There are many stories about the origins of SanMar but only Marty Lott, the company’s founder, knows all the details. He can tell you about the backpack that was SanMar’s first product, and how it came to be that SanMar was started with one dollar in the bank.
Here, then, is the real deal.
In 1971, Marty had a college roommate who worked for an advertising agency. The agency wanted what we would call today a “promotional product” to promote Heidelberg beer to college students, and Marty’s roommate tapped him for help.
“You wouldn’t think you’d need to get college students to be interested in beer,” Marty commented with a laugh. “They do that on their own.” But he went ahead with the project and created a backpack that would hold two cases of beer as well as textbooks and other supplies. He designed pockets on the outside to hold ski goggles, making the pack as useful on the slopes as it would be on campus.
Marty had a prototype of his pack made by a small manufacturer on Rainier Avenue in Seattle. The folks at Heidelberg loved the pack and ordered 500 units, which the manufacturer made in about a month. The pack proved so successful that Heidelberg ordered thousands more.
“My guy on Rainier Avenue took out his little calculator and said, ‘Well that’s going to take me 25 years to make that many,’” recalled Marty. He decided to see if he knew anyone who could make the packs on a more expedient schedule and found a friend who knew of a manufacturer in Japan who could fulfill the larger order.
“It’s just like we do business today,” Marry said. “You use your contacts, you talk to people, and friends will help friends out.”
With the backpack now in production, Marty still needed to pay the Seattle manufacturer for his work. He had the money, but he needed a check. For that he needed a checking account, so he headed to the bank. The teller inside asked Marty how much he wanted to deposit. As it turned out, he needed to actually put money in the bank in order to set up an account. Who knew?
“So I took a dollar out of my pocket and gave it to the teller,” said Marty. “And SanMar was started on one dollar.”
It’s been a minute since the original backpack Marty designed has been available. To celebrate SanMar’s 50th anniversary, we’ve updated Marty’s legendary pack and created The Original Pack by Port Authority® which features a padded laptop sleeve, zippered organization pocket and genuine leather trim. And these days we’re making them ourselves, so there are plenty to go around.
The “Marty Pack,” as his rucksack has become known throughout SanMar and the industry, was the right product at the right time. It also marked the beginning of SanMar as a business venture.
How does Marty feel about it now? In his own words: “It worked out.”
Portions of this article were first heard in a recent SanMar Radio interview with Marty and his wife Sharon about the early days of SanMar and some of the memories they’ve shared since then. You can listen to the full interview here.