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Posted: March 01, 2013

40 at 40

Through booms, busts, recessions and a digital revolution, here are 40 Colorado companies still going strong after four decades – or more

Gigi Sukin

In 1952, Asher “Dick” Kelty began producing the first backpacks with hand-welded aluminum frames, hip belts made from recycled seatbelts and sleeping bags to appeal to the growing population of in-staters and visitors interested in adventuring. Such innovations made it possible for backpackers to move comfortably and efficiently, once again unlocking available resources for recreation in new and exciting ways.

“Being close to the Rocky Mountains both inspires us and allows us to test, evaluate and modify our designs, helping us to create some of the best outdoor gear available,” said the brand’s PR manager, Scott Kaier.

The 1930s and ’40s saw the introduction of the ski industry in Colorado, with the establishment of resorts such as Arapahoe Basin. When Aspen Skiing Co. was developed by Chicago industrialist Paepcke in 1946, he envisioned a comprehensive metamorphosis of “mind, body and spirit,” according to director of public relations at Aspen Skiing Co., Jeff Hanle.

Aspen has recently embraced sustainability – approving a $5.4 million project to capture methane waste from the Oxbow Elk Creek Mine in nearby Somerset and convert it into electricity. The project will keep nearly 96,000 tons of carbon dioxide out of the atmosphere and simultaneously generate roughly three megawatts of power each year – four times the amount used by the Aspen/Snowmass resorts.

“If we take care of the product – which in our case is the snow and the wide open space outdoors – we can stay in business forever,” said Hanle.

Vail Associates began its operations in 1962; 10 years later, Telluride Ski Resort installed its first ski lift and has since amplified the sophistication of the ski bum scene with a heavy emphasis on culture and fine dining.

For skiing closer to major populations on the Front Range, Eldora Mountain Resort has provided powder hounds with its piece of paradise for the last 50 years. The resort’s marketing photographer, John Wahl – who, at just 10 years old skied Eldora on its opening day – attributes the resort’s success to its investment in state-of-the-art snow making technology, a lack of ego among management, staff and skiers alike and authentic love of the mountain.

Antique hubs for passers-by throughout the state include Fort Collins’ family-run, boutique style Armstrong Hotel, where guests have hung their hats for nearly nine decades; and 47-year-old tourist attraction Ellis Ranch, which takes advantage of the Centennial State’s natural beauty.

Still, more historical than most, Henry H. “Shorty Scout” Zietz – a member of the hard-riding, straight-shooting band of cowboys that included Buffalo Bill – founded The Buckhorn Exchange in 1893, providing hearty meals to cattlemen, miners, railroad builders and silver barons. While culinary trends may come and go and the restaurant business tends to be a risky venture, The Buckhorn remains in its original premises, proudly displaying its post-Prohibition Colorado Liquor License No. 1.

“It’s authentic. The decorations and the theme make it a genuine destination,” said Sid Levin, a managing partner of the restaurant’s ownership group for the last 35 years.

Carnivores are surrounded by a collection of taxidermy affixed to the walls and enjoy a wide variety of available game, many dishes of which have been featured on The Food Network.
In light of the hijinks and contrived contests that have replaced the careful ingredient lists and attention to detail of former food stars such as Julia Child, “TV cooking shows [have emphasized] home entertainment, broadening the awareness of our products,” said Jim Hewitt, a part owner of Fort Collins’ The Cupboard, which opened in 1972.

Regardless of restaurants or home kitchens, Colorado’s available culinary fare has come leaps and bounds from its origins – when mining took precedence and some doubted the possibility of salvageable agriculture in the state.

“Colorado has fostered a successful food and beverage industry…” said Steve Carley, chief executive officer with Red Robin Gourmet Burgers. Since relocating from Washington State, the 44-year-old franchised burger biz has called Greenwood Village home. Carley spoke of the centralized setting, educated workforce and diversified economy – attractive attributes that encouraged the Robin to fly the coup in 1996. Of the company’s four core values, promoting “fun” and “energy” seem to aptly align with the state’s “recreational atmosphere,” accordingly to Carley.

Considering the countless advances in farming and agriculture that have made the food business what we’ve come to recognize today, government regulations have substantially impacted the production of products that fill grocery store shelves and restaurant tables. Since 1953, Henderson-based Birko has delivered its food safety savvy for use in federally inspected meat plants, becoming a leader in the industry. With a willingness to adopt new technologies, the company has cut costs and continually increased its service capabilities.
Amid ever-changing food trends and Coloradans’ health-conscious tendencies, Canino’s Sausage Co. Inc., has proudly provided its natural products for more than 85 years.

“At the turn of the century, when many Italian immigrants were settling in Denver, Old World family recipes were treasured heirlooms,” said the company’s current owner, Diana Payne.
“Ideas and innovations that are embraced by forward-thinking Colorado consumers quickly spread and are adopted by consumers nationwide,” added Jennifer Stolte, senior director of marketing for Boulder-based Celestial Seasonings.

On the Horizon …

Sometimes we roll our eyes at old-timers, dismissing their wisdom as no longer relevant. As the pace of change has accelerated, we often look to the lead of confident and youthful risk-takers, hanging on their charisma, rather than time-tested experience.

Over the last decade, Colorado has been likened to California, with its influx of tech-savvy start-ups. The inherent optimism of this newness is romanticized, and sometimes rightfully so. Yet, what if we build an inclusive community of industry veterans and young entrepreneurs willing to keep our state’s economic system moving, looking forward while recalling what got us here in the first place?

“By nurturing our ecosystem of startups and longstanding businesses, we have the ability to capitalize, to compete nationally and globally,” said Hancock.

What is exceptional about Colorado is its confluence of people and geography, which creates a lifestyle-driven location to both live and work.

“We will not be relevant unless we connect,” Hancock said.

And as history indicates, connections have revolutionized Colorado.

Rising from the Wild West, the people and institutions of our state have been galvanized by the prospect of gold and the backdrop of the Rockies. With 40 candles glistening back at us, we wish for ColoradoBiz and the businesses of Colorado to strike a balance between wisdom and innovation, risk and caution, continuity and originality, creation and recreation – to strike gold in the Centennial State.

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Gigi Sukin is an Associate Editor at ColoradoBiz. She can be reached at gsukin@cobizmag.com.

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