In Harry's Own Words:
"As a kid growing up in a poor immigrant family, I never would have imagined that there were people, lots of them, who go to great lengths to sleep outdoors in the wilderness with no electricity or running water (and find that fun to do). So, how did a guy like me end up heading one of the largest privately-owned outdoor recreational companies in America?"
My dad spent much of his life exiled from Armenia, living in a small mountain village in the Mideast. His focus was on day-to-day survival, and creating a future filled with better opportunities. In the mid-part of the 20th century, my parents immigrated to America.
When I was a small child in the late 1960s, we moved to East Hollywood, California, a stone’s throw from the glamour of the music and film scene up the road. We were a large, close-knit family, always helping extended family members escape the hardships abroad to come to the promise of the US. It seemed like every week my parents were telling me and my siblings that another cousin was coming to stay for a while. “Better make room!” my parents would say, instilling in me the importance of community and sharing what we had.
Harry (third in from left) with his family.
In the 1980s, I was teen with a guitar and a big rock dream. Some Hollywood High School friends and I formed a metal band called Iron Tears. One of these friends was Armen Kouleyan. We rocked big hair, played local clubs, and schemed on how to get a record deal. We had a great time while also honing skills like tenacity, negotiation, and strategic thinking from the hustle on the Sunset Strip.
Living at home, taking college courses, and playing gigs for chump-change was not enough to keep my parents from hassling me about getting a real job. So I jumped at the chance to help my uncle, who had built a business supplying gear to the U.S. military. This opportunity gave me my first taste of the textile industry, as well as satisfaction from feeling like I was helping our country. I actually found myself enjoying all aspects of the business, and also discovered that I had a hidden talent - a keen eye for design.
I soon went on to start my own company in my parents' garage. I called it Prestige Apparel, and focused on producing military and hunting apparel. I was designing, setting up my first factory operations in Vernon, California, and acquiring accounts (all to survive until Iron Tears hit it big, of course).
Harry and Armen rocking out during band rehearsal.
With the rising popularity of maquilas in the late 1980s (companies that allow factories to be largely duty free and tariff-free), border towns transformed into major manufacturing hubs full of promise. Laredo, Texas soon became the largest crossing point between the U.S. and Nuevo Laredo, Mexico. The chance to get into the action there by setting up a lucrative maquiladora was too good to pass up (especially since our music careers hadn't taken off yet). With Iron Tears in the rear-view mirror, I headed south to seek my fortune.
Unplanned business soon came our way due to the start of the Persian Gulf War. Because of government cutbacks on military supplies in the late 80s, the U.S. Armed Forces were suddenly caught short on military apparel. Prestige Apparel was established at this time and able to step up and supply them.
After the war, we continued to produce camouflage apparel for hunting, fishing vests, and even personal flotation devices for watersports. A business opportunity to enter the sleeping bag market presented itself at this time, and I expanded a factory in Mexico so we could produce everything in one location, called Factory de Ararat. Throughout it all, I saw that Armen would make an ideal business partner. I was more of an extroverted salesman and idea guy, and he preferred to stay behind the scenes, run the factory, and manage finances. Together, we decided to launch a new company, called Exxel Outdoors.
Harry at his uncle's business.
A few short years later, we got a big tip that an Alabama sleeping bag operation was shutting down and planning to lay off all of its workers. If we bought it, we could save all of those jobs and be producing quality goods in America. We did just that, and it's a story in itself on the following pages. We soon grew to be the American leaders in sleeping bag production.
Laredo had been good to us during the years we spent there; Armen met his wife Bobbi and we launched our new company. With business thriving in Alabama, and Los Angeles pulling at our heartstrings after years living away, we decided it was time to move back home. We opened a big warehouse and offices in Irwindale, at the east end of L.A. County. Later as our business expanded, we purchased a building in City of Industry, California, to house our corporate offices, showroom, and warehouse.
A look inside the maquiladora, Factory de Ararat, in Nuevo Laredo, Mexico.
We were at the top of our game, supplying mass retailers and sporting goods chains. The only way to grow was up, into the recreational "specialty" world, for people who take camping further - into the backwoods and up the mountain. We got word that American Recreation Products, known for its collection of both mass and specialty outdoor heritage brands in Boulder, Colorado, was up for sale. The brands under the American Rec umbrella had colorfully storied pasts, and we made the decision to acquire the company and bring them back to the glory of their heyday.
The mountain of talent we now had in Boulder made our decision to move our headquarters there an easy one, and the brands' continued upward trajectory has made us proud of our investment. In 2018, we made a mini-leap into the urban packs market as well, through the addition of the HEX brand to our corporate family.
The view across the Haleyville, AL sleeping bag factory.
With success comes responsibility, and we feel fortunate to be in a position where we can give back to our communities. We are proud members of the Conservation Alliance, and make a point to donate gear to the victims of natural disasters whenever possible.
Most recently, Exxel developed the Adventure Armenia project between HEX and HIKEArmenia, which resulted in a curated collection of five pieces that paid homage to my Armenian heritage through design, while also shedding a light on Armenia as a world-class hiking destination. I have no doubt that my father, who spent so much of his early life navigating survival in that mountain village, would be honored to see people from around the world venturing to his homeland to enjoy its natural wonders.
Exxel Outdoors was built on a foundation of grit, hustle, and taken opportunities, along with the love and support of family and friends. In honor of all of our ancestors who had no choice but to survive the outdoors, we will strive to produce gear that brings loved ones together to play and thrive outside. We will continue to honor our mission, and understand that without the efforts of our valued employees and partners, none of this would have ever been possible. From the bottom of our hearts, we thank YOU for being a part of our continued legacy, and we look forward to sharing additional stories of success in the future.
Harry and Armen the day they acquired American Recreation Products.