HOW IT ALL STARTED
How It All Started
Ulrich Dausien and the Beginnings of Jack Wolfskin
From flea market trader to large-scale manufacturer: Ulrich Dausien has built one of the largest outdoor companies in Europe. Key to his success was a great deal of courage and the right instinct for what his customers wanted.
To tell the story of how Jack Wolfskin began, we have to go back a few years. It was the late 1970s, and Ulrich Dausien—a political activist, squatter, business student, and former boy scout—could regularly be spotted selling Palestinian keffiyehs and second-hand stereos at the flea market by Frankfurt’s Eiserner Steg bridge. Dausien had initially opened his market stall to help fund his studies, but business was going better than expected, and before long, he had saved his first 10,000 Deutschmarks.
Timing and a Chance Encounter
As with most success stories, two factors played an important role in the genesis of Jack Wolfskin: right timing and a chance encounter. In the 1970s, there was a high level of political engagement among Frankfurt’s students, who held regular anti-establishment, pro-peace rallies. Meanwhile, the environmental movement was becoming an increasingly powerful political force. Curious young people who wanted to experience freedom would hitchhike across Germany or explore Europe via Interrail. But Dausien, who also loved traveling, noticed that the German market left a lot to be desired when it came to backpacking equipment.
“At that time, there was nothing on the German market for our demographic. And, of course, when there’s a gap in the market, it soaks up anything that comes along.”
In 1977, Dausien had a chance encounter in Nuremberg, where he helped out at a hunting exhibition. It was here that he met Robin Hsu. Hsu, who was from Taiwan, had mistakenly set up a stand at the IWA hunting exhibition, thinking that it was a sports trade show, the Internationale Fachmesse für Sportartikel.
In those days, hunting was all about low noise gear made of loden and wool in muted colors, so Hsu stuck out like a sore thumb with his rustling yellow nylon ponchos and bright sleeping bags. But Dausien immediately spotted the potential of Hsu’s products and bought the entire range with the money he had saved from his market stall.
Calling all Vacationers
From his room in a flat-share back in Frankfurt, Dausien sold the innovative gear under the name “Hobbyt.”
He advertised the products by making flyers, copying them in a print shop, and distributing them around the university. “Calling all vacationers,” the leaflet said. “When it comes to backpacks, tents, sleeping bags, etc., we are at the mercy of the prices and product ranges offered by department stores and sports shops. Here’s the alternative!” The products sold like hotcakes, and shortly after Dausien opened his first outdoor store, naming it after his nickname as a Scout: Sine.
By 1981, Sine had become a franchise with 13 stores. At this point, Dausien decided to launch his own brand; he wanted to create higher-quality products, have more of a say in product development, and better respond to his customers’ needs.
“I’ve found that my customers are willing to pay much higher prices than I thought. When we started out, our prices were very low, but people were willing to spend 250 Deutschmarks on a jacket. Previously, I’d always thought that would be too expensive.”
An Encounter with a Bear
Dausien had hit upon the idea for Jack Wolfskin, but the brand still didn’t have a name. A trip to Alaska, where he and a few friends planned to retrace the footsteps of the author Jack London, would change this. One day, the troop of adventurers caught a huge salmon and barbecued it. Unfortunately, the smell lured a black bear into their camp. As the bear grabbed his share of the fish, it pawed Dausien on the forehead, injuring him.
A few days later, the friends sat around the campfire and began brainstorming ideas for the new brand name. While the encounter with the bear had made an impression on all of them, they agreed that a wolf would better embody the brand’s values. Wolfskin would be more appropriate, they felt. Dausien and his friends borrowed the first name from their hero, Jack London, and Jack Wolfskin was born.
“I was looking for a name that sounded gritty, strong, and worked internationally. I had lots of criteria, but it had to be a name that would work in all the major languages. I didn’t want the Pajero problem.”
“While I was studying marketing, it became clear that you can only achieve real success if you create and develop your own brands.”
Becoming a Global Brand
Together with his Sine staff and outdoor friends, Dausien continued developing the brand by putting products to the test in the real world and improving them. From the start, the brand was committed to developing technological innovations and having the courage to try new ideas.
Jack Wolfskin’s success was a testament to the effectiveness of Dausien’s approach. The company kept growing. Ten years after its founding, annual sales had reached tens of millions of Deutschmarks, yet Dausien recognized that there was still potential for tremendous growth. He also realized that he wouldn’t be able to finance rapid growth on his own, so in 1991 he went looking for an investor. What he ended up finding, however, was a buyer: the US group Johnson Outdoors wanted to acquire the entire company. Dausien was taken aback by the group’s offer: “I’d never have thought my company could be worth so much.” Dausien realized that Jack Wolfskin now had the opportunity to become a global brand—but without him at the helm.
“Ultimately, the company was more important to me than being able to say, ‘It’s mine.’”
Jack Wolfskin is now owned by Callaway Golf and continues to be one of the largest global outdoor manufacturers. The products are sold in more than 4,000 retailers and over 500 Jack Wolfskin stores across more than 40 countries.