Silicon Slopes Podcast: Traeger Grills CEO Jeremy Andrus
Today’s guest is Traeger CEO Jeremy Andrus. Jeremy joined Traeger Grills as President & CEO in January, 2014 and acquired the business alongside private equity fund Trilantic Capital Partners in July of that year. Prior to Traeger, he served as President and CEO of Skullcandy as well as on its board of directors. In eight years, Jeremy helped grow Skullcandy’s annual sales from less than $1 million to nearly $300 million. Below is a recent cover story for Silicon Slopes Magazine on Traeger Grills and Jeremy’s journey.
JEREMY ANDRUS IS LEADING A WOOD-FIRED TECH REVOLUTION AT TRAEGER GRILLS
THE FORMER CEO OF SKULLCANDY IS DISRUPTING ANOTHER INDUSTRY ARMED WITH LESSONS LEARNED AND SOME BATTLE SCARS
Vegetarians, be warned: this is a story about meat.
Succulent, flavorful, sizzling meat — grilled to inner-pink perfection, bursting at the seams with enough juice to make a grown man or woman cry. The kind of meat one posts to Instagram, where a picture is worth 1,000 words. The kind of meat you cut, eat, and savor in silence, humbled by something so holy.
Traeger Grills existed for 26 years before Jeremy Andrus got involved. Tucked in the Pacific Northwest with no marketing budget, Traeger still gained a staunch following through its unique approach to barbecuing: wood-pellet grills.
In Utah, Andrus had gained notoriety as the CEO of Skullcandy, overseeing the headphone maker’s rise to prominence that culminated in an IPO. Looking for his next project, Andrus discovered a grill company that had a tenaciously loyal fanbase.
“I had heard about this product through the private equity community,” said Andrus. “When I started talking to Traeger customers, they said things that just blew my mind: ‘This is the best product that I’ve ever owned. Not the best grill, the best product.’ I remember the first time I heard someone say, ‘My Traeger changed my life.’ Traeger grills had almost a transcendent quality that customers struggled to verbalize.”
Andrus recognized the potential of Joe Traeger’s invention and knew the business could execute better. Alongside a New York-based private equity firm, Andrus purchased the company and became CEO. The early days of his leadership did not go smoothly.
“Traeger had survived to this point thanks to the magic of the concept,” said Andrus. “However, the product hadn’t evolved because the company culture discouraged risk-taking, independent thinking, and experimentation. Ultimately, I had to close the Oregon office and start fresh in Utah to rebuild the culture from scratch.”
On closing day, some of the warehouse workers in Oregon were so upset, they set an 18-wheeler on fire. Literally. Andrus recalls the fear he felt: “That was the worst day of my career.”
In Springville, Utah, Traeger started anew with a skeleton of the former team and a handful of new teammates, many of whom were Skullcandy alumni. Andrus believed that Traeger’s market resembled the one he had encountered at Skullcandy.
“The grill category was boring, it wasn’t growing, and no one was doing anything interesting from a product or brand perspective. And that’s what I loved about it,” said Andrus. “I had the same perspective on headphones early on at Skullcandy. It wasn’t dominated by anyone. It was just a neglected category at the back wall of Best Buy. And every product in the category looked the same, so it was highly commoditized. That’s what I saw in the grill industry as well. It hadn’t seen any meaningful innovation or differentiation for over 20 years.”
Whereas the previous management focused on minimizing costs, Andrus concentrated on product innovation and branding. Traeger aimed to sell wood-pellet grills that not only cooked incredible meats but made owners feel like proud members of a community.
“We built this very aggressive brand,” said Andrus. “The only thing that was sacred was that we were a wood-pellet grill business. Everything else changed. We revamped the Traeger product line around five elements of outdoor cooking: taste, versatility, ease, consistency, and community. Those elements created a better user experience and emotion around a product that before was just bent steel.”
With this focus on emotional connection and experience, Traeger has reignited. From Costco and The Home Depot to professional BBQ competitions and award-winning restaurants, Traeger is bringing grilling back to its wood-fired roots. Our ancestors certainly didn’t cook wild game on gas fires. They burned wood, and that ritual still offers meaning and value beyond the better taste of the food.
Traeger has brought wood-pellet grills to the fore, but its next endeavor takes grilling to a new realm: digital innovation. Traeger recently released the Timberline, a Wi-Fi grill that owners control and monitor from a mobile app. It’s a rare combination of wood-fired grilling, a prehistoric technology, and the Internet of Things (IoT), one of the hottest areas of innovation.
“We observed millennials using our product and determined that they don’t want to sit around and watch their brisket cook,” said Andrus. “At the same time, they don’t want to put a brisket on and get nervous when they leave home. So, we asked ourselves: how do we create an experience where they can take a three-hour hike and tend to their grill remotely from their phone? An IoT grill was the answer. The Traeger app tracks external temperature and internal temperature so grillers don’t have to worry. Users can also share recipes and ‘beam’ them to the grill so that it follows a precise cook cycle. The idea is you know what’s happening in the grill, but you don’t have to spend 10 hours physically watching it.”
Digital newcomers like Traeger face a challenge: How does a company stay innovative over the long haul? Outdoorsy Utahns know how easy it is pedal, run, ski, or climb too hard out the gate. Form and pace dissolve over distance, and the same is true in innovation. However, Traeger seems to have a product philosophy that is immune to innovation burnout.
Andrus thinks that most companies look for problems to solve. Often, they run out of problems or can’t spot them. Traeger’s approach is the opposite: create the solution that uncovers the problem. The Timberline illustrates that concept well. Once, we all accepted that if you wanted to grill brisket for 10 hours, you better clear your schedule and stay at home. Timberline created a solution to a problem we didn’t realize we had. And that leap of innovation is rare for a company that remained static for the better part of three decades. Traeger’s solution-first strategy seems unusually sustainable.
“This is a 30-year-old brand that grew in slow motion for 26 years,” said Andrus. “This year we’ll hit record revenue numbers. I credit that turnaround to people like Denny Bruce, our sales and marketing leader who deciphered grilling consumers, and Michael Colston, the mastermind behind our product development and engineering. Our success is a measure of the team we’ve built. They’re amazingly passionate, committed, hardworking, and smart. Team and culture revived Traeger and transformed us into a technology company.”
Full disclosure: I own a Timberline and I’ve been tracking the progress of brisket on my phone throughout the writing of this article. The Traeger app is telling me it’s ripe for eating, and I can’t think of a more suitable way to end this piece than by tucking a napkin into my shirt, grabbing some friends and family, and going to town on every last morsel of meat. Keep innovating, Traeger, keep innovating….