The History of Osprey Backpacks.
Since Osprey was founded in 1974, every single product design bearing the Osprey name has passed through the hands of owner and founder Mike Pfotenhauer, undergoing relentless scrutiny. From stitching the first lines of custom-fitted packs, to meticulously designing innovative products with intuitive features, to forging personal relationships with the sewing operators who construct the packs, Mike has been the unbreakable thread that makes Osprey a company like no other.
Mike remembers backpacking as a young boy in his home state of Oregon with his brothers and father, wearing a backpack with an awful fit. With the help of his mother, he learned to sew, and created his first backpack at age 16.
As a young entrepreneur in Santa Cruz, California, Mike opened a retail shop in the front of his rented house where backpackers and travelers – drawn by word of mouth – came to get measured for the custom-fitted, made-to-order packs. Each was constructed by Mike himself over the course of several days. To these avid travelers, the legendary packs were worth the wait. The original name of Osprey Packs was Santa Cruz Recreational Packs.
By 1987, Osprey started selling wholesale and Mike delegated much of the sewing to seven or eight employees while he focused on design.
As the demand for the great-fitting packs increased, Mike and business partner/wife Diane Wren found themselves in Dolores, Colorado, population 864, the exact day a local Gore-Tex factory was closing down. Soon after, they rented the 8,000-square-foot building – originally built in the 1920s as Ford Model-T factory.
They recruited a team of women sewers from the nearby Navajo reservation, many of whom had built upon their traditional sand painting and blanket weaving skills to sew at area factories. Mike trained these experienced sewers in the art and science of constructing Osprey Packs. In 1994, they expanded sewing operations to Cortez, Colorado, and five years later, Osprey moved all operations to this facility in preparation for more expansion.
By 2000, manufacturing in the U.S. became increasingly challenging. As domestic fabric mills closed, sourcing quality materials became more difficult. Moreover, Osprey’s competitors had moved manufacturing overseas to reduce product costs and prices. There were issues with capacity. As Osprey signed on with distributors around the globe, the company was missing deadlines and business opportunities. Moving manufacturing overseas was crucial to the company’s survival.
Osprey began working with Korean manufacturers that owned and managed facilities in Vietnam. Distance didn’t dilute Mike’s incessant desire to ensure that his packs were built with the utmost quality and according to his design specs, which meant he was spending months traveling between Cortez and Vietnam. The trip alone took two days.
In 2003, Mike and Diane relocated their family to Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, and set up a design center where Mike could more closely manage production. Intending to live there for two years, they stayed for four. Mike recalls, “We visited the factories almost daily to make sure production was running smoothly and that our designs were produced accurately and faithfully.” Mike hired a Vietnamese designer to create the prototypes and samples. Then he hired another local to manage quality assurance. Now, Osprey’s fully-staffed product development office continues to ensure face-to-face relationships with the factory technicians as well as transparency with the company’s suppliers.
To celebrate its 35th anniversary in 2009, Osprey launched the All Mighty Guarantee, an enhancement of a lifetime warranty that was already one of the most robust in the industry. Free of charge, the company will repair any damage or defect in its product – whether it was purchased in 1974 or yesterday. If Osprey is unable to repair the item, it will happily replace it. The All Mighty Guarantee: any product, any reason, any era.
Mike isn’t the only one ensuring that every product meets the exacting standards worthy of this lifetime guarantee. Hired in 1990 as one of the original Navajo sewers, Marilyn Jones has had a hand in creating Osprey packs for 20 years. She is now responsible for all pack repairs. “Sometimes a pack comes in and I’ll recognize it,” Marilyn says. “I see how it’s held up over the years, and what adventures it’s been through. Then, I make sure it goes even further.”
Mike says his innovative designs and commitment to top-notch manufacturing shows in every product, even, or especially, decades later. “Osprey is, in large part, about exceptional relationships,” says Mike. “Between the pack and its wearer. The pack and its makers. The company and its staff.” He continues, “So many of our staff have been with the company for decades. It shows how fervently we believe in our process and products. The All Mighty Guarantee proves it.” No wonder there’s such a close relationship between the words “Osprey” and “quality”. You could say it’s a lifetime commitment.