Joel Grabenstein, Vice President of Sales, Brand, and Product Marketing at Yakima Products
How Yakima Got Creative During the Pandemic to Thrive
(We use an audio transcription service; please excuse any errors)
Blake St. Onge 01:24
Welcome to Think Beyond Space | The PDX Workplace Insider Podcast. I'm your host Blake St. Onge principal for the Portland Office of Cresa, a global corporate real estate firm. From the people the culture and their thoughts on the future of work, we sit down with leaders from Portland's most respected companies to learn about what makes their workplaces tick.
Hey, everyone, welcome to season two of the podcast. hope everybody had a great summer. If you're like me, I'm sure you were driving somewhere in Oregon with something on the top of your car or on the back of your car carrying bikes or gear. I'm really excited to have our guest today. Joel Grabenstein, who is the Vice President of Sales, Brand and Product Marketing for Yakima Products. Joel, welcome to the show.
Joel Grabenstein 02:11
Yeah, thanks. Good to be here. Appreciate it.
Blake St. Onge 02:12
So Joel, for those that may not know about Yakima, it's not the city in Washington though there's some story behind that which we'll get into, but let us know about who you are and how you got to be the Vice President at Yakima, and we'll start from there.
Joel Grabenstein 02:32
Yeah, sure. I am one of those dinosaurs, I guess that kind of picked a business and stayed with it. These days. It seems the transitions are more with the young folks. But it's been I think, 16 years, I went to school down at Humboldt State in Northern California, and the business spent a long time down in that region. So coming out of grad school, joined up with the company kind of like the overall industry sort of bridging automotive outdoor you know, bike boat ski, we always say we can party with anybody and, you know, came out of MBA program and was looking for work, decided to stay in the area, took a job with the ACMA did that for a couple years and then in the outdoor industry that sort of this obligatory ski bum period yeah for us I did that for a year moved out to telluride served my time and bought a year in the mountains and I decided to come back to the northwest where most of my family is and moved to Portland and the business happened to move up into Portland so I worked my way back into the marketing team spent about six or seven years on the marketing side field marketing promotional manager events trade shows things like that had the chance to pivot over the product side so moved into a product manager role which led to a category manager role to category director role just kind of navigated you know product creation and really enjoyed you know, just bringing new ideas to life filling unmet needs in the market. And then over time product and marketing sort of came together and then most recently right before the pandemic hit, I took over the sales side as well and moved into this current role so that's sort of my quick history. Yeah, it's been a good ride honestly I've had lots of good mentors in the space and just a lot of love for the brand in the industry and again, bridging kind of outdoor and automotive and bike you know, sure it's very core to who I am it's just been a good ride for sure. Yeah.
Blake St. Onge 04:27
So did you so going back from a college standpoint, did you know you wanted to get into product or sales or what was the focus from a school standpoint and then and then how did you get the role with Yakima What was that? Like?
Joel Grabenstein 04:41
I think I was very interested in the outdoor industry from the outset, but yeah, I was an outdoors kid, I liked skiing or mountain biking. We grew up in the Midwest and there wasn't a lot of mountain biking, skiing going on. But when we moved to North Idaho, the outdoors really blew me away. So big rivers, big lakes, more mountains for us just more camping, and then eventually skiing and riding and such. So I was pretty, pretty focused on the outdoor industry, but I think I thought it would be in more of the outfitter type space or ecotourism type space, not necessarily in, you know, product creation, brand identity type work, I definitely fell in love with the hard goods side of things and creating these tangible goods that go on vehicles, and that I always wanted to get into that product management zone where you're looking at the roadmap, you're looking at the unmet needs, you know, reading the insights, and then trying to deliver on them. So that was certainly part of my angle. I never thought I'd look over sales, if I'm honest, but I have my delusional sales guy moments too.
Blake St. Onge 05:58
Well, I mean, I would imagine, like, you got to know what you're selling, right? And who better to know what you're selling.
Joel Grabenstein 06:15
it helps, you know, it helps to be I think, not just to have that kind of full understanding. We do have a very complex category, right? There's, you've got to fit things. Someone wants to put an eight foot stand up paddleboard on their Volkswagen bug and go down the freeway. Yeah, we need to know what we're doing. So yeah, and that side of things, yes, it definitely helped, you know, kind of leaning into that side of things, but also just being a steward of the brand for so long. I think it helped us really think a little less opportunistically and think more about the true opportunity of the brand in the long run versus just, you know, sell to whoever is interested. We're really focused on more selective distribution recently, and making sure that this brand is here for the next 40 years. Yeah, yeah
Blake St. Onge
So we're sitting in Yakima headquarters, which is awesome, by the way, and I appreciate the tour.
Yeah, my pleasure,
Blake St. Onge
I was asking Joel earlier. You know, how many because what I see from consumers, I'm driving around the road, and I see the bike racks and I see the roof racks which I own, and I'm going well, how many new products are you guys? How many? How many new things are you guys doing? And you said there's 30 or 40 new skus a year that you do?
Yeah, it's quite a bit, we've got a hell of a roadmap. From a product standpoint, I think, you know, we're really focused on innovation. We want to be that that brand in the mix that's willing to push the envelope to attach things to vehicles in new ways. We want to lead on that front and you know, there's some risk that comes along with it, our primary competitors, a little more conservative, more of a fast follower, that's kind of their stated corporate strategy. So we like to lean in a bit and we've been cranking out a lot a lot of stuff over the past five years. Yeah, honestly. Keep doing it. Thanks. So in last 17 years, what have you seen from a growth standpoint from when you started and where you guys are now? I mean, how many total people how many total employees, do you have about 100 folks in the office here? Okay, and then as we were talking about we have an office in Brisbane, Australia I've got an office in Nanjing, China as well but here looking over North America Latin America about 100 folks in the office that seems like a like a small and mighty crew for the amount of stuff that you guys do we're relatively lean i think you know what we've traditionally said is the brand is bigger than the business like you know, when people call and ask if you want to sponsor a stadium in LA I usually chuckle a little bit because I think they might be looking for some our neighbors out in Beaverton or something like that yet? Yeah, we're pretty lean pretty nimble but grown fast right now COVID has certainly put some a macro mindset psychological shift into most consumers mind and you know we're just trying to help people get outside we're this middleman catalyst to enable lifestyle right yeah there that's tip of the pyramid go climb you know El Cap or that's just getting to grandma's house for Thanksgiving you know we want to meet those consumers wherever they are and provide unique solutions to solve their problems. That's good I mean, I never thought about that way that's a good perspective because you do you have a you have a product that that fits all of that right like whether you put in climbing gear in the top or you're putting sleeping bags up there for your kids to sleep on the floor in the house. Yes, it's all it's all part of the journey and the different consumer profiles that we look at Yeah, you know for myself, it's interesting to you sometimes when you self-reflect like I used to do a lot more you know, just skiing and riding and paddling with the buddies and now I'm more in the adventure family mode. Yeah. And so the brand and the portfolio really can have the versatility to move with people as they move through their life and continue to solve their whatever unmet need they is whatever challenge they have of transporting gear and ultimately making room in the car for more humans. Yeah.
Blake St. Onge 10:08
Do your kids have any idea what you do?
Joel Grabenstein 10:11
They do. They're super interested in it. My son's always got ideas. They love coming in the office. They definitely do.
Blake St. Onge 10:21
That is not the response I was actually thinking you were going to give, which is great.
Joel Grabenstein 10:26
I think they have a lot of pride about it, too. They love the outdoors. So when we can go sleep in a roof top tent and they know that I helped bring it to market. Yeah. It's cool. Or we test out new stuff, you know, and they're like, why are we using this? This janky kind of glued together thing, Dad? Because it's an idea that might come to life. Yeah, just doing some user testing.
Blake St. Onge 10:52
I didn't think about it that way. That is really unique for them to see that perspective. And to be able to bring him here and probably bring him into the shop and show them how things are done.
Joel Grabenstein 11:03
Yep. It's like Legos. For adults. There's a lot to do out there a lot of things that come together, yeah, parts pieces, again, kind of versatility of the product offering.
Blake St. Onge 11:15
So being in this product that’s the manufacturing world that you're in the last 18 months has just been like brutal, good in one way, but brutal, super challenging another way from what we've heard, so walk us through what that and what that's been like, I mean, if anyone went to any REI or any Rack Attack, or others where you know, your products were sold last summer, I mean, good luck. And, you know, this summer, I don't know if it was any different, but walk us through some of the challenges that you guys had from a leadership team perspective, and, you know, keeping the eyes on the prize.
Joel Grabenstein 11:53
Turns out it's hard to grow in a pandemic. And that's really what we're doing. We have a lot of growing pains that we're working through, not to mention just the human side of things, which I think is probably the hardest part of the pandemic is, you know, just keeping everybody calm, keeping them focused, giving them the autonomy they need to stay focused on their families to have balance in their life, so that they can come to work and you know, dive in and crush it, and then go home and do whatever it is, so they don't take that with them every night and lose sleep, you know, trying to just help the team kind of keep it in perspective of what we do and what's going on and what we can control and what we can't control.
Yeah, but it's been chaos. I mean, it's really been crazy. From you know, all of retail shutting down early in the pandemic, signaling back to our supplier base. We have no retailers open to suddenly seeing it start rolling in and yelling back at our supply base, “turn it on and turn it up.” We call it an extreme demand scenario. We think it's definitely a new high watermark for the brand and the category, we don't see it as peaks and valleys. These are more kind of tectonic shifts that are happening in the marketplace. So there's, which is nice because, you know, there's no concern on our end to open a new factory or invest in new tooling. We don't feel like the demand is going to just disappear overnight and go back to the size that we work. So we're really able to lean in from that front. But when you have customers (retailers) that are up 75% and you still getting angry phone calls, because we know we're leaving demand on the table. Yeah, it's challenging. You know, they've blown their forecast apart they've doubled it and yet I'm getting yelled at So yeah, I you know, thick skin, keeping the people calm, right, working with the teams to just keep it in perspective, you know, that we're all kind of going through this same time. Yeah, there's certain stuff we can control and certain stuff we cannot.
Blake St. Onge 14:07
So what are the some of the things that you guys did from a people standpoint? You know, I mean, it's like the work environment. I mean, we're in headquarters, there's about 100 people here What are you guys done to sort of signal back like hey, we we'd like to sort of be together again, when we can when we can't like what sort of that look like I mean, yeah, hybrid are all on premise. Like, what's that been like? And then it's obviously there's start, stop, start. Stop, start. Stop the board.
Joel Grabenstein 14:34
You nailed it. I think early on just getting everybody equipped, right? Because we do have a very familial culture. Yeah, it
Blake St. Onge 14:41
seems like it's just walking through. It's just, I mean, yeah, you're getting patted on the back all the time when we were walking by it's not
Joel Grabenstein 14:46
a lot of high fives and hugs and yeah, you know, we're very close culture. So we're concerned, right? We're concerned about losing that water cooler around the whiteboard
Blake St. Onge 14:58
camaraderie on the ping pong thing. will embark table
Joel Grabenstein 15:00
Yeah, a lot of things get solved around those different features. But early on, obviously getting people armed with technology to work remote. Yeah. But then as you said, we're in Clackamas County. So we were on a little bit different cadence than some of Multnomah County have technically. And we have a huge space here, you know, about 95,000 square feet. And so we were able to keep the office open for those that wanted to use the office. So if you work better in the office environment, you're welcome to come in, you just have to follow the rules. Right? You have to live within the box. Yeah. That was sometimes masks that was sometimes not masked, depending on what was going on at the local state national level. Yeah. From there, we started moving towards one day back in the office, you know, so everybody in on Wednesdays, let's just and this was really through the summer months. We just wanted one day where we had most everybody here. Yeah, it's kind of pre surge of the Delta. Right. So that was a nice start. And then we had to pivot again. Yeah. And so where we are right now is, you know, we're asking our team members to be in the office two days a week, find 16 hours a week, where you make your way in, and you can connect with people. And you can sit in those key, you know, collaborative meetings that you need to have to work through the challenges, right? Because when I think you're growing like we're growing, all our challenges are new challenges. They're not ones that we've had to face in the past. And I simple like, we can do this with our eyes closed, we've been rice before, right? Everything's new on that front. So I think, you know, and then a lot of zoom and zoom, happy hours, and, you know, whatever we had to do to try to stay connected through it all. So we'll see what's next. But we've committed to, you know, ask everyone to find two days a week into the office through the end of the year, and then we'll serve us depending on what the role is,
Blake St. Onge 16:58
how often does the leadership team communicate? Like, do you guys have weekly meetings? Do you have bi weekly meetings? And then how often do you guys communicate out to sort of the larger, the larger group? Yeah, just curious. Because no, it's
Joel Grabenstein 17:09
Joel Grabenstein 17:12
Ryan Martin, our CEO was doing a video week. So every Friday, a video could be two minutes, or it could be a 20 minute video that was pretty deep about where we are and how we're working through the challenges and what the numbers look like, etc. I think really helped us.
Blake St. Onge 17:39
I mean, that yeah, that's incredible.
Joel Grabenstein 17:42
He had to get pretty creative towards the end, we did a good job with doing that. We meet twice a month as an exact team. We're a team of four. Yeah, on the exact side. So Ryan Martin is CEO, Sandy, Lana hands, our CFO and then Chris solder heads up. operations, procurement, product development, like we discussed them. Yeah, I've got the market facing side. Yeah. So we meet twice a week for a few hours and really kind of hash through and then that trickles down into the functional leaders. And that's really the way it's intended to be set up. Ryan is a believer in you know, functional area responsibility and driving it down into your groups. So we meet as a group, and then it just kind of cascades through
Blake St. Onge 18:23
the Yes. As you're responsible for your Yes, make
Joel Grabenstein 18:26
sure that those that need to know are looped in on where we're going and what the challenges are and how we're going to navigate them together.
Blake St. Onge 18:33
Yeah. So you mentioned customer increased by 75%. Was that what sound like somewhere in there? Yeah, categories
Joel Grabenstein 18:39
growing at a extraordinarily fast rate so faster than it has in 40 years. So most, even when I talked to the competition, you know, it's just down at a new store opening in Arizona, and some of our competitors are there. And it's a funny thing right now, because there's so much business that none of us can really keep up with demand. Yeah, just a little less competitive.
Blake St. Onge 19:02
Yeah. You can't fulfill it. We can't, you can't fulfill Well, we can't either. Oh, you can't either. Okay.
Joel Grabenstein 19:07
So we've got customers all over the place. Yeah. We've had to, you know, put in new ways that we think about allocation. And really, it's a 21 some of our biggest challenges, who's gonna get the goods? And so we've had to decide on what the criteria and how we would drive down to that and the most fair and equitable way that we can, and then we'll continue to evolve as things evolve on an allocation side, that's one of our biggest Yeah, it's not an issue. But one of the new challenges that we have to work through
Blake St. Onge 19:41
with the challenges of supply chain, has there been any? I'm sure there's been some discussion about onshoring some of the manufacturing has that been? Is that a discussion that you guys are having at the leadership level like hey, what if we had I mean, you've got something in Riverside, and then you've got something in Memphis, those are those just DCs? Those aren't actually manufacturing facilities.
Joel Grabenstein 19:57
All our boxes come out of California. Okay. Cargo boxes are thermoform. Okay, pretty unique core competency. Yeah, when want to ship those across the globe? We do some kidding down there too. Yeah, it's always discussion right with when, when freight costs are what they are as labor costs and shifts are taking place, you know, steel aluminum corrugated glue every everything from a cost standpoint you have to step back and look at it you know we are Taiwanese owned by a family out of Taiwan, the Lin family. So with that in mind, we've got several factories and we're building another factory in Asia. So that is certainly factors, we just think about where we're going to be. Yeah, but it's an open dialogue about the global operating footprint, then what makes the most sense for the future? And what put the brand in the best position in the long run.
Blake St. Onge 20:48
Yeah. And so from a growth standpoint, not maybe not percentage wise, people wise, if you guys grown people wise in the last year, or is it been mainly just you guys are, you know, the small and scrappy team? Yeah, just go in and get it done with what you have? Yeah, good
Joel Grabenstein 21:02
question. I think the people growth is really happening right now, I think through, you know, again, the macro effect of all this on the labor pool, we brought in new people, but we've had attrition, too, right? Folks are making different decisions about what they value where they want to live, how much money they want to make, what industry they want to be in, if they want to be fully remote. So there's just been some coming and going. So through all that we probably remained fairly level around that 100 but I'm opening up for jobs soon. So we're definitely in hiring mode now.
Blake St. Onge 21:38
Yeah, yeah. The history of we were talking before the you know, for this in terms of the history of Yakima, and it's just it's, I don't know, it's pretty incredible history that that it seems almost a little bit like half of the stance to be honest with you. I mean, from what you're mentioning, from, you know, an inventor, basically up in Yakima, Washington to what you call a couple river rats that went and got it to what it is today.
Joel Grabenstein 21:59
Yeah, it's a cool story. You know, I think like many of the big brands in the outdoor industry, the Patagonia's and black diamonds of the world it's, you know, people that were just looking to solve something for themselves. But you know, prior to that, yeah, gentleman up in Yakima, so we're, we're talking like 19, mid 70s here. He's the patent holder for the telescoping music stand that everybody had in middle school, but was just an inventor idea, this big shop and he was just that type of guy, the innovator, right. He also invented these kayak foot braces. So for those paddlers out there, you need a place to, you know, be able to have leverage inside of your cockpit. And then being from Yakima. He also saw a lot of people transporting these giant orchard ladder racks. And he figured out a way to set up some cross bars on a vehicle. Couple guys in Northern California, Don Banducci and Steve Cole decided to go up there and acquire it, they were really more interested in the braces and foot braces, they really thought that was maybe the goldmine. And upon, you know, further reflection, I think realize that the opportunity was in the roof rack space. So business was in Northern California from 1979 until about 2005 original founders or owners, you know, passed it on, probably a decade or so into it. And you know, we've been in different portfolios with the likes of the camel backs, and whammo, frisbees and Dagger kayaks and perception and, you know, just passed some hands. Yeah. Before our current owners, the Linde family, yeah, in about the last decade or so.
Blake St. Onge 23:35
Wow. That's yeah, that's incredible.
Joel Grabenstein 23:38
Case Study. Yeah, it's definitely a good case study. Yeah, I may write it you know, that may be my retire and yeah, so I'll just write the case study on Yeah, come on, try and sell it to the Harvard Business School or something.
Blake St. Onge 23:50
I think, you know, I think you have. So if you could have coffee or whiskey or any sort of drink with someone past or present, who would that be for you? And why?
Joel Grabenstein 24:03
Yeah, I'll do one of each. I'll do a present and the past. Yeah. I think I'm a big soccer player, some big Liverpool's my team, and I'm a big fan of Jurgen Klopp. So Klopp, this six foot German coach, who's the most lovable, charismatic leader you can envision? I think for me, you know, my emphasis in in grad school was management. And I draw a lot from soccer. Yeah, the team mentality the having a bench of player Yeah. Even having competition within your own team, to fuel getting the best out of everybody, right? I think you know, for me, I'm not the biggest guy. So I always felt like my role in soccer was to get the most out of everyone around me and Klopp just sort of epitomizes that, yeah, just this big, charismatic, always hugging his players. Just a lot. A lot of love. Which is sort of weird for a German guy. Yeah. always smiling. Yeah, yeah. So I would, I would love to sit down with that guy and just talk about leadership. Yeah. And then maybe a past. I also I think draw a lot from the native cultures. So I'd say like Sitting Bull or something like that, you know, something a little more heady, a little more philosophical. Yeah. You know, I was always drawn to the native Sioux culture. And, yeah, I just think someone like that would be really interesting. I don't know what we would drink. I don't think it would be whiskey
Blake St. Onge 25:33
now. Maybe some, I don't know. Maybe something from corn will say it could be from that, you know.
Joel Grabenstein 25:39
Yeah. But just to, you know, the world premier league to Lakota Sioux.
Blake St. Onge 25:45
Yeah. Wow, that would be a really, really interesting cross section. And then maybe the three of you guys could get together and that and maybe that would be you know, I think there's something there. There'll be good. So Joel, where can people find more about you and more about Yakima?
Joel Grabenstein 26:01
I mean, I'm on the normal LinkedIn, I'm not very good at LinkedIn. I think probably because I'm pretty happy with my job. And you know, I don't want people to think elsewise, yeah, so, I'm out there, but, you know, Yakima obviously, you can find us on the web and we're here in Lake Oswego. So a lot of people even locally don't know that this is here. We've been here for you know, 15 or so years now. We used to be out in Beaverton essentially on Nikes campus Yeah, before they continued to expand the berm if you will. Yeah. And now we're right here on Cruz way in Lake Oswego and happy to be in Oregon and be in the northwest
Blake St. Onge 26:39
yeah and different from most buildings on like Lake Oswego you guys have a vast green field between that road and your building and I mean it's just it's very different from most of what you know people will see when they
Joel Grabenstein 26:51
yeah it's a nice space. Do you guys get the soccer fields actually we don't we don't yes I try to bring my own you know yeah
Blake St. Onge 27:00
you're gonna have a drink with you know get a field out there and get a game gone
Joel Grabenstein 27:04
it'd be good we have on and off there's some folks here who played so we put together an indoor team here that's just to blow some steam Yeah, but yeah we're a lot of financial centers and mortgage business and brokers out here yeah crews way yeah we are a little bit different you know when you see the logo and you see some of the look and feel of the building Yeah,
Blake St. Onge 27:24
he flipped the script. Yeah. Well Joel thanks so much man. I really appreciate you taking the time to show me around and then you know just to share the time and yeah really appreciate it man.
Joel Grabenstein 27:33
Yeah, same. appreciate you guys coming out and showing an interest in the brand and you know, hanging out for bid here as well.
Blake St. Onge 27:40
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