What’s New at Simms?

Everett Johnson
What’s New at Simms?
I was fortunate to make a Montana trip recently during which I was able to visit the Simms folks and facilities at Bozeman. What I saw and what I learned was way more than I expected in either category. You would pretty much have to see it all to believe it but I'm going to do my best to tell you the Simms story.

Simms has always been about fishing. Founder John Simms of Jackson, Wyoming was a noted and respected fly fishing guide. Inventive by nature, John sought commonsense solutions to problems faced by anglers. His first was an elastic cord affixed to fishing glasses and today we call them Croakies. Tired of being wet and cold, John soon turned his attention to wader products, and the rest is history as they say.

From meager beginnings in the early 1980s, the company grew and expanded its product lines. Simms was acquired by passionate angler and entrepreneur K.C. Walsh in 1993 and relocated to Bozeman, partly because he is a fishing nut and also because he loves Montana and always dreamed of living there. In that same year, in a pioneering effort with W.L. Gore & Associates, Inc., Simms began to manufacture waders from GORE-TEX fabric and the face of fishing was changed forever. Simms is currently one of only three companies licensed to use GORE-TEX fabric to make waders, and the only one in the U.S.

Those who have been fishing for more than a few years will recall the disappointment and agony of fishing in rubber waders. John Simms helped pioneer the use of neoprene in the manufacture of waders. When stocking-foot neoprenes made the scene fishermen rejoiced; they were that much better. But good as it was, neoprene was not without its downside. Usually tight and restrictive in all the wrong places, and with moisture trapped inside from physical exertion, waders still had a ways to go not to mention that neoprene waders have an enormous propensity to acquire the scent of a locker room.

I have worn Simms breathable waders and jackets for seven years and have enjoyed excellent service from all my Simms gear. So as I entered the Simms factory I was like a kid in a candy store, eyes bugged out, busting with questions, eager to see and learn. Our first stop was the cutting tables where stacks of GORE-TEX fabric are overlaid with patterns and then skillfully cut the old-fashioned way by hand. GORE-TEX fabric is by no means cheap and great effort is applied to carefully batching components between sizes and styles for greatest yield. Within the G3 Guide wader line alone, there are eighteen stock and four custom size options. The G4 Pro and G4Z lineup includes twenty more, the Headwaters Stockingfoot line has thirteen, and the Women's Headwater Stockingfoot family includes nineteen. And then there's kid's waders. To make the equation more complex, not all styles and sizes are needed in the same quantity. Just try wrapping your brain around that batching problem!

Next was sewing, but before we could observe the process, music began to play and everyone stepped into the aisle, stretching and bending to relieve fatigue. They do this one minute each hour. When the music stopped the work resumed and we were mesmerized as skilled hands guided fabric through the sewing machines. Sewing includes joining pieces of fabric to make bibs and pants as well as joining these parts to make a wader.

Next was die-cutting of bootie components and an explanation of how Simms wader bootie pieces are designed to comply with human anatomy for user comfort. As with the bibs and pant sections, there are a surprising number of steps to joining pieces to make a bootie, and even more to join booties to the pant legs.

Taping and sealing the seams of waders was an amazing operation as well, at least the portions of the processes we were allowed to observe. Much of the machinery and process was designed by Simms engineers, unique and therefore closely guarded intellectual property. After thirty years in the highly-competitive steel forging industry I had no problem with the policy. Actually, I thought it wise.

Now the last thing an angler wants is a pair of leaky waders the first time out, so each pair of Simms waders are leak tested. Here again the process is considered highly proprietary, and while it is explained up to a point, the most valuable secrets are guarded. Suffice to say, Simms have built a reputation founded on quality and performance and individual testing of each pair is part of the process, whether curious visitors are allowed to watch or not.

Amidst all the obvious hustle on the shop floor, I was greatly impressed with the attitude of the workers and the loyalty to the Simms mission they displayed. Back in my industrial career I learned to identify key behavioral characteristics of employees. A happy and motivated workforce could tell you more with their eyes and facial expression in a few seconds than hours of words. I was always amazed at the contrast between surly and unproductive workers and those who labored in better environments. What I saw at Simms was a highly-skilled and motivated force, proud to be part of a team and proud of what they made, perhaps the single greatest reason Simms remains a premier brand and leader in their market. It is no myth that too many American companies disappeared through failure to accomplish this and I offer hearty kudos to all at Simms for remaining at the top of their industry in the face of brisk competition, foreign and domestic.

Further evidence of the commitment of the Simms management to building and maintaining a safe and productive work environment can be found in the special status they have earned with OSHA, the government watchdog agency of workplace safety. Simms is no longer audited in the way other businesses are; in fact, Simms is recognized as exemplary a model for others to follow. Work stations are ergonomically designed for productivity with today's safety as well as tomorrow's employee well-being included.

The "Wall of Shame" or 30-Day Return Display caught my eye. Simms offers an iron-clad over-the-counter 30-day exchange policy for defects in materials and workmanship. Any product so returned is displayed for all to see and critique. Each employee that participates in the part of the manufacturing process that produced the defect is involved in engineering the fix. Though critical in the analysis of the defect, the investigation is purposely not critical of the worker. K.C. Walsh says, "There is too much at stake to waste time pointing fingers at people when it is obvious you need a better process."

Product improvement is a big part of the Simms story and the "front seam" on the pants leg that is part of many of their wader designs deserves discussion. Andy Wunsch, Director of Sales and Service explained it like this, "A wader that is not anatomically correct to the human form will have many folds and ridges of fabric that rub as we move. We see this predominantly in the crotch and upper thigh area. These highly-abraded areas wear quickly and begin leaking long before the service life of the rest of the wader can be fully utilized."

Another great aspect of being a Simms customer is their product service and repair department. For a nominal fee, Simms waders can be returned to the Bozeman factory for "rebuilding" as I like to call it; unless of course the repair technicians might advise that it's time for your waders to be put out to pasture. Patching worn areas and tears, re-taping of seams, replacing booties, and even new suspenders and zippers are part of the offering. Take it from a Simms customer who has used this service; it's almost like getting new waders for fifty bucks.

In order to complete the story of all that's new at Simms I would need to ramble on for several pages and time and space simply do not allow for that. I was blown away with the craftsmanship, all the styles and designs, everything I saw in packaging and even in the warehouse, up to and including being asked to describe what I thought Texas anglers looked for in a pair of waders. There is much in the works at Simms; new wader designs, Simms line of technical fishing and lifestyle clothing, moisture-wicking garments for wearing inside your waders, jackets, hats, even shoes. I will address these in a future article; keep an eye open for it.

Now about the rest of my Montana trip I did not go hunting but I did go fishing I caught rainbows and brookies (they have no reds, specks or flounder) I'm still not worth a flip with a fly rod the folks at Simms are every bit as folksy and hospitable as Texans. Too bad Montana is so far away.