It would be extremely difficult to find someone with better credentials in the outdoor industry than Casey Sheahan. After graduating from Stanford, the 65-year-old started out in the world of journalism, as an editor and publisher of publications like Powder and Cross Country Ski Magazine. He then moved into the retail side of the business world, making stops at Nike, Merrell, Kelty, Keen and Patagonia, where he was the CEO from 2005 to 2014. And in 2017—just as he was beginning to contemplate leaving the office for the river for good—Sheahan became the CEO of Bozeman, Montana-based Simms Fishing Products. Below, Sheahan and I talked about subjects ranging from COVID’s affect on Simms, to the recent flood of new people into the sport of angling, to how he defines “conscious capitalism,” to his favorite species and places to fish.
Tell us about how the pandemic year-and-a-half affected Simms?
As soon as it hit, we thought our numbers would be off by 35%, so we took steps to shore up the company and cut every expense we could. That was March and April of 2020. And then in May of that year, retailers started screaming ‘we need products, we have people coming out of the woodwork!’ From last summer up to today, our revenue has been comping up. In the first four months of this year, we’re up over 40% overall, and our waders are up over 60%. That huge influx of new people into the sport was combined with the people who already had been fishing who just wanted a departure, wanted to get out of the house. It was no-holds-barred. People were just buying. It made sense. Fishing is a sport that requires skill. It gives people a sense of accomplishment and purpose.
You’ve spoken about ‘conscious capitalism’ a lot during your long business career. That phrase can get overused and clichéd and lose its meaning. Define it for me in your words.
Conscious capitalism is a lot of things, like being transparent and honest, and bringing positive energy into all of your interactions. But, at its core, is simply about being nice.
In recent years, the outdoor industry has been getting much more involved in fighting for our natural resources. Should companies go a step further and get involved politically? Should they back candidates, political parties?
I think individuals within companies should do whatever they want. My politics may not be aligned with everyone here at Simms, but I do whatever I want on social media. As a company, we try to fight for issues, like habitat or maintaining stream access, in a nonpartisan way. The access issue in Montana is a big one for me. Some large landowners are trying to get legislation though the state House and Senate that would preclude thirty-year agreements on public access from bridges and roads and the high-water mark of rivers. We are fighting for our customer. Any erosion of that access is bad for our business. We don’t buy into the fact that these issues are always a Republican-Democrat battle. Occasionally, we’ll have a dealer who will tell us to stay out of politics, but that’s generally because they are on the other side of the issue. Brands can help when it comes to these issues. When we attach the Simms name, it can help, and we’re conscious of that.
Your favorite fish?
I’m just back from tarpon fishing in the Florida Keys. That, to me, is just exciting as hell.
Your favorite place to fish?
Northern British Columbia for steelhead. The main stem of the Skeena, the Sustut, the Bulkley. Those rivers are very special.
Tell me a good fishing story.
Maybe 15 years ago, I was fishing a remote BC steelhead river with Lisa Pike, who was then the head of environmental initiatives at Patagonia. She hooked a 15-pound fish, but it broke her fly-line about 75 feet from the hook. We packed up and went upriver and fished for a few hours and worked our way back down. I got back into the run where Lisa had hooked her fish. On one swing, I felt a slight hesitation on my line. I pulled it in, and my fly was attached to some fly line. I did a quick overhand knot and then handed the rod to Lisa and gave the line a little tug and the fish exploded and the reel started screaming. Five minutes later, she landed the fish. Twice hooked. Once caught. That’s fishing.