The German author Michael Pause distinctly recalls the day when he attended a conference with Bernd Kullmann, and Deuter Sport's then chief executive described the German company as the largest European supplier of backpacks. After the presentation, Pause turned to his friend and asked who was the largest global brand in this category. “That's Deuter,” came Kullmann's reply, “but I didn't want to show off.”
Pause aptly captured some of the passion, patience, endurance, authenticity and humor of his fellow climber, as Kullmann received the eleventh OutDoor Honor Award at the OutDoor show in Friedrichshafen last Friday. He was actually the first to receive the award under this name, which is an adjusted version of the OutDoor Celebrity of the Year, which has been assigned to important people in the industry by the organizers of the OutDoor fair and the European Outdoor Group (EOG) for the ten previous years. They went to people who made an outstanding contribution to the industry over time, from Yvon Chouinard to Åke Nordin, Paul Petzl, Aaron Feuerstein and Mike Pfotenhauer, among others.
The organizers acknowledged that they could not find such personalities on demand, so their new Honor Award may not be handed out every year. On the other hand, Werner Riethmann, who has been the chief executive of Lowa since 1992, after running Raichle, was named “Personality of the Year” by a German retail magazine, Outdoormarkt, during the show. Kullmann and two other outdoor industry executives, Heiner Oberrauch of Salewa and Lukas Meindl from the eponymous firm, had already received this distinction.
Kullmann became most widely known as “Mr Deuter,” as he stayed with the company for 28 years and led its international expansion as its chief executive from 2006 until 2013. As Pause put it, Deuter may be more than one century old, but it wouldn't be where it is currently without Kullmann's contribution.
There was more than a hint of nostalgia as Kullmann received the honor, particularly about the rise of commercial interests in climbing. It's a well-known story that he climbed Mount Everest at the age of 24 in a pair of jeans. Pause added that his friend made the ascent in 1978, when Everest was less accessible, and that Kullmann discarded the jeans – unlike “commercial climbers” who may well have tried to use them for marketing purposes. Kullmann previously said that he gave the jeans away in Peru.
Kullmann acknowledged that his commitment to Deuter came with a passion for climbing and mountaineering. People are more important than balance sheets, and products more important than budget presentations, he insisted, sharing a little concern that the outdoor industry ought not to forget its roots.
The former Deuter chief told Bergzeit last year that he quit expeditions after the arrival of his daughter in 1990. But even a serious fall couldn't keep him away from the rocks: Kullmann spent several months in a wheelchair and almost two years with a cast, yet he got that fitted with a special sole to quickly return to climbing.
Kullmann qualified as a sports and biology teacher but he started working for Deuter as a salesman for backpacks in Bavaria in 1986, to more easily combine his job with climbing. Two years later he was product manager and another two years later he was placed in charge of the backpacks division.
Appreciated for his permanent drive and unassuming ways, Kullmann became chief executive in 2006, the year when Deuter was purchased by the Schwan-Stabilo group. The job was taken over in 2013 by Martin Riebel, while Kullmann became managing director of Schwan-Stabilo Outdoor, the division including Deuter and Ortovox. Since July 2014 he has officially been a part-time Deuter brand ambassador.
Along the way, Kullmann built loyalty and lasting friendships in business. As Pause pointed out, Deuter has been working with the same production partners in Vietnam since 1993.
Kullmann was credited with some of the innovation that came from Deuter in the last two decades, as he put a bonus on creativity in the team. He did resist some suggestions, such as backpacks designed for women. Kullmann couldn't quite see the point, Pause recalls. But he changed his mind and actually became an advocate for more female influence in the outdoor industry, as transpired in his impassioned and amusing speech for his friend Gerlinde Kaltenbrunner at Ispo Munich earlier this year.
Kullmann said that advancing years and aches encouraged him to sometimes spend a day at home, which would have been unthinkable a few years ago. But the passion was apparently undiminished as Kullmann conversed with his friends at the OutDoor show.