From father-and-son nights camping under the stars to winning supply contracts for military tents has taken several decades, but it’s been a successful journey for Montgomery-based MMI Outdoor.
Working with the military has been a mainstay of the success of MMI Outdoor for the past 20 years. With two decades of experience in distributing, representing and manufacturing textile-based products for outdoor use, MMI Outdoor enjoys a strong relationship supplying the military and other outdoor enterprises with specialized gear.
Henry Cobb, World War II veteran and father of CEO David Cobb, started the company as a manufacturer’s representative in December of 1975. MMI Outdoor represented companies that made fishing, camping and backpacking products for recreation facilities on U.S. military bases.
In 1987, MMI Outdoor moved into distribution, buying and selling products, and produced its first catalog.
Around the same time, MMI Outdoor began to include selling to federal, state and local facilities, such as parks, and recreation departments and schools, in addition to military customers.
In 1993, MMI began to develop and import Catoma Adventure Shelter brand tents, especially for USDA Forest Service firefighters in the western part of the country. This move led MMI to evolve into tent design and manufacturing.
“I started camping with my dad at age 4 or 5, so we spent a lot of time in tents, ” says Cobb.
In 2003, MMI Outdoor won a military contract against four well-established companies to produce a patented tent design for the U.S. Army’s 101st Airborne Division. This first military contract was awarded during the Iraq invasion. Before that, due to military cuts in the 1990s, the military was underfunded and many soldiers were paying for supplies out of their own pockets.
“We were David among Goliaths when we won our first award, ” Cobb says.
In the past, when the military needed a new product, they would do the designs in-house and then companies would bid on building it. Today, the military decides on a list of performance specifications and then trusts manufacturers like MMI Outdoor to produce a product that best fits their needs. They then evaluate the submitted products based on those specifications by purchasing a sample run from four or five companies.
“They make a bid award based on price and value, ” says Cobb. “The product has to do what they need it to do.”
While it can be tough to become a military supplier, MMI Outdoor has grown into a position of trust and credibility, Cobb says, and successfully sells to all branches. The largest military customer is the Army, and specialty products such as camouflage are also sold to the Marines, Navy SEALS, Air Force, Border Patrol and Coast Guard. The military is MMI Outdoor’s biggest customer. The USDA Firefighters in the western part of the United States are also a big customer.
“We are in an enviable position for the military, ” says Cobb. “We are close to our customer and can get direct feedback. It’s a great give and take. We can make the products even better.”
MMI Outdoor has an industrial designer and design team in Montgomery. When working on a new product, the team sits around the conference table and brainstorms ideas. Four or five people work together to refine and re-evaluate before deciding on the direction they want the product to take. Several prototypes are developed to make sure the product will do what it’s supposed to do. Usually, six to eight versions of a product are done to make sure the customers get what they need.
“It’s a team process, ” says Cobb. “We go the extra mile. We will never stop trying to make our products better. Even after winning a contract we will work to improve our designs. We have made design improvements during a contract production, with the customer’s approval, at no change in the cost.”
Today, MMI Outdoor manufactures tents under the Trek and Catoma brands. Many textile-based products like packs and tents are specially designed for the military. And a few new military contracts are on the horizon. MMI hopes to update a tent design for the Marine Corps and also has designed a specialty pack for machine gun teams for the Army. A line of camouflage hunting gear called DEPSOC 360 is available for the consumer market. DEPSOC stands for Depth Silhouette Obfuscating Camouflage and the 3D effect, developed for snipers, makes hunters even less visible than traditional camouflage.
“We have a long list of products we’re developing based on need, ” Cobb says. “More will be coming out in the next few years.”
MMI Outdoor also continues to have the distribution business, carrying canoes, kayaks and other outdoor recreational products for recreation centers and churches. But design and manufacturing are the main focus of the business. In 2007, MMI Outdoor partnered with Granite Gear to produce a patented backpack frame system. Commercial products are manufactured and imported from China and Vietnam, while military products are manufactured in Puerto Rico by anywhere between 80 and 180 employees, depending on the contract orders. All final inspections are done in the United States. Tents and other products are sold both through commercial retail sources and directly to consumers online. Online sales from Amazon.com are growing thanks to excellent Internet marketing, Cobb says.
“All of our products — whether it is the permethrin-treated tents, ergonomic packs that ease the weight on their backs, concealment technology or easily manipulated accessories — are designed to help our troops do their jobs more safely and effectively.”
Laura Stakelum is a freelance writer for Business Alabama. She lives in Dothan.
Text by Laura Stakelum • Photos by Robert Fouts