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MADE IN MONTANA, MADE MILITARY TOUGH
By Chris Barnett
June 7, 2007 -- Long before he jumped into the travel-bag business, Jim Markel Jr. packed parachutes during a four-year tour in the U.S. Marines. Rigging chutes wasn't going to be a career, but it had a powerful impact on his mind.

"The rigger's motto is, 'I will be sure. Always.' It's a matter of life and death," he explains.

Markel has carried that mentality into Red Oxx Manufacturing, a business he started in Billings, Montana, with his dad, Jim Sr. They started making fitness equipment for major brands, but never controlled their own destiny.

One day, he was hunting and tore his gear bag. Then a revelation. "I said to myself, 'This is a piece of junk. I can make something better that will last,' " the younger Markel explains.

Spotting an empty storefront, he figured bags were a way out from being under the thumb of the fitness equipment industry titans. He rented the store. But he needed inventory.

Designing what he knew best, Markel made a $50 parachute kit bag. It held a lot of gear and Markel started pedaling them at outdoor shows to hunters, fishermen, hikers and other recreational enthusiasts. He stuck with the catchy name--Red Oxx—and a logo that looks more like a lean longhorn steer, not a thick ox. And, never forgetting the rigger's motto, he went for toughness rather than beauty.

Word spread and customers found their way to his store. In 1996, Markel made a gutsy move. He bailed out of the fitness world entirely, dropped bags aimed exclusively at the hunting and fishing crowd and zeroed in on travel bags aimed at business travelers.

Riskier yet, while the luggage industry was putting wheels and a handle on almost anything that moved, Red Oxx carved out a niche in the traditional carry-on market. And rather than shave costs and fatten profits by hiring a contract manufacturer in China, Markel made a vow that everything would be "made in Montana."

Markel isn't a one-man show, though. He's got a business partner named Perry Jones who has the perfect DNA for the venture: Montana kid who never left the Treasure State except for 11 years with the Navy, also as a parachute rigger. Markel's wife, Amanda, a former flight attendant, works the phones. From her days at 35,000 feet, she knows how to take care of customers.

Red Oxx may be in based in Billings, but it's been on the bleeding edge of Internet retailing. Markel designed and launched a creative Web site the same year he switched to travel bags. Today, visiting RedOxx.com, is the only way you can buy a bag. "We like to say that we're not at a store near you," Markel says with a smile.

Fast forward to 2007. RedOxx has a line of handsomely designed and ruggedly constructed bags and accessories in a dozen colors. The designs are subtle and understated, clean and sophisticated without being snobbish.

The company's big seller is the Air Boss, a large carry-on bag that's well-suited for both clothing and business equipment. Like all Red Oxx bags, it is made from 1000-weight DuPont Cordura nylon. It's roomy enough for a laptop, a sports coat, slacks, casual clothes and files. Functional and attractive, it sells for $225.

The $95 Red Oxx Gator, with a claw shoulder strap, carries every business traveler's mobile office and all the digital gear that goes with it. A foam-padded section gives the bag its structure, holds a computer and insulates it against shock.

The $165 Red Oxx Flying Boxcar sounds exactly like what it is: a very large, boxy bag with outside zipper pockets. It fits in the overhead compartments of most traditional jets, but you're in trouble if you fly the regional jets. Their overhead compartments are so small that you'll probably have to gate-check the Flying Boxcar. Be sure to carry a laptop sleeve as a backup so you don't have to put your computer and your entire world at risk.

The Red Oxx product line is chock full of intelligent thinking; you don't see the same old boring bag designs. The Safari Shave Kit, for example, is Markel and Jones' take on a military-style dopp kit. It has side pockets and sells for an astonishing price: $25. There's also a tri-fold toiletry kit for $75 that's available in any of Red Oxx' 12 colors.

Two other bags are distinctly Red Oxx and I haven't seen them in any other luggage line. One, the Safari Beano PR5.5 duffel, can handle 50 pounds, the current maximum weight for checked bags on domestic flights. (The PR6 can hold 70 pounds, the top weight on an international flight.) Outdoor Magazine tested the Safari Beano in 2004 and gave it a "Gear of the Year" accolade. Prices start at $165.

True to their shared military roots, Markel and Jones make a rucksack modeled after the backpack that World War II paratroopers used to carry their survival gear. A dull olive green color makes it look plenty authentic, but Red Oxx added a couple of outside pockets, perfect for a music player or anything you need to survive on the road today. The cost: $200 to $225.

One other thing that sets Red Oxx apart: an unconditional lifetime guarantee. If it breaks, they'll fix it or replace it, with no weaseling.
ABOUT CHRIS BARNETT Chris Barnett writes about business-travel tactics and strategies that save time and money and help minimize hassles. He is based in San Francisco and has written for a wide variety of major newspapers and national magazines. Barnett on Business Travel is syndicated by Copley News Service.

THE FINE PRINT Joe Brancatelli makes this space available to Chris Barnett in the spirit of free speech and to help encourage editorial diversity and the wider discussion of important travel issues. All of the opinions and material in this column are the sole property of Barnett. This material may not be reproduced in any form without the express permission of Chris Barnett.

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This column is Copyright © 2007 by Chris Barnett. JoeSentMe is Copyright © 2007 by Joe Brancatelli. All rights reserved.