Janine S. Creager
January 19, 2012
A piece of climbing cord and a length of rubber gas-line tubing off a motorcycle engine. Who would have thought that success was to be found in the combination of these two seemingly innocuous materials? Ed Kalbach for one. And as president and CEO of EK Ekcessories, a world leader in outdoor accessories, Kalbach has been bringing innovative products to the market for more than a quarter of a century.
The combination of those two materials resulted in the first ever Cat Strap, a unique and functional eyeglass retainer. By the time Kalbach created the product in the mid-80s, he had already developed Cat Flaps (side panels which snap onto the then-popular cat-eye style sunglasses) and would later add Cat Crap, an anti-fog and lens cleaner. It was a humble beginning to a company that now carries more than 7,000 outdoor accessories in a number of different product lines.
Ed Kalbach grew up in Lancaster, Pennsylvania where he describes himself as a total “motorhead.” He loved cars, sports, skiing, golf and motorcycles. With no desire to attend college, Kalbach worked various jobs before coming West and landing in Logan. The Region’s mountains and skiing caught hold of him in a big way and he ended up a professional ski bum barely surviving on $125 a week.
“One day I decided, ‘I need to do something,’” he recalls. “I had started a small motorcycle shop when I was [back in Pennsylvania]. When I moved out here, I was 22 and opened a motorcycle repair shop.” To this small enterprise he added a ski equipment exchange, and later added sunglasses to his inventory.
“Everyone thought I was an idiot,” he says of the Cat Strap. “What I was really doing was incorporating function into fashion. From there I took all kinds of products [using the same materials].”
The webbing he designed for use with the Cat Strap was later used for everything from lanyards to tie down straps for outdoor equipment. The products and patterns were bright and colorful and became big sellers, allowing the users to look cool, while still serving a valuable function.
But Kalbach didn’t stop there. As times have changed, he has learned to adapt older products to meet current needs. In the post-9/11 era, for instance, his lanyards and identification products are now used in the ever-growing security and safety industry. Products initially intended for people were later redesigned as leashes and collars for pets.
“It keeps us diverse, really sound,” says Kalbach. “If we lose a customer, we have others.”
But EK Eksessories, with its 100 employees and 58,000-square-foot Cache Valley showroom, is about more than just the profit margin. Kalbach admits to “getting more philanthropical in my old age” with donations to the Humane Society, sponsoring the first ever all Sherpa team to Mt. Everest, and working with interns at Utah State University.
As to the future, Ed Kalbach knows that not everything he creates will be a hit, but he isn’t one to rest on past successes.
“I’m a shoot from the hip kind of guy. If you come up with a product,” he advises others, “you’d better get ready to get shut down, turned down, and work your butt off. The bottom line is no one wants to work. It’s not going to be easy even if it‘s the greatest idea on earth … But if you don’t try it, it ain’t going to happen.”