When Eric Hougen launched his motorcycle luggage company in the spare bedroom of his Nederland home in 1992, he didn't imagine that one day his line of products would be sold all over the world.
Today his Wolfman Motorcycle Luggage Company is based on the first floor of the former Longmont Times-Call building at 350 Terry St. Besides being available at more than 150 motorcycle dealers across the U.S., his gear is sold in Australia, Europe, across Asia, Canada, Mexico, Chile and through the Wolfman website.
"We've come a long way from that little room up in Nederland," Hougen said from his office.
Earlier this year Wolfman moved from a space on the east edge of Longmont to its downtown location.
Hougen and his crew make a variety of bags - soft luggage for motorcycle riders. The showroom on Terry Street is lined with black and yellow panniers, wet bags, dry bags, tank bags, saddlebags, tool bags, large duffels and small map pockets. They are designed for every style of motorcyclist: street bikes, cruisers, commuting, weekend rides or full-scale adventures.
Most of his sales are in the adventure market. Those are the riders who go off-road, into the back country; the type of rider that will ride north to Alaska or deep into Mexico for weeks if not months.
The adventure market is the fastest growing segment of the motorcycle industry, according to the Motorcycle Industry Council .
"The offerings from the motorcycle companies have changed, and they have given the industry direction. There are a lot more dual-sport and off road motorcycles available to the consumer today," said Hougen, who began riding dirt bikes when he was 10.
"I think people always wanted to go off road, but years ago if you wanted to go off road you were on a dirt bike, a bike that wasn't street legal. Today that isn't the case."
"Today's adventure bikes and dual sport bikes are street legal, but ready for going off road," he said.
When he started his company in Nederland, Hougen was essentially a one-man crew. He did the designing, the sewing, the selling and the shipping. Eventually he moved his small outfit to Boulder and then to Longmont.
Everything is made in the U.S., and the Colorado State University graduate wouldn't have it any other way.
"As the industry has grown, and the adventure segment, we began being seen as a premium brand. Now the competition has grown, but we've been able to keep up," Hougen said.
"It's difficult manufacturing in the U.S. and being price competitive," he added. "So my designs are more functional than fashionable. Because we have to look at where we put our manufacturing dollars. Do we want all sorts of zippers and add pockets and so on, or do you really want a sturdy bag. I'd rather have a sturdy bag that is simple, with less to go wrong."
That simplicity is known and respected within the industry.
"It's built to a much higher standard," said adventure rider Ian Schmeisser of Atlanta, who writes for Cycle News and Rider Magazine. "Wolfman Luggage is known far and wide in the adventure riding community for its durability and quality design. The gear is clearly the result of many a tough mile of testing, refinement, more testing and talking with customers."
"The practicality of soft luggage over hard bags is great, too. It's lighter, compressible and more flexible for packing odd size items," said Ariel Krawczyk of Anchorage, who leads adventure rides in Alaska.
"It's good looking, waterproof, and sturdy. It's perfect for the Alaska climate."
Today Wolfman has nine full-time staff, and does some production at its headquarters but also uses outside seamstresses and production workers. In January they are bringing their fulfillment services back into the fold.
Wolfman Luggage founder Eric Hougen bought his first sewing machine with money given to him by an aunt. (Lewis Geyer / Staff Photographer)
"My job here as a designer, an innovator, and creator is to change. I'm always changing something. I make the bags more efficient. I change the way we manufacture the gear because we do it all in the U.S., and labor costs are not cheap," he said over the buzzing noise of a sewing machine.
"Our competition goes overseas, to places like Vietnam and China, where people in production are paid a buck or two an hour. So our margins are narrow."
As for the company name, some of the credit goes to his friends at CSU in the 1980s.
"I had hair that was quite long, a big mane of hair. When I was in college people called me Wolfman," he said with a laugh.
"When I trademarked it I spoke with a trademark attorney who was doing the search, and he said 'what does this have to do with Wolfman Jack?' and I said hey, I just make bags. I'm not a radio personality."
The 49-year-old, who still does all the design and pattern work, said he is still learning something every day.
"It's been quite an education. An education I get from customers, industry peers, our employees. I have learned a lot from them."
Vince Winkel: 303-684-5291, firstname.lastname@example.org or twitter.com/vincewinkel