Little Bear Snowshoes is the leading children’s snowshoe brand in the United States. Unlike other snowshoes, Little Bear shoes are based on an injection-molded plastic design that allows them to be colorful, lightweight and nonlabor intensive to manufacture.
Company founder Jim Watson had the idea for the product while working as a mechanical engineering consultant. "I wasn’t looking to start a business, but I thought I had a good idea that was both functional and inexpensive," he says. "Because of the flexibility of my consulting work, I was able to pursue it." And he did — in his garage, where he designed and manufactured the very first Little Bear snowshoes in 1995.
In 1997, Little Bear’s parent company, Spring Brook Manufacturing, entered Western Colorado Business Development Corp.’s (WCBDC) (now The Business Incubator Center) incubator. "We had been operating out of my garage and then we got a significant order from L.L. Bean. We knew we were poised for aggressive growth (we grew 600 percent that year), but we weren’t ready for our own commercial space," says Watson. "We wouldn’t have lived without the incubator." The incubator’s staff became the company’s board of directors, guiding it as it matured. "We availed ourselves of everything they had to offer," Watson says. WCBDC’s Executive Director Thea Chase says Watson’s eagerness to succeed played a major role in Little Bear’s success. "Jim really is the drive of the company. Without him, they wouldn’t have made it," she says.
Little Bear’s growth has been tremendous: the company increased its gross sales from $100,000 in 1996 to $1.1 million in 2000, and grew from five employees in 1997 to 25 in 2000. But the job creation doesn’t stop there — Little Bear is responsible for attracting a new snowshoe manufacturing facility and 150 new jobs to Grand Junction. In November 2000, WinterQuest, which owns two other snowshoe companies, acquired Little Bear. With Little Bear on board, WinterQuest now controls an estimated 80 percent of the U.S. snowshoe market. Originally, WinterQuest had planned to move Little Bear’s manufacturing operations to California, but after reviewing Little Bear’s operations, WinterQuest decided to relocate its other snowshoe companies to Grand Junction. Watson says this is a major source of pride for the company: "We are proud to have brought so many jobs to the community."
Recognition has been a way of life for Little Bear. The company commands 70 percent of the children’s snowshoe market and has received numerous awards, including NBIA’s Manufacturing Incubator Client of the Year Award in 1998 and the National Parenting Center’s Seal of Approval. "It’s very exciting for us that Little Bear has received [this year’s] award," says Chase. "It’s a sort of full circle for them. They started out receiving the client of the year. They were an excellent tenant and a great graduate." Little Bear’s recognition, in turn, has brought recognition to WCBDC. "It has helped our incubator phenomenally," says Chase. "[Little Bear] is our poster child. Jim and his staff have participated in helping us get the word out about incubation, appeared in our marketing video and really shared their success with the incubator."
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