ALPS Brands continues Missouri’s outdoor gear legacy
All over the state you can see signs of the season approaching. Tent flaps are patched while the bent poles and missing stakes are replaced. Wrappers from hand warmers and granola bars are emptied out of backpacks. The chuck box is being dusted of woebegone ladybugs. The sound of spring cleaning is in the air.
If last year is any indication, more Missourians than ever before are preparing for warmer weather to be enjoyed in the great outdoors. But few may know that a name seen on backpacks, tents, camp chairs, air pads and all manner of outdoor gear from the creekside campout to the Ozark Trail to the Himalayas has roots in New Haven. At one time, the small Missouri River town was a hot spot for outdoor gear manufacturers operating in the state. And thanks to ALPS Brands founder Dennis Brune, it’s still home to at least one.
“My dad has said that New Haven at one time was the Tent Capital of not only the U.S. but the world prior to a lot of manufacturing going overseas,” says Adam Brune, Dennis’ son. “The place where he went to interview, American Recreation Products, is one of our warehouses now, so it kind of came full circle for him.”
It was with American Recreation Products, or ARP, that Dennis’ career began in 1978. During his 15 years with the company he worked on gear design and development and eventually became president of one of ARP’s brands, Kelty. However, leading Kelty didn’t leave much time for family life. Rather than miss out on seeing his kids grow up, Dennis chose to start over at home doing what he did best. In 1993, ALPS Mountaineering began its ascent.
“His mission from the beginning was to provide more gear to more people, and build a brand based on value,” Adam says. “People can see a negative connotation to that word, but we see it as exceeding people’s expectations.”
The new company’s name — rather than the European mountain range, ALPS stands for “Active Lifestyle Products and Services” — came by the “mountaineering” part honestly: During his time at Kelty, Dennis designed equipment with Sir Edmund Hillary, widely recognized along with Tenzing Norgay as the first ascenders of Mount Everest. As with the founders of Microsoft and Apple, Dennis’ dream grew out of the family garage in nearby Lyon. Adam jokingly recalls that he, along with brother, Brian, and sister, Sarah, were involved in product development from an early age as might be expected for a family that grew up camping and floating. Now almost 30 years later, the Brune children manage the day-to-day operations of ALPS and Dennis, true to form, hasn’t slowed down at all.
“He says he’s going to retire,” Adam says with a laugh, “and still today he’s putting more hours into the company than anybody.”
The trio of siblings has come a long way from assembling tent prototypes in the driveway, and as they’ve grown into their new roles so too has the company. Today, ALPS Brands employs 40 people between its Missouri offices and warehouses. Product lines branched out as well: Dennis started out building fanny and day packs and expanded to sleeping bags, tents, camping furniture and air pads. While the Mountaineering line is still the company’s biggest, Adam says ALPS took on three new endeavors in a little more than 10 years. Those include designing hunting gear for ALPS OutdoorZ, the entry-level gear line Cedar Ridge and Browning’s camping equipment and hunting blinds. While evaluating new market opportunities is part of staying competitive and relevant, it’s also led to some new hobbies.
“I didn’t get into hunting until I was quite a bit older, but that’s one of the reasons we’re in this space,” Adam says. “We love being outdoors and we have a passion for it.”
Outdoor recreation takes many forms and whatever flavor they favored most, people rediscovered it amidst the pandemic in 2020. ALPS experienced the same fervor for outdoor products that was experienced throughout the industry from boating equipment and power sports to canoe rentals and campsite reservations. Although the circumstances increased sales and posed new challenges to supply chains, Adam sees the effect as a positive. More people actively participating in outdoor activities is good news for a company whose internal philosophy is “save the lifestyle.”
“With COVID going on, camping and hunting were some of the things people could do as a family and still socially distance,” Adam says. “People weren’t taking the big vacations, but camping close to home is something you can always do.
“If it had a silver lining at all, people slowed down and spent time together in the outdoors,” he adds. “I think when people experience that for the first time it doesn’t take much to get you hooked.”