When Jeremy Andrus first thought about the grill market, the now-CEO of Traeger Grills in Salt Lake City admits, he didn’t think all that much.
There were, he surmised, two kinds of grills: charcoal and gas. You bought one or the other and if the weather allowed, you could cook outdoors.
Then, Andrus met Traeger Grills, a small firm located at the time in Portland, Oregon. In the world of food, Traeger, at that time, had what might be considered "cult status" among consumers: a small, devoted following, one which deserved to grow. Traeger’s products used wood pellets, creating a unique cooking method and, devotees said, flavor. The grills also were better for outdoor cooking in winter, because the grill’s convection cooking method meant they were “set-and-forget” devices.
Andrus, who’d been in Utah for the better part of a decade at that point, knew that scenario. He’d first encountered it in 2005, when he came to Park City for a snowboarding vacation and to talk with the founder of Skullcandy, a firm that produced audio for the inside of helmets used by snowboarders. They also had a small position in the general headphone market, but nothing near the industry leaders.
He saw an opportunity in Skullcandy, and temporarily moved into his parent’s Park City basement to pursue it. (He’s since abandoned the basement, having married and had children.)
Eight years later, Andrus was CEO of Skullcandy, which he’d helped take public. The firm sold $300 million a year and was – and remains – a top-level brand in audio, marketing products in 80 countries. Helping the firm grow from playing in a relatively small niche, snowboarding helmet audio, to a substantial market share around the world is a skill, and one Andrus apparently mastered while in Park City.
But running a public company, with its focus on sales projections and how those projections are met, soon lost its luster. He left Skullcandy, richer for the experience, and joined investment firm Solamere Capital as an Entrepreneur in Residence.
“You don’t get [rewarded] for growth, but for the predictions of growth,” Andrus said of how public companies are perceived. “And when you think about consumer products, a lot has to go right” in order to get those rewards.
Traeger had a lot going right for it, Andrus said. “Nobody had heard of it, but people say their Traeger changed their life. It makes food taste better,” he noted.
Andrus joined Traeger Grills in January 2014, acquiring the business alongside private equity fund Trilantic Capital Partners. Traeger was (and remains) privately held, but the firm says the company has grown by over 30 percent since the acquisition. He moved the headquarters from Portland to the trendy Sugar House district of Salt Lake City, where the firm now employs about 130 people.
Another part of the Traeger workforce are the demonstrators who show up at Costco and other locations around the country. The 130 “really well-trained” brand ambassadors, as Andrus called them, did the equivalent of 1,300 ten-day road shows last year. Not every person who stops to examine a grill walks out with one; he said the exhibits are educational as much as a sales event.
But some walk out with a grill, based on the firm’s “chicken promise” – cook a whole chicken with a Traeger and if you don’t like the result, return it for a refund. Few buyers, Andrus said, make a return after that chicken has been served.
The firm’s recent success has had several rewards. Andrus was honored Tuesday by the MountainWest Capital Network – a 30-year-old business networking group – as its 2017 Utah Entrepreneur of the Year.
Todd A. Reece, a Salt Lake City attorney, partner at the law firm of Ballard Spahr LLP, and MWCN president, said part of the reason for the selection was that “Jeremy, who came in as an investor, in the last three years has done things (at Traeger) that others haven’t seen possible.” He also was recognized for his work at Skullcandy, Reece said.
It was also Andrus’ availability to the business community that helped the group’s board make a unanimous decision to honor him, Reece said. Andrus is available for speaking events and other opportunities, he noted, and mentors other businesses in the area.
“Jeremy is known for giving back to the business community. He has reinvested some his wealth into the people starting a brand new company. If he sees promise in them, he is probably one of the most active angel investors,” Reece said.
And what is Andrus cooking up for the future?
Traeger will introduce a grill in April that connects to the internet of things, the wireless network of home devices. “We’ve built the best grill in the world,” he said. “We have invested more in product development in the last 12 months than the company had in the last 30 years.”