By John Labate

(FORTUNE Magazine) – FOR MILLIONS of Americans, camping season begins when they dig through their basements and garages and unpack their Coleman gear. The Wichita-based manufacturer is practically synonymous with lanterns (an 88% share of the U.S. market) and camping stoves (84% share), and is a major presence in the market for tents and coolers. Under new CEO Michael Hammes, 52, the company is fanning the flames of its brand strength to bring U.S. handymen and foreign campers under the Coleman tent. ''Coleman's brand name,'' says Hammes, ''is bigger than the company.'' Hammes isn't the first to recognize the brand's potential. Billionaire investor Ronald Perelman began circling in the late 1980s, and his holding company, MacAndrews & Forbes, bought Coleman in a $545 million leveraged buyout in 1989. Perelman took the company public again in 1992, but his firm still owns 82.5% of the stock, and Perelman and three MacAndrews & Forbes executives sit on Coleman's board. These heavyweights say they concern themselves only with long-term strategy. The day-to-day decisions fall to Hammes. An occasional outdoorsman himself (''I'm trying to become a fly-fisherman, but I don't know if I'll ever make it''), Hammes joined the company last October, after running Black & Decker's worldwide tool division. He has had little time since to work on his fly casting as he tries to spread Coleman's name beyond the campground. Coleman's recent approach to the hardware market got going in late 1992 when the company reacquired Coleman Powermate from MacAndrews & Forbes. (Coleman previously owned the company from 1986 to early 1992.) Powermate's products include a line of gasoline-powered electrical generators and high-pressure washers used for heavy-duty cleaning jobs such as cars and gutters. In April of this year Hammes further extended Coleman's hardware reach by purchasing Sanborn, a Minnesota producer of air compressors used to drive power tools ranging from paint sprayers to nail drivers. The opportunity, he explains, is that none of the competitors in these categories carry a brand name remotely as well known as Coleman. Hammes argues that his firm's reputation for rugged, reliable products will click with tradesmen and backyard handymen, even if they haven't pitched a tent for years. Last year Sanborn generated $75 million in sales; added to Coleman Powermate's $98 million in 1993 (a 7% increase over the prior year), that means Coleman's hardware products account for roughly a quarter of total annual sales. But Hammes has even bigger plans. He is using Coleman's brand- name clout with Wal-Mart and other retailers to expand the floor space dedicated to Powermate and Sanborn products. ''We are putting together the most powerful big-ticket hardware company in North America,'' he says. Hammes is also redesigning Coleman's approach to foreign markets, where its presence is still largely limited to camping goods. Sales to foreign campers topped $121 million last year, or 21% of total revenues, but the business is uneven, particularly in Europe. The major problem is that Europeans have never warmed to Coleman's propane appliances, preferring those running on butane gas. TO REMEDY the situation, the company once again bought its way into a more promising product line. Purchases of a British and an Italian camping equipment maker late last year allowed Coleman to put its name on 100 butane products, with sales of $30 million. Another 45 new butane stoves and lanterns will hit the shelves this year. Coleman's largest shareholder declares himself well pleased with the company's progress. ''I love this company,'' Perelman says. ''I'm not planning to sell a share.'' Some analysts, however, don't believe it. They speculate that tax-loss carryforwards that MacAndrews & Forbes incurred in the 1989 LBO and in other acquisitions will expire in 1995 or 1996, at which point Perelman may sell down to a minority position. Perelman calls tax benefits ''irrelevant'' to his intentions toward the stock. However many shareholders Coleman has in the next few years, Hammes says the company's strategy won't change. Expect him to continue trying to squeeze value out of the Coleman brand. And expect to see that name and its signature lantern logo on a lot more products this year.