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A “WHY?” Cordova vs Pelican Coolers Comparison

Written by: Gentry Jensen

I had the privilege of serving in America’s Armed Forces in my younger days and, over the course of multiple workups and deployments to parts of the world no one wants to visit on vacation, learned a fair bit about which pieces of gear could be relied on when things went sideways. From the Arctic to the Arabian Peninsula, Pelican hard cases never let me or those I was fortunate enough to work with down. Throw ‘em out the back of the helo, bury ‘em at the bottom of the Zodiac - it didn’t matter. The cases performed as required. I STILL have cases from those days and they’re STILL holding up.

I’ve followed Pelican for decades now, through my transition into civilian life and as I’ve learned about product development and manufacturing. When I saw Pelican moving into mobile phone cases and then coolers, I was interested. The brand extensions away from the core product of protective cases were logical (it’s not like Levi’s trying to sell suits) and should have been great growth channels, but they weren’t/aren’t. My interest has since turned to disappointment.

For years, I’ve wondered why their product extensions didn’t enjoy the same broad market acceptance their original hard cases did. So I dug in and did some research. At the risk of coming across as an armchair quarterback, here’s my conclusion:

When it Comes to Cooler Quality, The “Why” Matters

Cordova Outdoors is a veteran-owned company. One of the hard truths of military operations is that it takes an incredible amount of work to keep things simple. If you don’t put in that training and forethought to eliminate everything extraneous, what should just be another SNAFU, will get FUBARed real quick.

Good People Making Great Coolers

Cordova Outdoors’ motto is “Good people making great coolers.” Making exceptional hard coolers and soft coolers iswhy we exist and what we’re about. We’re a USA-based outdoor equipment manufacturing company. We’re also a small business, and so admittedly it’s easier at our size to make sure we’re all on the same page with the “Why”. We have it on the back of our company t-shirts, displayed on the walls of our Worldwide Headquarters (and only facility), and our production team personifies it. We all show up at the same place for work every day, in Idaho’s Treasure Valley, to do the best we can, and do it a little better than yesterday.

Pelican’s “why” for making coolers is a little too obviously “Because the guys who write the checks think we can”. Private equity investment can be a blessing, a curse, or anything in between. One thing private equity money is almost always NOT, is patient. Behrman Capital, based in Midtown Manhattan, held their equity investment in Pelican for 17 years. That’s several fund lifetimes, and about FIVE TIMES the average PE holding period. On top of that, when they did sell in 2021 the buyer was… ANOTHER PE fund: Platinum Equity, based in Beverly Hills. Why? Because the business strategy wasn’t clear, and so neither was the path to exiting the investment at a premium.

What do financial engineers in NYC and LA know about equipment cases built to take a beating? I honestly can’t answer that question, but I don’t think they use that gear on a regular basis. What do they know about consumer electronics accessories or outdoor recreational gear and how those markets relate to Pelican’s core products? Your guess is as good as mine. From an analytical perspective, it made sense to someone to try and manufacture and market gear to all three markets. In reality, it has become more of a jack of all trades, master of one (their hard cases are still great).

In their defense, Pelican is not the only company to attempt what at first blush seems like a logical brand extension. OtterBox, arguably the leader in rugged phone cases, made a run at building hard coolers too before realizing there was more to it than meets the eye and retreating back to their core business.

When You Know The “Why” You Can Bear Almost Any “How.” - Nietzsche

Bet you didn’t expect a quote from Nietzsche in your “what’s great about Cordova Outdoors gear” blog this week, did you?! Boom. But think on it, because we have.

The reason I was prepared to endure harsh conditions in the military is because I knew that’s what it took to a) find out more about myself and what I’m capable of, b) to live up to the oath I had taken and, c) do my admittedly small part, but a part nonetheless, in protecting the beautiful idea and chaotic reality that is America.

At Cordova Outdoors, we know our “Why.” We exist to enable Good People to Make Great Coolers. Collectively, we’re able to achieve more than we could individually. Would it be easier if we had private equity funding, outsourced our manufacturing to Asia, and leveraged an existing brand with a reputation for quality in another industry? Maybe? Would it be true to who we are and why we exist? No. No, it would not.

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