32
arches
autumn
2013
classmates
nyone who regularly walks the floors of outdoor-equipment trade shows knows what
to expect—booth after booth of hiking, biking, climbing, canoeing, and adventure-
travel equipment that is lighter, cheaper, and higher-tech than the year before. Those
are the prevailing winds of this and many other industries in a society championing
human ingenuity. And yet blowing against the belief that progress continually carries
us toward superior products and superior lifestyles, there are sometimes fascinating
eddies demonstrating that you can also march into the future by holding onto the past.
When you walk the floor of the Outdoor Retailer Show in Salt Lake City, for example, among the
purveyors of ever-techier equipment manufactured offshore sits Chris Benson’s line of traditional, American-
made canoe packs, rucksacks, and flight luggage. The canvas bodies, wax-impregnated waterproofing, solid
brass hardware, and leather straps of these products sold under the Frost River label—a name taken from an
adventurous paddling circuit in the Minnesotan BoundaryWaters—stick out like black dots on white paper.
The path leading Chris to the ownership of Frost River, a company employing 18 people and manu-
facturing more than 200 products, was anything but predictable. At the start of his career, many potential
employers found his major in business and minor in physics an odd blend. While building his credentials
to apply for an M.B.A. program, Chris took an internship at Banner Engineering, a large electronics
manufacturing firm with 800 employees in Minneapolis. What started out as a three-month arrangement
stretched into a 13-year position, and the computer know-how Chris brought to the company at a time
when the Internet was exploding eventually elevated him to the role of marketing director. “Turns out
business and physics was a very good background for working with a high-tech company,” he says.
Marriage and family (three daughters) folded into his time at Banner, but in 2007, when his anes-
thesiologist wife was offered a job in her childhood town of Duluth, the family moved and Chris went
fishing for new opportunities. One of them revealed itself when Chris and a friend-turned-entrepreneur
were investigating the purchase of an industrial machine from Frost River, a financially troubled firm that
was shutting its doors. During the inspection, it was suggested that by thinking a little bigger than one
machine there was a bargain to be netted in buying a business and a brand. Chris thought it over and
before long had himself a company.
Some people, including his wife, thought a measure of lunacy was at work here, but Chris wanted to
challenge assumptions about traditional, American-made products. Although Frost River gear is stitched
from super-sturdy materials and therefore more expensive to make, for the right applications—rucksacks,
canoe packs, flight bags—Chris’ products are nearly indestructible. They are lifetime purchases that actually
look better as they acquire the patina of use. Over the years, that makes them cheaper and greener than
synthetic packs that will be landfilled in less than a decade of hard use.
On the manufacturing side, Chris believed that fostering made-in-America craftsmanship over the
sterile personality of offshore production was a powerful story. He hired back the experienced craftsmen
who had previously assembled the Frost River packs and carried on the tradition of making the goods in
a start-to-finish process rather than through assembly-line production. And he encouraged a team atmo-
sphere among his workers by treating them respectfully and with the attitude that “at the end of it all, life
is mainly about the relationships we make.”
Of course financial viability was still necessary for business success, and during the first few years Chris
was not certain this boat would float. Gradually, though, through clever use of new-world marketing re-
sources such as forums, blogs, and Facebook, Frost River found audiences with whom old-world materials,
durability, and production techniques resonated. The products found outlets around the country and in
25
countries. A few high-profile celebrities like Tom Hanks and Daniel Craig also brought a measure of
distinction to Frost River by purchasing its products.
Business has been good enough that Chris was able to buy a 12,000-square-foot building on Superior
Street in Duluth. The 100-year-old former Minnesota Surplus Store houses the company’s production
facilities and its new retail store, the decor of which, of course, reminds one of the golden age of global
exploration. So Frost River is on the rise. If you try to define why, it might lead you to the conclusion that
you
can
go back to the future. Or is that getting things completely backward? Maybe this is really a case
of going forward to the past. —
Andy Dappen P’15
What we do:
Chris Benson ’95
An old
innovation
a
A couple of Frost River
products: canvas and
leather travel bags con-
structed so tough you’ll
be willing them to your
children, and a tent big
enough to stand up in
Dewey Koshenina/Gamut One Studios