For almost three decades, Traeger Grills was a company that relied primarily on word of mouth to survive. People would talk with their neighbors from yard to yard while grilling and that’s how knowledge of the product spread.
But when Jeremy Andrus became the CEO in 2014, things started to change. Since then, Traeger has gone from a small, local business to a global one, and has increased its annual sales almost six-fold.
“Traeger is a 30-year-old brand, which is amazing, because most of the world has not heard of us yet,” Andrus said. “I got a private equity group together, looking for a business to buy. I found this little grill business based up in Oregon and, at first, I didn’t really think anything of it. I looked at it and thought, it’s just a grill business! What a boring category! A grill is just bent steel.”
But when Andrus saw the spark in the eyes of Traeger customers, he knew he had something special.
“I went [to Oregon] to do due diligence, like you do on any business,” he said. “I remember the first person I sat with. We’re sitting in a conference room, and I’m taking notes, and this guy says, ‘My Traeger changed my life.’ I stopped, put my pencil down, and asked him to say that one more time. I was shocked that this guy was saying this about a grill. I thought to myself, ‘There’s something magical about this business.’
“And that is the point at which I realized there was a huge disruption opportunity based on consumers’ existing love of the product. The last major innovation in this industry had been in 1976. There was something exceptional about this particular grill. It needed its story told.”
The game-changer himself
Andrus is a friendly, self-assured guy with a mop of dark brown hair, who took Skullcandy from annual sales of under $1 million to almost $300 million, and an IPO.
He left Skullcandy in 2013 to become an entrepreneur-in-residence at Solamere Capital, and then, he found Traeger. He’s an expert in finding the key differences in a product, transforming just another consumer purchase to an all-encompassing lifestyle.
“There are very few consumer products in this world that people can say changed their lives,” Andrus said. “When I found Traeger and had this experience, I realized there was something magical there that we needed to figure out.’”
Once Andrus joined the company, he realized there was work to be done.
“I sat down with the CFO and we started working on next year’s budget,” he said. “It was $100 million even. He just pulled that number out of thin air—that’s an insight into how much data we actually had. We decided to shut down 42 stores, so we didn’t grow in the first 18 months.”
Firing up the business of grilling
“It had been a long time since the grilling industry had seen innovation, and from a brand perspective, no one was doing anything loud, irreverent, or fun,” Andrus said. “We did a lot of consumer research, and it boiled down to one simple thing: experience.
“In the world of consumer products, you make something, you innovate, and you sell it—but it’s so competitive. In the end, it’s not the product that sells. What sells is an experience that makes people feel good. What most people love about grilling is that it’s an activity—it’s not just cooking and eating. It’s a recreational break from the craziness in your life.”
Under Andrus’s direction, Traeger now makes lifestyle promotion a top priority. On social media, their website, and through innovative, consumer-tested video and grill production, they bolster community by sharing hundreds of Traeger-centric recipes every year and encouraging participation through various hashtags.
They’ve created Traeger Outdoors, an offshoot of their main website, where Traeger grill owners are encouraged to “take [their] versatile grill anywhere adventures lie … take your Traeger to your next camp, tailgate, or trip to the lake, and join the Wood Fired Revolution,” and to share photo documentation of their culinary creations in nature and at home.
The Traeger Grill Owners group on Facebook averages upwards of 10 posts a day and has 70,000 members who bond over all the delicious things they make on these grills. As one fan wrote online, after purchasing their second Traeger grill to keep at their cabin: “There’s nothing like that aromatic smoke wafting amongst the pine trees.”
The data difference
Andrus had a lot of information to sift through. “We bought a business that had a very dated ERP system that was not serviceable,” he said. “When I was looking for a report, I would have to go to my CFO, and it would be at least a week before I got that information. By the way, if it takes a CEO a week to get a report, you can forget about it for everyone else.”
Crafting the perfect representation of the Traeger culture was an intricate process. The company reached out to grill owners to find out their dream grill specifications—what features they wished their existing grills had.
They also surveyed chefs and pit masters, and then had a team of engineers actualize those requests in a new model. They track creative success around social media and engagement, and experiment with different interactive communities and activities surrounding the grilling lifestyle.
“Data drives decision-making in our business,” Andrus said. “Combining a data-driven culture with creativity is so important throughout the entire company. As the CEO, I use data. I have to spend my time on vision and culture and people, but I can’t be disconnected from what’s going on in my business, either. I can’t hold people accountable if I don’t know what’s going on.
“If companies are willing to invest in a thoughtful process around data, it not only makes them better at making decisions, but it frees up time to actually drive the business.
“For example, my chief supply chain officer has probably been in communication with me three times by 10 a.m.—looking at cost and gross margin trends, customer service inbound calls, types of problems, etc. He tells me we can catch a product issue in one day that otherwise could have taken us months to catch. Let’s say 20 people call in one day about a specific failure with a product we just launched. That could easily get buried across the thousand SKUs that we sell. But using data correctly, we can catch it preemptively.
“There was some skepticism and pushback internally at first [about utilizing data]. This was a team that did profess to want more data, but they hadn’t taken the time to configure their dashboards to be helpful. I started to view my data and asked the CFO for a way to figure out if people in the company were actually looking at theirs. I ended up publishing usage in the company—like I published sales, sales quotas, and performance—and it embarrassed some people. So they had to start to open it, just so that they could make sure the next time I published, they were on there.”
From data, Traeger gathered that while many people love to grill, slow-smoking a brisket can suck up an entire day—eight hours or more. They wanted to find a way to allow people to have freedom around that long process.
“We developed IP that would allow us to connect a grill to the cloud to your phone,” Andrus said. “That’s unique to Traeger.”
What’s next for Traeger
Andrus is excited and confident about the future of the company. As he works to build branding perfection, he looks to his experience at Skullcandy for help.
“Something I learned working in a public company environment is that people can easily find themselves trapped in obsessing over the past,” Andrus said. “They’ll say they are focused on the future, but that was not my experience. And focusing on the future is crucial—it’s about knowing how to predictably drive growth, understanding brand health as a leading indicator. Revenue is important, but if it’s not good revenue, it’s not going to help us.
“We’re nowhere near the end of our journey. I think we are just starting to succeed in telling this story to consumers. You know what a gas grill is. And a charcoal one. But people look at a wood pellet grill and say, ‘What is this thing?’ So there’s a lot of education to do there.”
In today’s virtually-focused world, there aren’t many experiences we can truly go live in.
“At the beginning of all of this, I would make brisket on a Traeger,” Andrus explained. “I would bring it to people, to friends and family, and they’d ask where it was catered from. And I’d say, ‘No, I made it.’ And they wouldn’t believe me. ‘No seriously, where did you get it?’ This happens all the time and it brings people together. That’s what life is—bringing people together. You share food. And you feel good.”