180s Does a 360

The gear company goes back to its innovative roots with a new spring line.

In Baltimore City, there’s a sports performance apparel company with a staff of athletes and innovators, that looks to dominate the market with its cutting-edge sports technology, and that has developed unique products to keep athletes dry and protected from the elements.

No, not that company. It’s 180s and it’s based right in Fells Point.

If Under Armour is the Goliath of the Maryland sporting-goods scene, 180s barely even counts as the David—but, in the form of its first-ever spring line, being released this month, 180s may have fashioned itself a mighty slingshot.

If you have any knowledge of 180s, it’s likely of the company’s signature behind-the-head ear warmers that keep ears cozy without unsightly hat head. Since the first muffs hit the market in 1995, they’ve been the mainstay of the brand. The warmers account for about $17 million in business annually. With its spring line and new winter technology in the offing, the company wants to double its revenue and break out of its seasonal dependency.

180s has been flying particularly low on the radar lately. Only a sign printed on computer paper alludes to the corporate headquarters near the waterfront. The paint inside the soaring warehouse space is still fresh after the twin disasters of first a fire at neighboring Pazo and then a flood last fall that temporarily displaced the company and led to an impromptu décor update. These are just a few of the speed bumps in the 180s story. An unusually mild winter, an increasingly competitive market, and a shakeup at the top of the company have also been challenges. Which is why this season could make or break the local firm.

The ear warmer that started it all was the brainchild of a Wharton Business School project in 1994 by 180s founders Brian Le Gette and Ron Wilson. The product first sold on QVC and was so popular when it launched that the company could hardly keep up with demand. The profits poured in and enabled 180s to expand into other products. The company also secured contracts with the military, most recently to create a desert combat jacket.

By 2003, 180s was ranked 9th on Inc. magazine’s list of 500 Fastest Growing Private Companies.

“They were super smart, savvy guys who knew how to innovate products and how products were patented,” says Amy Tankersley, vice president of marketing. 180s currently holds 80 product patents or patents pending.

In 2006, 180s was purchased by New York-based private equity and holding company Patriarch Partners. Much of the staff today is as new as the paint on the office walls, including CEO Lester Lee, who joined in 2011. There’s no comment from the current team about how 180s’s uncontrolled growth led the company into Patriarch’s holdings, nor does anyone want to recap the reportedly messy breakup between Le Gette and Wilson. 180s’s current leadership is taking a lesson from the company history, but doesn’t want to dwell on the past.

“The word you hear a lot is passion—passion for who we are, what we’ve done, and what we’re going to do,” says Sue Torralba, 180s marketing manager. “It’s a new day for us and we’re excited to get back to our roots and do what we’ve always been known for. And we’ve got the right team now in place.”

Although its ear warmers appeal to a broad consumer base, 180s has become increasingly interested in performance-based gear that provides common-sense solutions to active people. The Exolite ear warmer, for example, takes the technology to the next level by making it super lightweight for runners. 180s’s pioneering spirit is also visible in its trademarked TecTouch gloves that allow smartphone users to use touchscreens while keeping their hands toasty.

“You name a brand, they have a technical running glove. [TecTouch] is what differentiated them,” says Brian Hirshfeld, owner of Holabird Sports. Unlike many other technical gloves, Hirshfeld notes, the ones made by 180s actually work. His store got the gloves in September last year and sold out at Christmastime.

Now 180s is looking to have the same kind of success with a line called Quantum Cool.

Shawn Pinamonti caused quite a stir when he showed up at October’s Baltimore Marathon wearing flashy, bright orange compression sleeves. A product designer at 180s, Pinamonti is also an avid marathoner. As the leader of one of the pace groups, he had plenty of eyes on him as he sported the product, part of Quantum Cool, the company’s new spring line.

“It’s neat being able to contribute as a designer and as an athlete,” says Pinamonti. Although he only joined 180s six months ago, he helped illustrate the storyboards that developed into the 2012 line of gloves. “It’s cool seeing your stuff being used right away. We have a lot of creative freedom here.”

180s is tapping its inventive wellspring with Quantum Cool. While there are other compression sleeves, these products address the concerns of the warm-weather athlete. In addition to sweat-activated technology that cools the skin up to 3 percent, the fabric has sun protection and anti-odor properties.

The line is heavy on accessories—compression sleeves, wrist and headbands—though there will also be apparel, starting with packable jackets. Staffers like Pinamonti, who is training for his fourth Boston Marathon, were able to wear-test the products, as were athletes from around the U.S., like Idaho-based ultra-endurance cyclist Justin Sparhawk.

A 180s product representative hooked Sparhawk up with Quantum Cool calf and arm sleeves in time for the Hoodoo 500, a grueling 500-mile bicycle race in Utah in August. Sparhawk completed the race in 44 hours.

“When I started out at 7 a.m., it was already 90 degrees,” Sparhawk recalls. “As soon as I started to sweat a bit, I could instantly feel the surface cooling. It was kind of unreal.”

The line is a natural for runners and cyclists, but 180s is also marketing it to its existing outdoorsmen customers. In an exclusive arrangement, famed fisherman Jimmy Houston will be the spokesperson to promote Quantum Cool at Dick’s Sporting Goods.

So now they wait. Consumers don’t buy earmuffs unless it’s cold, so warm winters can decimate sales. Without spring and summer gear to fall back on, 180s couldn’t do much but lick its wounds and wait for a new, cold winter to arrive. But that was then.

“We’ve had a mild winter and our sales reflected that,” Tankersley says. “That was a major concern of the owner, who wanted us to be a year-round business . . . . We’re excited to be more than an ear warmer and glove company.”

The company’s 42 employees are psyched. There’s talk of “rebuilding Team 180s”—amateur athletes who test and market the brand. Currently it’s a team of, well, one—Olympic hopeful freestyle skier Patrick Deneen. There’s hope of bringing back the innovation department once staffed by engineers and scientists. In a press release Lester Lee said: “This is a new 180s with a renewed vision and purpose.” That clean slate has energized 180s staff, almost all of whom are from Baltimore.

“It’s a small company, so there’s a lot of devotion,” says Torralba, who is also a marathon runner. “I can’t emphasize how much passion and excitement is here, especially because a lot of people here are athletes themselves.”

There could be growth ahead when Quantum Heat is introduced in the fall. That line of apparel and accessories will remove moisture, amplify light absorption, and capture body heat to keep athletes warm and dry.

Talented people and a certain nimbleness born of its small size could play in 180s’s favor as it expands into the apparel world dominated by household brand names, like Under Armour, The North Face, and Columbia.

“We are a small player, so we need a reason why we exist, and our point of distinction is technology,” says Tankersley. “Those brands have deeper pockets and years of experience. We are pretty new in this landscape, and it will take time to get a foothold around apparel.”

Tankersley is optimistic that if the company stands by its innovative, performance technology and focuses on the needs of its customer base, 180s will re-establish its niche in the marketplace. And maybe, we’ll one day refer to Baltimore as the home of one sports apparel Goliath and one very relentless David.