Walking into Dongah Aluminum Corporation (DAC) feels like stepping inside the lobby of a grand hotel.
The soaring two-story ceiling creates plenty of space around the large-scale paintings and sculptures in marble and bronze. It’s an art gallery, not the reception area you might expect in a factory that makes aluminum tubes and poles. And on all three floors, there are gardens filled with graceful bamboo, tranquil lilies, and apple trees that Jake Lah, DAC’s founder, planted in 1988 to commemorate his company’s launch. One garden even includes a koi pond with golden fish that shimmer in the sunlight like DAC’s gleaming rods of anodized aluminum. Like the rest of the factory, located in Incheon, South Korea, these poles defy expectation, because they routinely solve problems that tent designers, including other manufacturers, once believed to be unsolvable.
“I’m kind of a strange person,” admits the 67-year-old Lah, whose irresistible smile lights up his entire face. “My wife kept telling me, ‘You are not a normal person,’ and just this last year I said ‘Yes, maybe you are right.’ What I’ve been doing just doesn’t fit into the normal sense of things.”
But if Lah had made a habit of embracing norms, the tent industry would look nothing like it does today. Lah’s proprietary aluminum alloy—TH72M, or M for short—made backpacking shelters lighter by allowing for thinner pole walls with no loss of strength. His aluminum pole hub revolutionized tent architecture and facilitated designs that have since become mainstays (see the REI Half Dome, to name just one). Lah also masterminded an array of other clips and attachment points that streamlined tent geometries and rewrote the rules for what aluminum scaffolding can do.
“He’s been the man behind the curtain in our industry for something like three decades,” says tent designer David Mydans, who retired in 2017 after 28 years with REI. Lighter weights, bigger interior volumes, better ventilation—all these defining improvements to outdoor shelters have been fueled by Lah’s innovations, and still are. “Over the past 20 years, there’s nothing that’s happened in tents that hasn’t been heavily influenced by Jake,” says Michael Glavin, who’s designed tents for brands like Sierra Designs and GSI Outdoors since the late 1990s.
Indeed, Lah is much more than an expert in aluminum alloys and tent pole manufacturing. He’s also a talented designer in his own right who has solved myriad structural problems for the tent brands that are his clients. Some of those brands use entire designs that Lah created from scratch. “He has far more tent IP than any of his customers,” says tent designer Mike Cecot-Scherer, who started with Kelty in 1985 and now produces his own MoonLight series of shelters.
Rising from the Ashes
One sleepless night in 1990, Lah contemplated a high-stakes gamble. His father, who had funded DAC’s launch two years earlier, died before the business became self-sufficient. His mother, Oknah Kim Lah, urged him to abandon ship before it sank and took him with it. “If you stop now, maybe you can salvage enough for the rest of your life,” Lah recalls her saying. She had founded Korea’s branch of the Girl Scouts and devoted much of her life to volunteering, beginning during the Korean War. Lah valued her wisdom.
Besides, business was new to him: Lah studied history in college, and although he completed an MBA at the University of Michigan, he wasn’t an aluminum specialist or even an outdoorsman. “It’s quite odd,” Lah admits. “There seems to be no connection between my past and aluminum.” But Lah is undaunted by foreign realms—after all, he completed his MBA not in Korean but in English, a language he barely understood when he began the program—and he saw a tantalizing opportunity in high-strength aluminum. He founded DAC because he’d learned, through his eldest brother, who worked in the sports industry as a distributor of baseball equipment, that just one major player, Easton, was making tubing for outdoor applications such as camping and archery.
After that night of reflection, Lah walked into his factory the next morning and realized that the 50-person team he’d assembled had become as important to him as his birth family. “I just couldn’t run away alone,” he recalls. “Relationships are my life. So I said okay, let’s die together.” He decided to invest all of his inheritance in the failing business.
He resumed his dedication to making his poles stronger, lighter, and more versatile than competing options. Lah had found a materials mentor in Dr. Robert Sanders, a developer from aluminum giant Alcoa, a man he calls “Yoda.” “He gave me my compass and map and asked me to find a way,” says Lah, who would wrestle for months with alloy conundrums that Yoda could’ve solved with one phone call. “I think he intentionally watched me get lost in the woods. I’d ask, ‘Why didn’t you tell me?’” But Yoda knew not only aluminum but also the personality of his young apprentice. “You learn by yourself,” Yoda replied.
And so Lah tinkered through as many failures as successes with aluminum, copper, magnesium, and zinc, integrating occasional clues from his mentor until he finally struck upon the alloy that would establish DAC as an innovator in outdoor applications.
Lah’s first breakthrough was DA17, a softer alloy that could replace steel in the cabin-style tents common at the time. DA17 appealed to Japanese tent brands, and later to REI, which used it in a 1994 model called the Olympus. His second alloy, TH72M, allowed backpacking tents to reach new weight-saving benchmarks. “Before M, the thinnest [pole walls] I could make were 1.62 millimeters, but with M we went to 1.6, then 1.55, and now we’re at 1.4 millimeters,” Lah explains.
DAC’s list of brand partners grew rapidly, as did Lah’s innovations. Around 1993, Lah developed an aluminum donut that revolutionized tent architecture. It wasn’t the first-ever pole hub—that credit goes to Bob Swanson, who developed a chunky plastic four-way connector for his Walrus tents—but Lah’s “uni-connector” was stronger, tidier, and more customizable. “You could choose the [pole] diameter and angle, so tent designers got a lot more freedom in building the frame,” Lah says. MSR ran with it on the Hubba Hubba, and “the rest is history,” Glavin says. “[That tent] redefined the space-to-weight relationship.”
Breaking Down Walls
Hubs were just the beginning. More “toys,” as Lah calls his connectors, followed, including clips that don’t slide along the pole, allowing the fabric to contribute to the structure’s overall strength, and plastic “ballcaps” that replaced the bulky webbing pockets where a tent’s brow pole clipped into the fly. One plastic connector stabilized poles at the corners and resulted in a 53 percent improvement in structural strength, according to wind tunnel testing. Sally McCoy, then at Sierra Designs, nicknamed it “Jake’s Foot.” It’s now patented as “Jake’s Corner.”) It debuted in Sierra Designs’s Hercules tent, which survived 100 mph winds thanks to the cupped plastic corners that grip pole ends more tightly than an eyelet.
Lah’s poles also improved. DAC’s 1998 Featherlite innovation addressed the weakness at poles’ connection points by eliminating a bridge tube, instead using nesting pole ends of varying diameters, stacking them as you might stack drinking cups. Featherlite NSL poles allow the diameter to vary along their length, so that softer sections create a rounder arc, while stiffer segments stay straighter. As a result, one pole can achieve multiple curves.
DAC’s brand partners quickly grew to include more than 45 companies, not only because Lah offered ingenious ways to push tents into new realms, but also because he scrupulously respected each company’s intellectual property, Mydans says. Thus Lah successfully walked a tightrope between serving all tent brands while protecting each brand’s innovations.
Often, Lah himself is the one serving up the breakthroughs to tent designers. The Copper Spur tent made by Big Agnes, for example, remained largely unchanged for five years while Lah mulled a way to improve on its minimalist design. Finally, he presented Big Agnes founder Bill Gamber with a solution to reduce the tent’s two hubs to just one, without sacrificing interior volume.
“Almost every time I try new things, I feel like I’m pushing against a wall and that there’s nothing I can do,” Lah says. “I try, try, try, and finally, I might find a crack in the wall, or a small hole, and oh! Maybe I can find a way out.”
Such dogged persistence helped him revise the Copper Spur and fueled his development of more sustainable manufacturing methods, such as green anodizing, the moonshot innovation that DAC unveiled in 2008. Anodizing uses acids and other noxious chemicals to remove the oxidative film left behind on heat-treated aluminum; the process also preps the aluminum for dyes and seals it against corrosion. (Plus, users appreciate anodizing’s glossy finish.) But Lah hated that the process released harmful chemical gases into his factory and endangered his workers, so he spent eight years seeking an alternative. He knew that no chemical existed that could polish the aluminum in a nontoxic way. (Even Alcoa and Yoda used phosphoric acid, which releases toxic gases and creates hazardous waste materials.) So Lah looked at mechanical processes and finally succeeded in developing a machine that physically polishes the film off the poles. Now, almost all DAC aluminum uses the green anodizing process.
Lah rounds out that materials expertise with a knack for intuitive design and a passion for creating the best possible product. Brands that partner with him must therefore share the driver’s seat. “He always oversteps,” Glavin says. “But you’re benefiting from the fact that he feels like [the project] is his. He would drive you crazy if he weren’t such a good, kind person at heart, because his intent is always positive.”
Lately, Lah has begun to step out from behind the curtain and claim space on the main stage. In 2018, he hired Glavin to help him start his own tent brand, and although the pandemic sidelined that effort for now, Lah continues to work on tent collaborations that credit him for his contributions. Sea to Summit’s ultralight backpacking tents, which hit the market to wide acclaim in spring 2021, advertise Lah’s role as codesigner with Sea to Summit founder Roland Tyson.
He’s also creating his own visionary structures. One recent masterpiece is a massive wedding-style tent supported not with buckets of cement, but with graceful arches of thumb-thick aluminum. Another Lah creation is a solo tent on stilts—because Lah doesn’t particularly like camping or sleeping on the ground. “Tents right now are used for sleeping only, but I wonder, what if they could be shelters that can use furniture inside?” he muses.
Glavin explains, “These shelters aren’t about filling a market need. He’s creating pieces of art as a design expression.” If the outdoor industry maintained a museum, Lah’s avant-garde tents would deserve inclusion—along with his many bestselling hits. As Mydans puts it, “Jake has perfected the art of designing with aluminum tubes.”
Retirement, however, isn’t in Lah’s ten-year plan. Before long, he says he’s likely to front-burner his plan to launch his own branded tents. He also plans to commit himself to lots of volunteering, particularly in disaster relief and nonprofit campaigns and events. (He inherited the passion for volunteerism from his mother, who passed away in August 2021 at the age of 103.) And he continues to pursue more sustainable manufacturing: DAC completed the Higg Index to understand its environmental impact, and for NEMO’s 2021 tent line, it adopted a recycled-fabric alternative to the polybags its poles had always shipped in.
When Lah finally brings his own tents to market, he can test his creations in his very own wind tunnel, built in 2017. Much larger than the Kirsten Wind Tunnel at the University of Washington—the sole wind tunnel in the United States available to tent developers, it only accommodates small shelters—DAC’s version is designed specifically for tents. It’s an extravagant facility by any measure. Viewed from DAC’s parking lot, it looks like the space shuttle crashed into the side of the factory. Lah says he’s far from finished with his wizardry.
He has plenty more time, assuming he inherits his mother’s longevity. Still, DAC’s gardens remind him that nature’s seasons never dally. When Lah sees the apples on the factory’s trees turn from green to red, the change never fails to catch him by surprise. “Already?” he’ll gasp. He must hurry to do all that’s yet undone.
This story first appeared in the Winter 2022 issue of Outside Business Journal. Read the full issue here.