have a long legacy of doing what they’re doing – and pretty much all of them are pseudo outdoor brands, in essence delivering fashion products.
I’m not criticizing what other brands do – after all, fashion is a way more lucrative market than hardcore outdoors gear. And our decision to remain New Zealand made hasn’t exactly been a great road to fame or fortune. But it’s been an honest one and (I say with significant bias) an ethical one.
Anyway, back to the potted Cactus history. After a couple of years, Rob Gray and I got involved alongside Gwilym – Rob brought his experience working as a postie and the chance to redesign the entire walking postie carrying system. I brought a touch of OCD and a girlfriend (who ended up, coincidentally, becoming a wife). Cactus shifted to Christchurch, to be nearer the industry and nearer the hills, and kept on doing what it does.
We even had a chapter in a book dedicated to our story – the book was (approproately, I reckon) titled “A Passion for Life”
Fast forward a few years and lots has changed – Gwilym lives in Wanaka and gets down and dirty with computer code. I’ve moved on to talking about stuff and being involved in a bunch of other businesses and Rob is the last of the three owners still working in the business. But here’s the thing – what hasn’t changed is the fact that we still make hardcore products, we still make them in New Zealand and we still make our decisions based on what is right for the product and the customers, and not necessarily for our bottom line. The same three guys, albeit with thinner hairlines and a few wrinkles (not to mention half a dozen kids between us) still own the business and have immense pride that they’ve made it this far alive and intact.
Things have got more professional – Daryl as General Manager runs the business in a way we never could, we’ve got amazing people sorting out production, marketing and retail and our product range has expanded considerably – with clothing making up a big part of the business. But we’re still Cactus, and edgy, and honest and happy to share a yarn with someone who comes to visit.
And so this weekend marks the opening of Cactus’ Wellington flagship store. Five years after the Christchurch earthquakes caused us to shift the factory to what was (fortuitously) a ground floor space that got turned into an awesome retail location. More importantly, 21 years since three twenty-somethings packed up their gear in Wellington and moved south to the Mainland – Cactus is, at some levels, returning home.
I’m heading up for the opening – and it would be awesome to see some of you at the new store – 241 Thorndon Quay. A heartfelt thanks to everyone who has been a customer, friend, employee or outdoor adventure-mate over the years. And a tip of the hat to the late Sam Raphael, one of the earliest Cactus employees who was tragically killed while training for the Ironman over a decade ago. We’ll raise a glass to you this weekend Sammie.