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Camping Stove Maker With Newport and Dartmouth Ties Takes Next Step; Company Bought for $16 Million

Lebanon — Almost a dozen years ago, cousins Dwight Aspinwall, of Hanover, and Perry Dowst, of Weare, N.H., believed strongly enough in their good idea for a lightweight camping stove to roll the dice, invest their savings and start a business. It went well, and in November, the gamble paid off.

That’s when Johnson Outdoors Inc., a Racine, Wis.-based, Nasdaq-traded company, purchased Jetboil Inc. for $16 million, completing a typical cycle for a startup and putting the Manchester-based company with its roots in the Upper Valley on the way to further expansion.

“One of the things that we’re proudest of is proving that we could build a global business with New Hampshire-based manufacturing and locally sourced materials,” Dowst said last week. “I wasn’t sure in the beginning that we could do that, but we did, and it was fun when we sold our first products made in New Hampshire to China.”

Dowst is now in his early 50s and will remain with company as a special adviser, developing new products for Jetboil, he said, noting that Johnson Outdoors is committed to continuing the New Hampshire connection.

Jetboil will become an important addition to Johnson and will help the company “leverage growth in Canadian and international markets,” said Bill Kelly, group vice president of Johnson’s outdoor gear division.

Johnson plans to continue operating Jetboil in Manchester’s Millyard complex and to retain its staff, which varies between 40 and 50 employees depending on the season. Dowst remaining with Johnson also is a key part of the transition, Kelly said. “We’re really excited to keep Perry with us. We think he’s an important part of the future development of the company.”

In a 10-K Securities and Exchange Commission filing last week, Johnson, which had annual sales of more than $412 million this fiscal year, said it anticipates Jetboil will “contribute approximately $10 million of sales and $1.5 million of operating profits to fiscal 2013 results.” Last week, Johnson stock, which trades under the symbol JOUT, was selling near the top range of its 52-week high of $21.80 per share with an average three-month volume of 17,740 shares.

“They (Dowst and Aspinwall) did it right from the start to the finish,” said Gregg E. Fairbrothers, the director of the Dartmouth Entrepreneurial Network at Dartmouth College.

“It’s never perfect when you’re starting a business, and they didn’t have any lucky breaks or great technical breakthroughs, but they just stuck to fundamentals — blocking and tackling — and didn’t fumble the ball. That’s how teams win championships, and they did,” said Fairbrothers, who advised and assisted Jetboil in the beginning stages of the company.

The idea for Jetboil started moving to fruition in 2001 after the cousins renewed a discussion about the need for a lightweight stove they had earlier following a backpacking and camping trip, Dowst said.

In January 2001, Aspinwall, who graduated from Dartmouth in 1984 with a computer science degree, and Dowst, who graduated from Yale in 1983 with a mechanical engineering degree, were out of work and looking for something to do. Aspinwall had just left a software startup after it was acquired by Microsoft, and Dowst was doing consulting in New Hampshire after spending 10 years in product development with Gillette in Boston.

“We knew well from our backpacking experience that cooking stoves were the least friendly and fun part of the trip, and we thought we had a good idea for a lightweight stove,” Dowst said. They used $70,000 of their savings and money from friends and family to get started. They worked in their garages and basements in Hanover and Weare and developed a prototype. Then they started “naively” looking for major investors.

“It was just after the dotcom bubble burst. We were seeking $1 million and thought everybody would be pulling their money out of the market and would invest with us. It wasn’t that easy,” he said.

But they persisted. They took their prototype to Eastern Mountain Sports, which is headquartered in Peterborough, N.H. They got an audience with company officials and came back with an order 3,000 stoves. That’s all it took for a group of angle investors led by Hanover resident Dick Green, an outdoors enthusiast, to come up with the needed capital in April 2003, Dowst said.

Green, who couldn’t be reached for comment last week, took a role with the company, serving as a director and providing invaluable advice, Dowst said.

Jetboil set up operations in a 5,000-square-foot space in the closed Dorr Woolen Mill on Route 11 in Guild, outside of Newport. After developing a few more prototypes, Dowst and Aspinwall attended a trade show in Salt Lake City in the summer of 2003 and came back with orders for the following spring.

“We had three desk set up in this big, empty warehouse and a fax machine on a table. The fax didn’t stop running constantly for a month, and by October, we had 20,000 orders. That was a little bit scary, because we still had to figure out how to make them. We hadn’t quite lined up all our suppliers and worked out all the details of our manufacturing system,” Dowst said.

In 2006, Jetboil moved from Guild to Manchester to be nearer a larger labor pool and better transportation routes.

Aspinwall stepped down in 2006 from an active position in the day-to-day operation of the business but remained on the board of directors, Dowst said.

The sale to Johnson was in keeping with Jetboil’s business plan, Dowst said. “We said when we brought in the investors that we needed to take five to seven years to return their investment. We were a little optimistic, but this sale completes the startup cycle for us. It’s what we planned and pretty typical.”

Dowst is still hiking and recently returned from an overnight outing with Jetboil co-workers near Franconia Notch, N.H.

“We cooked our morning coffee on a Jetboil Flash stove,” he said.

Warren Johnston could be reached at wjohnston@vnews.com or 603-727-3216.