June 29, 2016
The president of Simms speaks out on mine threats, dangerous politics, and helping veterans
The President and majority shareholder of Simms Fishing Products, K.C. Walsh, isn't a glad-hander. He's marked with a distinct pensiveness, sincerity, and frankness, the type who'd rather be honest than pleasant.
For 23 years, he's led Simms from a small company with great products to a significant manufacturer of some of the most functional fishing apparel on the market, with an impressive distribution model, and widespread brand appeal. Walsh has made tough business decisions and stuck to them. And while he holds a reputation for being observant and deliberate, he doesn't shy away from complicated and controversial subjects. Quite the contrary, he's got plenty to say, and an impeccable sense of when to say it. He recently took on mining company Tintina Resources in a poignant and balanced opinion piece in the Bozeman Daily Chronicle, outlining the tremendous risks of a proposed exploratory copper mine on the wild and famed Smith River.
"I've floated the Smith about nine times. I now do an annual trip with my kids. I just love this river. It's an example of a fishery that could really get goofed up by mining. We've see what happened on the Animas River in Colorado, and lots of examples in this state," Walsh said. "It's something that Montana has to be very careful about. Now that they've filed the mine application, it's time for all of us to really pick it up and convince the DEQ and the governor to do the right thing."
As a 50-year member of Trout Unlimited, Walsh is well-versed in environmental history, and how our rivers and quality of life are ultimately tied together.
"My move to Montana started when I was 12 years old," Walsh said. "I came up here and spent a better part of a summer on the Bitterroot River with my grandparents. They rented a house. My grandfather was an avid fly fisherman and got me into it at a young age. I just had a terrific time with them up here. In the back of my mind I always had this vision of living in Montana."
But Montana would have to wait.
"When I finished grad school in Pennsylvania [at The Wharton School], I ferried a car out West for a friend and wanted to drive through Bozeman," he said. I drove into this town and thought, 'Oh my God, this is where I want to live.' And instead, I got the booby prize: I wound up taking a job in Los Angeles."
A self-described Calvinist when it comes to work, he found himself burning out on a corporate hamster wheel in Southern California, flying out for work on Sunday nights or Monday mornings and returning Friday evenings.
"I knew that lifestyle wasn't something I wanted," he explained. After six years and with enough savings tucked away to buy a house in a semi-dangerous Los Angeles neighborhood, he knew he wanted a change.
Walsh purchased Simms in 1993, and relocated his young family to Bozeman. He built his company around one core goal: to connect anglers to their best days on the water through quality fishing products.
"All of us at Simms are extremely proud of our heritage. This company started making fishing waders in the mid-80s. We believe in American production," he said. "And I think we're doing our best here in Bozeman to elevate that."
A few years ago, to accommodate growth, the Simms production facility moved to a newly constructed building on the outskirts of Bozeman. It's a spectacular space best described as fly fishing meets Piet Mondrian, and the factory and warehouse continue to expand with the company.
In a large, naturally lit production area, wader sewing stations fill a colorful space that defies every dark, dank notion of "garment production" ever conjured. In view of the decline — perhaps more aptly described as "lingering extinction" — of American production and vocational skills, Simms represents a shining, functional reminder that "Made in America" is still possible. The way Walsh's team produces Simms waders is people-oriented and relies on experience and expertise.
"One of the great luxuries we have at Simms is that we have a great team of people," Walsh said. "Some of our production staff have been with us 20 years and they know more about making these products than anyone else in the world.
"Many of our staff, both in production and management, are keen anglers," said Walsh. Connection is a recurring theme with Walsh, whether it's connecting employees and anglers to water, or his business to major policy issues.
Jim Klug, Director of Operations at Yellow Dog Fly Fishing Adventures, sees Walsh as a businessman with backbone when it comes to taking a stand on issues impacting all of us.
"K.C. isn't afraid to tie his company's reputation, identity, and path to issues that matter to him, to Montanans, and to the vast majority of fly fishermen," said Klug. "What a lot of people don't realize is that there's a risk that goes with taking a stance on certain conservation issues. A lot of business owners won't do it. But if it's your business, you need to put your money where your mouth is."
Walsh's passion for healthy fisheries, and policies that promote public access for all sportsmen, increasingly drive the company's identity.
"I wanted to move Simms forward in such a way that we'd have an impact on fisheries and the environment. I'm very involved personally, and many of our managers are also involved in fisheries organizations," said Walsh.
"We all believe that every new angler or lapsed angler that we get involved in this activity is someone who cares about fish and fresh water. There's a really great synergy between people who love to fish and their passion for the environment. And so, in terms of connecting people to their best days on the water, we're also aiming to connect people to the environment as well."
Walsh sees a critical link between fly fishers and conventional anglers, especially when it comes to political matters. Several years ago, Simms set goals to expand beyond the fly-
fishing world, and built a bridge to conventional sport fishing by producing gear for bass anglers and others.
"The market told us that bass, offshore, and general conventional angling enthusiasts wanted more products from our company. The market informed that decision," he said. "We used to think of bass fishermen as less sophisticated anglers, and fly fishers as the more refined fishing sportsman."
But the experience has been eye-opening for Walsh and his team.
"People who are hardcore tackle enthusiasts are the same folks who enjoy fly fishing," he said.
"At the very pinnacle of our sport — overall angling — you find that most enthusiasts do both conventional gear and fly. Shaw Grigsby is one of the most well-known bass fishermen and one of his favorite things is to fish for tarpon with a fly rod. Marty and Scott Glorvigen are enthusiastic fly fishers for steelhead, but they are really renowned walleye and musky fishermen."
Beyond market demand, Walsh views this "reaching across the aisle," so to speak, as a critical gesture to powerfully tackling issues facing fisheries. He's adamant about the role all anglers must actively assume: "In the political arena, if we're going to move the needle, we've gotta move beyond the fly-fishing community — which represents roughly 4 million anglers — when 40 million fishing licenses are sold in the U.S. each year. We need all 40 million of those people to be engaged in issues like the Pebble Mine or Smith River mine."
Climate change is another area in which Walsh is advocating for greater angler pushback, on all sides of the sport.
"For those of us in the fishing business, we're like agriculturalists. We're dependent on weather conditions. At Simms, our year often depends on snowpack that develops in early November and can be highly variable by geography. So, we've had a couple of really tough years in California and a few better years in the northern Rockies," he offers, briefly illuminating the harsh realities of recent snow and rainfall.
"We're right on the front line of climate change. I don't think anyone in our industry can have their head in the sand on this issue. Fish depend on cool, clear water. And global warming is not conducive to great fishing."
Our national discussions, or rather, total lack of national discussions, on climatological science and a viable action plan deeply concerns him. Many old-school Republicans feel their party's traditional pro-sportsmen platform and dialogue around the environment have been hijacked by impostors abusing the party name.
"What the Tea Partiers have done is a shame," Walsh says, shaking his head in dismay. "I had dinner with Bob Inglis, a former congressman from South Carolina, last month. He's in a very interesting position because he's a conservative Republican who lost office to a Tea Partier because he recognized climate change as an important issue. It's people like Bob who are going to make an impact on this issue in the United States. It has to become a bipartisan concern."
Walsh testified in Helena to voice opposition to limiting public access to lands and water, vehemently stating, "The entire sportfishing industry depends on public lands and access. Access is the number one issue for us right now. Whether it's on waters in Montana, Utah, in the West, or out on the coast, with the marine protected areas. We're a strong supporter of the Utah Stream Access Coalition . . . I just fundamentally feel the best advocates for clean waters are people who love fish."
When it comes to conservation, Walsh has more than stances to offer. Annually, Simms contributes significantly to a list of river conservation groups.
"Our goal right now is to contribute 5 percent of our pretax profits annually. And I'd love to increase that as we get bigger," he said. He expressed great respect for the substantial financial contributions and leadership of Orvis, Patagonia, Costa and other larger companies in the fly-fishing industry: "They could be doing a lot of other things with their excess cash flow, and their commitment is incredible and inspiring to our team."
Warriors in Quiet Waters (WQW), a nonprofit that brings U.S. war veterans to Montana to heal through fly fishing, holds a special place at Simms. This year, the company plans to make a $100,000 cash donation to the veterans group through sales of limited-edition WQW waders.
Simms helps out in other ways by outfitting participating veterans with waders before they head out for a week of fishing.
"Being a partner of WQW since their launch nine years ago, we've outfitted men and women who have experienced things we can't even imagine. Some of these folks haven't left their homes in years, let alone traveled halfway across the country to spend a week fly fishing in Montana," Walsh said. "But to see this group after a one-week period, it's life changing. It's been so fulfilling for us to be part of it. The healing power of fly fishing is amazing."
One of the toughest things about interviewing Walsh is that he will always put his team and the company before himself.
"Probably the most common comment I receive from people walking into this building is, 'You must be so proud of what you've built,'" he said. "I'm always taken aback by that, because I never think of the business in those terms. First off, I don't think it's built yet. I think we're just starting. Second, I haven't built it. It's the team of people here. I'd be nowhere without our great team of people at Simms. We're building. It's not something I built."
Sarah Grigg (sarah-grigg.com) is a writer and editor based in Bozeman, Montana.