Innovator of the Year (Large Company)

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Outdoor Research, Seattle

Fleece-lined gloves that come with their own rain shield, tucked in a handy pouch on the back. A cap that comes with its own rain guard, tucked in a pocket on the rim, so that wearers are protected rain or shine.

Such are the tweaks, innovations and improvements that mark a business that got its start when its founder came up with an improved gaiter for mountaineers. From there, the company designed apparel, climbing and skiing gear and a hat it dubbed the Seattle Sombrero. Expect to see the pace of new and improved products continue: In 2011, Outdoor Research added several product-development posts.

“We do weird well,” says CEO Dan Nordstrom in a company video. “We’re very focused on niches. We pick an environment, we pick a sport, we pick an altitude sometimes, we certainly pick a temperature range. We try to think about what are all the ways this thing’s got to perform perfectly in this situation.” Ideas come from customers enlisted in Outdoor Research’s Lab Rat Program; prototypes are tested in the elements by outdoors experts and by employees themselves.

Outdoor Research has had to be innovative in management as well. When founder Ron Gregg was killed in an avalanche in 2003, Nordstrom, not just an experienced retailer but an enthusiastic outdoorsman, stepped in to buy and run the company. Last year, Nordstrom split the jobs of CEO and president, retaining the former while naming Alex Kutches to the latter.

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