Trouts Journal

The Orvis Advantage: Feat. Shawn Combs

Ivan Orsic / Nov 4, 2014

The Grand Ol' Brand has undergone a major facelift over the past few years and the results have been quite impressive. I can't think of the last time we had a customer in the shop who was in the market for a high end fly rod that wasn't considering a Helios 2. Additionally, every one of our guides uses Orvis Rods and Reels on our guide trips and puts them through a ton of abuse. The result is always dependable performance. One of the main drivers behind this momentum shift is Shawn Combs. While his official title may be "Rod & Tackle Divisional Merchandise Manager" should probably be changed to "The Man", as he has been very instrumental in product development and design over the past few years. Whether it be rods, reels or packs, Shawn has most likely had something to do with it. The outcome speaks for itself.

So without further delay, here is what Shawn had to say about Orvis these days...

Trouts: Tell us a little bit about yourself, how you came into your current position with Orvis, and what you do for the company?

SC: I grew up in Kentucky where I started fly fishing at 11. My dad owned a hunting/ fishing store and I spent most of my teenage years working retail. I got my Masters in Mechanical engineering in 2001 and went to work in the Oil /Gas industry out of college. I eventually moved to upstate New York where I developed/designed nuclear fuel for submarines for the US Navy at Knolls Atomic Power Laboratory. Four years ago I was flying home from a trip to Utah and after asking to barrow a copy of a Drake magazine I met Steve Hemkens (Product Development at Orvis). We exchanged contacts, stayed in touch and 5 months later he offered me a job at Orvis designing rods and reels. I owe it all to Tom Bie and the Drake! Since then I have taken over responsibility for managing the Rod & Tackle Product Development team and I get to still develop fly rods.

Trouts: Moving on, let’s talk about a topic you surely discuss all the time with customers, vendors, etc. We’ll call it the “facelift” that Orvis has undergone in the past few years. The mentality of Orvis being for old men in tweed, along with perhaps questionable quality, seems to be long gone. We’re seeing some really great product out there right now that is appealing to anglers of all ages. What has been the biggest key to success in accomplishing shift in reputation and/or public opinion?

SC: So a lot of moving parts have come together to be instrumental in the shift. I think it started with the owners of Orvis (Perk and Dave) being fanatical about having best in class product. They use the stuff all the time and are relentless when it comes to holding the team accountable for performance and quality. The “not in tweed” part started to happen when a young guy by the name of Steve Hemkens started in Rod & Tackle 8-9 years ago. He was loud and demanded that we make the world’s best and lightest fly rod in the original Helios. The Helios rod series turned some heads, people started talking about Orvis in a performance context. Since then we have been focused on building a team that share these same goals and are passionate anglers. Helios 2, Superfine Glass and Silver Sonic waders are added examples of our commitment to best in class product design.

Trouts: It seems Orvis is everywhere these days- particularly on the video scene. What was the thought process/idea behind putting such an effort, i.e. dollars, into this channel?

SC: Video is a great expression of where the sport is and where it is going. We have developed some great relationships with great people along the way. It has been fun watching it grow.

Trouts: I was able to put my hands on a Recon for the first time the other day and was extremely impressed. I really believe this new rod is going to make some serious waves in the mid-price rod market. Tell us a little about this re-design as you decided to move away from the predecessor Access series.

SC: Access was a great rod series but we are always pushing for continuous improvement. With Recon, I wanted to work with a new material package and incorporate some of the design advantages that we learned from Helios 2 development. I also felt that the mid price rod category needed a unique story. Often, rods at this price point are after thoughts in the lineup. We wanted to make the best American made product that we could for the price. You will also notice that we moved away from mid or tip flex profiles in favor of creating the optimal profile and flex characteristics for a given rod model. This gave us a chance to break the mold and design fishing tools specifically designed for certain applications.

Trouts: Sticking with the topic of fly rods, it’s hard to argue the success of the Helios. I’ve got a 9’ 5wt mid-flex that is without a doubt my go-to trout rod. Then you give us the H2, which was quick to become the most award winning fly rod in history. Without naming names, there have been instances where rod companies who try to improve upon their top-of-the-line rods to experience mediocre results. Will we see an H3? What is your thought process behind fixing something that isn’t broke?

SC: We have a strong continuous improvement culture at Orvis. I believe without it you wouldn’t see the advances in technology that we have experienced in the last 10 years. You might be still rocking your 1st gen 5G iPod, but if Apple stopped there we wouldn’t all be using iPhones some 13 years later. As soon as we put a new rod series into production, we are focused on making it better.

Trouts: Where do you picture the Orvis Fly Fishing brand to be 5 years down the road?

SC: Striving to develop the best products in the industry. We have been at it for 158 years and I don’t think we will change course anytime soon.

Trouts: If you could tell the fly-fishing world one thing about Orvis, what would it be?

SC: That we don’t wear tweed and smoke pipes, but we do take work naps on dog beds. Just kidding, seriously we are a small, tight knit team that put in a lot of hours developing products that we believe in.

Trouts: Okay enough with the serious questions- What’s your favorite species to target on the fly?

SC: That’s tough. How about fresh cold – Brown trout, fresh warm – Carp, Salt North – Striper, Salt South – everything

Trouts: Favorite place to fly fish and your top destination to dream about?

SC: Rivers close to home have to be my favorite. I like knowing as much as I can about how a fishery behaves throughout the year. I love the excitement that comes with fishing new water while traveling, but I’m always fired up to fish my local rivers. I’m always dreaming about exploring New Zealand.

Trouts: Last question- non fishing related- what do you like to do for fun when you’re not fishing?

SC: I love spending time with my wife and baby girl. I like to mountain bike and ski. I also enjoy building things. I started building snow skis in 2005 as way to pass cold evenings in the north east. To date I have built about 16 pairs.

There you have it! We would like to extend a big THANK YOU to Shawn for taking the time to share some of his knowledge and allow us to get to know a little more about the Orvis Brand. If you haven't spent time checking out some of the newest products available from Orvis make it a point to. Better yet, swing by the shop and have a look yourself. Check out a sling pack, fly boxes, waders or even cast some rods. We've got it all waiting here for you!

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