- 5 Mushroom Heads
There’s an old saying that for something to become great in life, it needs to come from humble beginnings. It’s fair to say that being a pair of trousers is a fairly humble start for anything, but that’s exactly how we’ve come to find ourselves browsing the digital shelves of that monster tactical kit company called 5.11 Tactical.
The story begins in 1967, when a man called Royal Robbins, widely recognised as one of the pioneers of American rock climbing, started up a small teaching organisation called ‘Rockcraft’ in Modesto, California along with his wife Liz. The idea was to offer high levels of instruction to both new and advanced climbers and thus develop the sport.
Through this venture, Royal realised the need for specially designed and adapted clothing suited to the demands of one of the most arduous sports on the face of the planet and so was born the clothing company ‘Royal Robbins’ with a grand staff count of ten, which offered a line of colour co-ordinated clothing.
One of the first products on offer was the 5.11 trousers, with the name coming from the climb grading at the time which rates a Class 5 Level 11 as the hardest climb in existence (Although that has since been superseded).
The 5.11 was designed with feedback from other climbers as well as his own personal experience in the field and ensured the seeds were sown for a policy that would carry on through the various incarnations of the company and its relations – user feedback valued above all else.
The official definition of a 5.11 climb is: “After thorough inspection you conclude this move is obviously impossible; however, occasionally someone actually accomplishes it”
It’s worth taking a moment to mull over that definition, as it’s something that 5.11 Tactical hold close to their heart and certainly seems to be what motivates a lot of their business ethos. Something impossible? Maybe, but 5.11 Tactical will give a damn good shot at doing it.
It seems however, that what Royal had designed for rock climbers also happened to fit the bill rather nicely for the Federal Bureau of Investigation who promptly bought into the trousers and issued them out at the FBI Academy at Quantico, Virginia. Interestingly, there was never any official supply contract or tender for the trousers; the Quartermaster over at Quantico simply went out with the procurement budget and bought in a truckload of the trousers to the extent where Royal Robbins couldn’t meet the demand being placed on them.
As has been seen before, when you’ve got an agency with the weight and reputation of the FBI backing your product, it’s only a matter of time before that news hits the public domain and the product starts to spread.
Evolution of a Brand
Sure enough, with the slow spread of the 5.11 trousers out with the FBI, things were looking rosy, but sometimes it takes a fresh pair of eyes to spot exactly what’s going on. It took one Dan Costa, an entrepreneur who with an eye for a good thing, bought over Royal Robbins in 1999 and began to focus on developing the partnership with the FBI to further their Law Enforcement range.
Dan Costa soon built up that range, utilising expert knowledge and experience from across both law and military, ensuring that the products Royal Robbins were designing were what the end user both wanted and needed. Of course, having a customer base that includes the FBI allows you to have some pretty hands on testing of your products as well as superb feedback which Royal Robbins were swift to capitalise on, giving them that vital edge against the competition.
Dan Costa even went so far as to introduce Product Development Meetings which allowed the users of their products to tell Dan, quite simply, what they needed to do their job better.
Dan would then take their ideas to the drawing board and come up with a workable design which would be built, trialled, tested and tweaked until everyone was happy with the end result.
It was because of the link to the FBI that the tactical range of Royal Robbins was able to grow so quickly as new items were requested or new ideas were put to the company, and of course, those associated with law enforcement saw what the FBI were wearing and said: “Where can I get those from?”
On the 11th of September 2001, the world was shocked by the sight of the World Trade Centre in America being subjected to terrorist attacks which proved to be the catalyst for two conflicts in the Middle East and an unforeseen surge in the demand for tactical apparel and equipment.
Dan Costa realised that balancing the Royal Robbins outdoor line with the Law Enforcement aspects limited both sides, and so after much planning and strategising, in 2003 he sold Royal Robbins which had an annual turnover of $5.7 million and created the 5.11 Tactical Series, keeping the 5.11 trousers, Tactical shirts, vests, shorts, Academy shorts and Tactical Polo shirts as the first products in the new business.
With their primary focus being Law Enforcement and the natural cross-flow of communication, it was only a matter of time before the military started poking their nose in to see what all the fuss was about. Slowly but surely, products from the 5.11 Tactical range began to appear in military circles and 5.11 Tactical realised that in terms of requirements, both fields were fairly similar and could both be catered for successfully utilising existing techniques and methods.
In terms of demands though, 5.11 Tactical found that the military sphere is far less forgiving than law when it comes to product performance, where equipment failure simply is not an option. This demanded that 5.11 utilised all their past experience to create robust, dynamic products that could survive the challenges thrown at them on a daily basis in the main theatres of conflict in the Middle East.
This effort has resulted in 5.11 Tactical securing numerous military tenders across the globe, proving again the worth of the product and the reliability and functionality, tested as it would have been under strenuous circumstances.
So where could 5.11 Tactical go from here? With a range of products being supplied directly to various agencies and forces, there was still the home market of enthusiasts, Private Military Companies and Non Government Organisations to name but a few, who still wanted to get themselves into the 5.11 gear.
The success and wide appeal is clear to see, and in 2007 Dan Costa sold the controlling interest in 5.11 Tactical to a TA Associates for $305 million, with annuals sales reported to be around $57 million. He now retains the role of Founder and is heavily involved in charity and social projects.
New Challenges in a New World
Skip forward now to 2013 and 5.11 Tactical has a product range in the hundreds, from socks through to slings, boots to breaching tools. The online website boasts a substantial choice across all the ranges which ensures everyone from a Police Officer to a Soldier will be able to hop online and find something suitable for their role or task.
Along with the online presence, a large retail and distribution network has sprung up around the company, with over 90 retailers in the UK alone selling 5.11 Tactical products either in a shop front or their own website. The company also ships to over 90 different countries, making 5.11 Tactical one of the most widely available tactical suppliers in the world.
This ensures that choice and supply is always there and means that 5.11 Tactical is always developing new products to meet the demands across its market reach.
5.11 Tactical state that: “With a heritage of creating the authentic tactical pant, our vision is to define and lead the tactical gear industry by serving professionals worldwide.”
Just as Royal Robbins was one of the first men in 1961 to climb the Salathe Wall, renowned as the hardest rock face in the world, so that drive to be first follows on in 5.11 Tactical, with their vision simply stating that if there is a need for something, then 5.11 Tactical will be the first to offer it in a finished, quality state.
The latest challenge for 5.11 Tactical to rear its head was that of the changeover in the British Army to Multi-Terrain Pattern camouflage; requiring a complete rework of many of the popular brands and lines. The last two years have seen 5.11 Tactical frantically adapting to overcome and keep one step ahead of the competitors as British soldiers ditch private purchase CS95 and the companies that managed to get Multicam offerings to the shelves first were the winners.
It’s been a delicate balance though of ensuring product quality was maintained through the process, but it’s something that 5.11 Tactical have again managed to ring-fence, as it’s well known it only takes one bad product to ruin a reputation.
This can be seen by the current success of 5.11 Tactical, with the UK Managing Director, Ian Jackson stating that in terms of like-for-like sales, the top five grossing countries are USA, UK, Germany, France and Australia, demonstrating both the wide reach of the brand and the reputation which carries it across continents.
All this is achieved by a sizeable increase in staff numbers from the Royal Robbins days of ten to a slightly more substantial four hundred, as well as the numerous distributors and retailers.
Of course, there is competition out there. The market is saturated to the point where anyone that feels they have a product suitable (and even some that aren’t) for sale to a tactical industry will start up a website and start selling.
How does 5.11 Tactical feel they compare to some of the other big name tactical suppliers out there?
The UK’s Managing Director, Ian Jackson believes that 5.11 Tactical stand head and shoulders above the rest of the pack due to the key factor of product development and the user involvement in the process. Instead of basing it on guesswork and stabs in the dark at what might work, 5.11 Tactical rely on professionals in the field to tell them exactly what will and will not work. This saves hundreds of thousands of dollars on research and development for a whole slew of products that would never have made the grade or sold in any sustainable quantity.
Next Step Forward
Future plans indicate that 5.11 Tactical will be pushing heavily into the outdoor sector as their current tactical range finds itself being utilised more and more by outdoor enthusiasts, many of whom would have at one point or another used the 5.11 Tactical line in their daily course of work, and thought: “Hey, they’ll work just as well doing this...”
The natural spread and cross-pollination of the product brings a new field into the fold of the 5.11 Tactical remit and it’s one they’re keen to get involved in with several well known experts and authorities in the outdoorsman world sporting their brands.
The challenges offered by this again make 5.11 Tactical sit and up think about what they’re doing and how best to adapt their current processes to meet the requirements, but it’s easy to have faith in a company that has yet to fail in any of its chosen fields.
5.11 Tactical have also heavily invested in developing their range of Emergency Services products, for both the Ambulance and Fire Service, although these are both of a US flavour right now, again showing that 5.11 Tactical aren’t afraid to embrace a new market and create products that will work.
In terms then of the actual products 5.11 Tactical stocks, it’s easy to see the quality by the user feedback and reviews on their own website and elsewhere as well as the initial hands-on a 5.11 Tactical product. Popular across the board of law, military and enthusiast, the brand goes from strength to strength with no signs of slowing.
There can be no denying that for 5.11 Tactical, you pay a premium for some of the range, but the value is inherent in that buy 5.11, buy once. Products designed to last, designed to take on the toughest of challenges, designed to support you when you need it and all backed by an excellent record in customer service ensures that money spent is money invested in a product that is, as 5.11 Tactical say: “Trusted by Professionals”
Editors Note: This ACLA was written in 2013, and much has changed at 5.11 since then. Dan Costa has moved on to form the more streamlined First Tactical which we've looked at before on here and 5.11 itself is now seen to be almost edging more towards a fashion brand than pure functionality as it was originally.