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About Utah: Company founder has come a long way from living in a snow cave

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SALT LAKE CITY — The venture capitalist had no idea what he was up against.

Attracted by the consistent track record of the Salt Lake-based outdoor clothing company Kühl — 37 percent yearly growth the last eight years — the financier called owner Kevin Boyle to talk about what it would take to buy the business.

Boyle told him it wasn’t for sale.

Assuming that was just the beginning of their negotiation, the capitalist said, “OK, name your price.”

To which Boyle replied, sorry, not at any price.

So much for trying to buy a company from a man who lived in a snow cave shortly after he first moved to Utah when he was 18 years old, aspiring to ski at least a hundred days and sort the rest out after that.

• • •

It’s all about the lifestyle, Boyle will tell you. He’s sitting in the cafeteria at Kühl’s company headquarters on the west side of the Salt Lake Valley, where master chef Mike Osten, a fellow skier he met a few years ago riding the lift, whips up lunch every day for Kühl’s 60 employees. It’s the ninth location for the company since it began 30 years ago in the basement of the house in Emigration Canyon Boyle shared with his brother, Jay, and Conrad Anker — yes, that Conrad Anker, back before he became one of the world’s most famous mountaineers.

That was in 1986, when the Boyle brothers and Anker decided to chip in $2,000 apiece and buy into a little ski hat company beloved by powder-hounds called Alfwear, founded by John “Alf” Engwall.

“I had $2,300 to my name; it was basically everything I had,” recalls Kevin.

At that, it was a veritable gold mine compared to what was in his wallet when he came to Utah from Pennsylvania as a teenager in 1982, lured by the Greatest Snow on Earth.

He skied by day and waited tables by night at the Alpenglow at Alta, but when he lost that job he was a tad light on rent money. So he and a friend made a snow cave close to the lifts.

They would warm up their sleeping bags in the dryers in the Peruvian Lodge’s laundry room at night before heading to the cave. “It was really quite comfortable,” Kevin remembers.

Cave life soon yielded to more civilized dwellings, eventually landing Kevin at the house in Emigration Canyon after Jay Boyle emigrated to Utah and found work at Holubar, a mountaineering shop, where he became friends with his co-worker, Anker.

Shortly after the Boyle brothers and Anker bought into Alfwear, Alf Engwall died in a car accident. The three partners ran the hat company for three years, at which point Kevin bought out his brother, who was off to Arizona to get his MBA, and Anker, who was ready to launch his legendary climbing career.

Suddenly, Kevin, a man who never spent a day in business school, was on his own.

In short order, he designed an award-winning fleece jacket, followed by more outerwear, transformed the business from a hat company to a clothing company, changed the name to Kühl — which means Cool in German — and started the methodical ascent to where the company is now: one of the largest privately owned businesses in the outdoor industry, with accounts throughout the world, including 990 in the United States alone (REI is the biggest customer), and a production line that includes no less than 300 styles of outdoor wear per season.

Through all the growth, Boyle has never let go of the steering wheel. Kühl isn’t a company, he’ll tell you, it’s a culture. Besides the all-day chef service, the office/warehouse includes a workout gym, locker rooms large enough so employees can store the bikes they ride to work, and four Ski Utah gold passes anyone in the company can reserve during ski season. If someone wants to play during the day and work during the evening, no problem.

Many of Kühl’s employees have been around almost as long as the founder. The CEO, Nate Fay, started in the shipping department when he was 16.

Besides employee care and retention, Kühl’s goal, says Kevin, is to “make great product. How many clothes do you own? How many do you wear? We want to be the ones you wear.”

Another goal is to “protect our retailers.” He will not sell on Amazon, has contracts with only two online retailers (“why undercut your loyal buyers?”), and has no problem saying no to retailers he doesn’t see as being compatible to the “Born in the Mountains” culture of the company.

It should come as no surprise that the headquarters is exceptionally green — no paper towels anywhere, LED lighting throughout and so forth — that dogs are welcome, and that the pay for women is the same as men, no exceptions.

At 52, Kevin Boyle finds himself in the enviable position of being coveted by others but comfortable where he is.

“We’re not just trying to make money,” he says.

Although he no longer lives in a cave.

Lee Benson's About Utah column runs Mondays. Email: benson@deseretnews.com