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KIRKHAM’S: SMALL FAMILY VENTURE BECAME MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR

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Jack Kirkham Sr. nearly had to beg for an $8,000 loan to get his small venture off the ground in 1944.

If only those bankers could have seen how Kirkham's awning business would some day become Kirkham's Outdoor Products, they wouldn't have hesitated in handing over the cash.But who could have known that Kirkham would soon be custom-designing everything from horse blankets to automobile seat belts to covers for intercontinental ballistic missiles?

The biggest question is: Who would have ever guessed that Kirkham would one day invent the Springbar Tent, a revolutionary design that is now available in 20 variations?

Today, Kirkham's - formerly AAA Tent and Awning - is one of the most successful family manufacturing and retail businesses in Utah.

Located at 3125 S. State, South Salt Lake, Kirkham's employs 40. Gross sales in 1989 were over $4 million, four times more than in 1979, when the business moved to its present location.

In its first year, AAA Tent and Awning, a two-man operation in the old Heron Building, 140 E. 200 South, grossed $24,000. A few years later, Kirkham moved the shop to 24 W. 500 South, where business steadily improved until it forced the move.

"This might sound too simple," said Jack Kirkham Jr., "but we went from a canvas shop that had quite a bit of retail merchandise to a full-size retail store with a canvas shop."

The present "shop," however, covers 24,000 square feet and produces thousands of tents a year, from two-man nylon backpacking tents to the canvas modular tents that, given the right quantity of additions, can sleep as many people as ground space will allow.

Kirkham's unabashedly boasts that they make "the best tent in America."

"We're tooting our own horn, but ever since I've seen the tent made, we've done nothing but add to the quality of the materials and workmanship and we've done that to the risk of increasing the cost," he said.

Springbar tents are expensive - a four-person design can run more than $300 - but they carry a 20-year guarantee. The cost of the tents is also attributed to the high price of materials. Kirkham's buys a cotton fabric manufactured overseas according to its specifications. Tent poles and stakes are custom-made in California.

Though tents comprise about a third of total sales, they aren't the only product manufactured at Kirkham's. Seamstresses and sartors also make custom-made outdoor equipment, including cargo bags, fanny packs and protective covers, all of which carry the Kirkham's name.

Jack Kirkham Jr., who oversees the bulk of the business today, won't reveal exact numbers, saying he's a little paranoid about giving competitors any ideas.

But he's not afraid to explain why the business has been more successful than he and his father imagined it would be.

"It's simple stuff: taking care of the person that walks in the door. If that person walks out the door happy, nothing else we do comes close to that."

Though competition in the outdoor products business is fierce and specialized, Kirkham's offers something most companies cannot: factory-direct service.

"Having a factory here makes us a business that is hard to compare to," said Jack Kirkham Jr.

For one thing, a knowledge of manufacturing helps Kirkham's scrutinize the quality of products it purchases from other manufacturers.

And the factory, which makes custom repairs on practically any type of sewn product, is great for customer relations, Jack Kirkham Jr. said.

"If somebody brought in a dining fly (they had bought) from somebody else and a grommet popped out, we would take it back there and pop in a new one.

"That's only a $2 proposition, but we've saved someone a tremendous amount of grief - and they're going to remember that."

In addition to tents and other Kirkham's-produced goods, the store features eight lines of backpacks, two lines of sleeping bags, a dozen brands of shoes and skis, and about 20 brands of outdoor clothing. Specialty items such as topographical maps and lightweight water purifiers can also be found on Kirkham's shelves.

To ensure itself a year-round market, Kirkham's got into the cross-country skiing business about eight years ago.

Despite the large quantity and types of products sold, the Kirkhams say they insist on carrying quality merchandise.

"If something is fashionable but not worth it, we won't sell it. If it's expensive but worth it, we'll sell it. If it's inexpensive but can be of value to a Boy Scout just starting out, we'll carry it."

Kirkham's is committed to keeping the operation local and simple.

"We've had fleeting thoughts of opening other retail stores, but we're here. We have very capable people here. I really feel you can run one store better than two." Though the company hasn't produced a catalog since 1984, Kirkham's is known in small circles outside Utah and does a brisk mail-order business. "We're not in the mail-order business. That's like running another store."

All of this, along with sales employees who are outdoor enthusiasts, helps Kirkham's maintain a varied customer base, from the serious mountaineer to weekend camping families, Jack Kirkham Jr. said.

"And that's exactly where we want to be."