Entrepreneur Spotlight: Chinook Medical Gear

First Southwest Bank • March 9, 2020

Unlike many of our entrepreneurs who identify a problem and find the path of entrepreneurship as a tool to address it, Chinook Medical Gear is a wonderful example of how entrepreneurship can find you. Ben Crowder, owner of Chinook Medical Gear discovered this path when he began his journey as Chinook’s sales rep, and many years later now finds himself the owner and CEO. Chinook Medical Gear is a certified Veteran Owned and Native American 8(a) Owned Small Business that“exists to deliver custom medical solutions for pre-hospital care, enabling medical providers to save lives and aid the injured.”From Chinook’s early days of focusing on wilderness medicine, to their focus today on combat medicine, they have developed a specialized line of products in medical trauma supplies primarily for military and law enforcement.

Chinook Medical Gear has been in business for 30 years, and is a great example of a business that moved and found a home in southwest Colorado. Founded by Brad Johnson and Carl Darnell, Chinook Medical Gear became a reality after its mountaineering founders had a chance meeting with Dr. Igor Gamow while climbing Everest. Dr. Gamow was developing a device to treat high altitude sickness through a portable hyperbaric bag. Johnson and Darnell saw a need for the product in the US, asked if they could distribute it, and the Gamow bag is still one of Chinook’s signature products today. Chinook’s founders ran the start-up on the side of their full-time jobs for several years in Vail, and in 2000 moved the company to Durango.

Crowder is the current owner of Chinook, and has been with the company for nearly 11 years. A military veteran, Crowder went to Fort Lewis College in Durango and graduated with a Business Management degree. Crowder fell in love with Durango, and wanted to stay but was struggling to find a job. Chinook was advertising for a sales rep, and after realizing they did combat medicine, Crowder got in touch. As they say – the rest is history. Crowder’s sales rep job quickly progressed into product development, and when Darnell retired in 2015 he offered to sell the company to Crowder and the two other senior managers. Understanding the importance of maintaining the company’s veteran-owned status for its customers, Crowder jumped at the opportunity.

“We weren’t wealthy, and we knew we would need a loan.” said Crowder. “We started looking at conventional loans but we did not have any real estate or assets to back the loan, only customer goodwill. Chinook’s finances were fine but not ‘exciting’, and we weren’t super attractive for a regular business loan. We began to look around and talk to different banks, and quickly realized First Southwest Bank had the expertise on SBA programs. It was a no brainer to go down this route. We then found out that First Southwest Community Fund could provide the gap financing we needed, as we only had a minimum down payment. FSWCF facilitated 95% financing for us, and helped us be able to buy the company.”

Crowder bought out the other two owners, and has seen Chinook go through multiple stages, and overcome many challenges. While a pretty unique business category for Durango, the challenges they have faced echo the challenges we hear from entrepreneurs and small-business owners across sectors in our rural communities. Number one - human capital, and number two - space. Crowder described Durango’s remote location and transient nature creating a tough market for hiring, and the challenges they’ve faced trying to find physical space for Chinook: “I’ve been looking for several years for where I can buy and build” said Crowder. “There is nothing that is the right size, that would work and that’s available. Also it is really expensive to buy and build, it’s a huge obstacle to overcome while we grow our business. Chinook is committed to staying here, we just need the property.”

As a company, Chinook’s story tells the tale of how moving to Durango has helped them grow – with an emphasis from Crowder on the high-quality local mentorship he has received from business owners and coaches, especially Steve Schlagel at Mentoring2 Mastery. Crowder has also worked hard to navigate state and federal programs for the business – from achieving SBA 8A certification which provides mentorship and preference on being awarded government contracts, to locating Chinook in a Hub Zone.

Chinook now employs 25 people in Durango, and has grown 61% since 2016. They are rightly proud of their growth rate, and believe this has come from focusing on developing their employee workforce, and building a solid contracting base. When asked where Crowder would like to see the company in 10 years, he replied “Double the company, double the revenue, and own our own facility in Durango or the surrounding area. I want to grow our contacts, grow our product offerings and eventually sell. I’m in it for the long haul, and want to see it really grow. I want Chinook to be a highly attractive employer in the community.”

Chinook Medical Gear provides emergency medical products to government agencies, military units, contractors, corporations, adventure companies, and individuals from its Durango home-base. FSWCF is looking forward to seeing them continue to grow, save lives, and provide meaningful jobs for the Durango area.