Winter sports isn’t so much an industry as it is a community. To make Innovation and economic sustainability work, friends share insights as they collaborate. Especially now, this inclusivity and the free flow of ideas and viewpoints, not the walled off elitism of years past, are what drives the outdoor business.
Perhaps no outfit encapsulates that spirit more than Seirus Innovation, which is the formal name for what is essentially an indie, family-run company that’s thrived since 1979 because its mission is clear—to make us more comfortable in winter—while doing the right thing by their customers, employees, and partners.
It all started in 1977. That’s when the newlyweds Wendy and Mike Carey decided their honeymoon would be an entire winter spent skiing Tahoe. Wendy bought Mike his first pair of ski boots for Christmas. He loved them, but he was bummed how quickly the soles were wearing down from walking in parking lots and base lodges. He did some research and discovered the damage wasn’t just cosmetic, it was a safety concern—worn boots don’t behave properly in the tight tolerances of releasable bindings. Mike had an inventive streak, and cobbled together some detachable treads for his new boots. Two winters later the couple launched Cat Tracks, a simple accessory that added grip and protection to plastic-soled ski boots.
Almost unheard of at the time, the pair invested in marketing—but also tapped the winter sports world for endorsements. Binding companies asked them to put their company names on the boxes. Ski racers and instructors became early adopters and pushed the product to friends. A family-run business with community ties was born. Today, Seirus makes all manner of innovative products—mostly in the head, hands, and foot warmth departments—for the winter crowd. “It takes a lot to pull off a multi-generational family business,” says 686 Apparel CEO and Seirus colleague Mike West. “Wendy and Mike have a yin and a yang thing going. Mike is the crazy idea guy. Wendy is calm, realistic, and methodical. They complement each other.”
As a bi-racial couple, the Carey’s yin and yang nature also helped them break into what was a lily-white business in 1979 (and there hasn’t been much progress since). They did this through the strength of their personalities. If you watched Mike in his other career—he was perhaps the most respected NFL official of his generation—you already get it. If not, know that he has a presence. “Mike is a charismatic and confident individual,” says Wendy. “He found his way through the world using those skills. He’s also not the type of person to let bigotry or preconceptions get in his way. I’m the oblivious one. I don’t notice the weird looks or comments. But when we couldn’t ignore the prejudice, we always thought that it was the other person’s issue. We were supported by skiers and outdoors people and spaces that were welcoming. We see the exclusivity of the Winter Sports world, whether that was intentional or not, to change this culture we have to be very intentional. It’s rewarding to watch people like our daughter Danica (now Seirus’ Director of Marketing) grow winter outdoors for more people. There are a lot of BIPOC people in the space already, but too many have been segregated off and this needs to be addressed. We need to listen to their voices.”
That community theme drives Seirus. Innovation is a great example. When he crafted those original Cat Tracks for himself, Mike had the advantage of a fresh perspective on winter sports. But he didn’t know it was a viable product until the binding manufacturers and racers supported it. That’s been the story of Seirus ever since. Internally they tap into a team of product designers. Externally, they rely on a steering committee to generate ideas. But the goal is always the same, identify problems and find solutions. Perhaps the best example of that is Seirus’s new Heatwave Mapped Base Layer which launched in 2020. It’s a category that hasn’t seen much innovation. We’ve been choosing between merino wool, polypropylene, or polyester for 30 years. Open to all voices, Seirus heard this and Mike and the team set out to incorporate Heatwave, a lightweight foil on top of hollow fiber polyester, that they’d co-created with a supplier years prior. Heatwave produces heat kinetically (through movement) but also reflects that heat back to the body. In the Base Layer, high wicking materials keep you dry. Mapped areas of Polygiene keep the stank down.
You don’t make these types of forward-thinking products without close connections to the outdoors and your customers. With their head & face protection, Seirus employs magnets to keep the material snapped in place when you need it and open quickly for venting when you want it.. With their Heat Touch gloves, a flexible panel wraps the backs of your hands and fingertips. Push a button and your hands are warm. Seemingly simple innovations, make the world of difference when on the slopes.
It’s a world that, for Seirus, is always expanding. Take their nearly 20-year partnership with the Vail Veterans Program. When Cheryl Jensen founded it in 2004, she (as with most of us) assumed the wars in the Middle East would be short lived. As such, she forecast the need to get injured veterans on snow would soon taper. In the first year, though, they sent an athlete to the Paralympics. In the second year it happened again, as did testimonials about how important adaptive skiing and snowboarding was to this community. The Vail Veterans Program was changing lives. “It was in year three when I realized that we’d be doing this forever,” says Cheryl. “But because so many of our veterans were new not just to skiing, but to winter sports, we needed gear to keep them comfortable. Wendy Carey was the first person I called. She was like, ‘Whatever you need is yours.’ But the biggest thing they’ve given us over the years is their time. Mike has been an inspirational speaker to our group. The fact that he’s black and has his NFL credentials carries a lot of weight with the soldiers and marines we host. They’re often people of color. When another person of color is helping you with your boots, you feel like you’re part of something bigger. The veterans also love the schwag. They see it as a real gift. But it’s the community that stays with them. I recently got an email from one of the veterans that came through 12 years ago. He was getting tattoos on his legs above the amputation points. I asked him why he would do that and he said it was to remember the pain—and to remind himself of the strength he’d rediscovered in himself on snow. Those invisible wounds are harder to overcome. But we’re a family. That’s how it works. And it’s become a family thing with Wendy, Mike, and now Danica.”
Next up for Seirus? A renewed commitment to growing the winter sports community. “As an industry,” says Mike, “we’ve made strides, but we’re nowhere near where we should be in terms of inclusivity. And it’s not just about skin color. There are too many folks that simply can’t afford to drive an hour to the mountains. Moving forward it has to be about access: It’s like when any of us started. Someone introduces you to skiing and you find a way. It will take a concerted effort. Now we have this opportunity to ask ourselves how we can contribute. It’s the same way we approach innovation: identify a problem and find a solution.”
Seirus is an outdoor gear company keeping your whole body warm. Our mission: enable outdoor enthusiasts to enjoy any cold weather activity in the greatest comfort possible, while innovating for a more inclusive and sustainable outdoors. CEO Mike Carey wanted to create a business culture in which collaborative beings flourish.