Organic Climbing, a small company producing high-quality climbing gear founded by Josh Helke, helped save Philipsburg’s tailoring industry from fading. The small town once produced high-end products, including Starter jackets, a favorite of 90s kids, before many manufacturing plants moved overseas.
Organic Climbing was imagined near Price, Utah, founded in Laramie, Wyoming, grown in Minneapolis and reborn, of sorts, in Happy Valley. When Helke brought the company to Philipsburg nearly 15 years ago, the town’s once-thriving businesses had shrunk to a few small tailoring factories doing custom work.
Within a few years, even the few remaining manufacturers were looking to sell gear and go out of business, creating an opportunity for Organic Climbing to absorb their employees and buy their gear. According to Helke, sewing equipment is perhaps one of the few crafts where old equipment is more desirable than new for the authentic and rare functionality of parts to craft quality items.
“Sewing equipment is really special,” Helke said. “There’s stuff from the 1930s or 1960s that’s pretty irreplaceable in the special things they do.”
“People are more than work”
Appreciation for the craft is one of the driving forces behind Helke’s operation. He comes from a family of artists and attaches great importance to skilled trades.
“It’s those skills that – coming from a family of artists like mine – I can’t help but see,” Helke said. “People are more than work.”
Organic Climbing has grown to 31 employees by promoting its men and their skills and by training new team members wishing to develop a profession. Helke learned to sew in his quest to start the business, and he passes that opportunity on to new team members. When the company started, many qualified and experienced people were interested in the opportunities; but the pandemic triggered a mass retirement among employees and the company began to look for new talent. Requirements for candidates ranged from skilled sewing to proficiency with power tools and a willingness to learn.
Today, Organic Climbing trains the next generation in the sewing profession.
“The cool thing for us is that we grew and continue to grow as we watched the twilight years of mass production facilities go, which is expected with globalization; but we managed to grow by specializing,” said Helke. “We don’t make a product that goes to someone else who brands it. … We pay ourselves and our employees to make a product that sells without all the extra hands.
“It allowed us to make a product in the United States and do it at a market price that right now is actually cheaper than a lot of imported products, but still world-class quality. .”
Improving quality through internal innovation
The temptation to outsource overseas still hangs in front of Organic Climbing as a global business, but that’s out of the question for Helke. He has invested heavily in sewing technology to maintain high quality and meet growing demand.
“Even though we have to ship stuff to get here, we don’t import any product,” Helke said. “A lot of our competitors have things made overseas and we don’t, we have them made here.”
Innovative design is at the heart of the Organic Climbing product line, as well as products made by its sister company, Nittany Mountain Works. Dynamic entrepreneurship fuels Helke’s spirit of innovation and its time spent outdoors fuels its creativity, allowing it to stay ahead of other equipment manufacturers.
“We are the company that is copied, we don’t copy,” says Helke. “We are the first on the market with something. We will never take an idea just because it sells for someone else and does.