The Saturday Read ‘Wild Man: Patagonia’s conflicted philosopher-king’ by Nick Paumgarten

The Saturday Read this week is journalist Nick Paumgarten‘s profile of the “tiny terror”, Yvon Chouinard, founder of the outdoor clothing and gear company, Patagonia.

If you are not familiar with Patagonia, “Our Reason for Being” provides a concise tutorial.

“Patagonia grew out of a small company that made tools for climbers. Alpinism remains at the heart of a worldwide business that still makes clothes for climbing – as well as for skiing, snowboarding, surfing, fly fishing, paddling and trail running. These are all silent sports. None require a motor; none deliver the cheers of a crowd. In each sport, reward comes in the form of hard-won grace and moments of connection between us and nature.

Our values reflect those of a business started by a band of climbers and surfers, and the minimalist style they promoted. The approach we take towards product design demonstrates a bias for simplicity and utility.

For us at Patagonia, a love of wild and beautiful places demands participation in the fight to save them, and to help reverse the steep decline in the overall environmental health of our planet. We donate our time, services and at least 1% of our sales to hundreds of grassroots environmental groups all over the world who work to help reverse the tide.”

“Wild Man” is the story of how Chouinard’s career evolved over time, rooted in love and respect for nature. It’s an entrepreneur’s journey, with cameo appearances by familiar names: journalist Tom Brokaw, The North Face founder, Doug Tompkins, Royal Robbins and Tom Frost.

Nick Paumgarten’s first connection to Patagonia came in 1992 when he “had a job answering phones at Patagonia’s mail-order office, in Bozeman, Montana…As far as qualifications, I was another city kid, but I’d been out in nature a bit and was, in descending order of aptitude, a skier, whitewater kayaker, backpacker, mountain biker, and fly-rod flailer. I had come of age poring over the Patagonia catalogue, with its action shots and exotic locales, and I already had Yvon Chouinard right up there with Jack Kerouac and Jimi Hendrix on my list of great Americans. Plus, I liked the idea of getting good gear at a discount.”

When Paumgarten decides to leave the job early, he gets his first inkling of Patagonia’s corporate culture.

“I quit the job before I was supposed to, in order to go on a ski trip. Of the two women who’d hired me, one was angry and the other understanding. Their reaction embodied an intrinsic schizophrenia at Patagonia. Chouinard had always encouraged his employees to cut work and go surfing when the swell came in. But it was also a company trying to claw its way out of a hole.”

Patagonia survived the economic challenges of the early nineties with layoffs and loans “from a friend and from some Argentines who wanted to get their money out of the country.”

“It was hard,” Chouinard said. “I realized we were just growing for the sake of growing, which is bullshit.”

“The company, he worried, was straying from its hard-core origins. “I was faced with the prospect of owning a billion-dollar company, with thousands of employees making ‘outdoorlike’ clothing for posers,” he said early in 1991, in a speech to the employees, in which he outlined his misgivings and his new resolutions. These subsequently appeared in the Patagonia catalogue, as a manifesto, under the heading “The Next Hundred Years.”

This ‘long read’ is a primer for the aspiring entrepreneur. It’s a vivid narrative of the progression of one man’s career from childhood dreams of being a fur trapper, to climber, private detective, surfer and blacksmith; proving there are no straight career paths. Its also a lesson in failure, resilience and a realization over time that success can be a double- edged sword.

“Eco-conscious fun-hoggery, as an ethos, a culture, a life style, and an industry, spans the world, and even rules some corners of it. Chouinard is its best-known avatar and entrepreneur, its principal originator and philosopher-king, and is as responsible as anyone for guiding it from the primitive tin-can and hobnail aesthetic of the mid-twentieth century to the slackline and dome-tent attitude of today. He has made it more comfortable, and more glamorous, to be outside, in harsh conditions. His influence is way out of proportion to his revenue footprint. He has mixed feelings about all this—some apprehension about the world he has made. He celebrates the spread of an ecological consciousness but laments the disappearance of danger and novelty, and the way that the wilderness has become a hobby, or even a vocation. He disdains ski areas (“They’re golf courses”), the idea of professional climbing (“I just don’t like the whole paid-climber thing”), and the proliferation of extreme sports as programming and marketing (“Red Bull’s in the snuff-film business”).”

Malinda Chouinard, Yvon’s wife and business partner, was a pioneer in ‘on-site daycare’ and in 2012 her efforts resulted in Patagonia becoming “the first California business to become a B Corp.”

“Malinda is principally responsible for making the company a notably humane place to work. Many there cite the advantage of having day care on site. In 1985, Malinda created (and has since put aside a vast patchwork of space for) what became known as the Great Pacific Child Development Center, to which I didn’t give much consideration, until I got a tour. A staff of twenty-eight oversees some eighty kids, on sprawling grounds of more than twelve thousand square feet, roughly half of it outdoors, among the fruit trees. A recent baby boom had led to another expansion, which displaced the H.R. department to a trailer. “We’ve raised fifteen hundred kids so far,” Chouinard told me. “None of them have been in prison—that I know of, anyway.”

Chouinard’s management style?

“I’m just the owner.” He called his executive style “management by absence.” He used to read business books and study various executive styles and corporate structures, here and abroad, but he prefers to take his lessons from nature—from ant colonies, for example. “There’s no management,” he said. “Every ant just does his job. They communicate and figure it out. It’s like a Navy seal team. The whole team has to agree on what the mission is.” It’s also true, however, that Chouinard’s occasionally whimsical notions send the ants scurrying. Absent or not, he’s still the big ant.”

There are multiple gems of wisdom interspersed throughout the profile. When asked “if the prospect of death bothered him”, he shared his secret to a good life.

“Nah, I’ve always considered death to be a part of life,” he said. “Tell you the secret to a good life: always be the oldest one in the room.”

 

 

Photo credit: Patagonia annual report

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s