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

‘I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud’ a poem by William Wordsworth

As world leaders gather in New York to sign the climate accord reached in Paris in December, let’s celebrate Earth Day with a poem by William Wordsworth.

In 1802, the world outside our window looked a bit different. On a walk with his sister Dorothy, Wordsworth observed a “long belt” of daffodils, inspiring him to pen I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud.

wordsworth daffodils.png

The poem captures the essence of Earth Day: preserving the beauty of nature, and the life affirming inspiration of a simple walk outdoors.

I Wandered Lonely as a Cloud

I wandered lonely as a cloud
That floats on high o’er vales and hills,
When all at once I saw a crowd,
A host, of golden daffodils;
Beside the lake, beneath the trees,
Fluttering and dancing in the breeze.

Continuous as the stars that shine
And twinkle on the milky way,
They stretched in never-ending line
Along the margin of a bay:
Ten thousand saw I at a glance,
Tossing their heads in sprightly dance.

The waves beside them danced; but they
Out-did the sparkling waves in glee:
A poet could not but be gay,
In such a jocund company:
I gazed—and gazed—but little thought
What wealth the show to me had brought:

For oft, when on my couch I lie
In vacant or in pensive mood,
They flash upon that inward eye
Which is the bliss of solitude;
And then my heart with pleasure fills,
And dances with the daffodils.

William Wordsworth

A ‘commencement reflection’ for earth day from Paul Hawken

Paul Hawken, the entrepreneur, environmentalist, journalist and author adressed the graduating class at the University of Portland in May, 2009. His lifelong focus has been sustainability and he has successfully changed the relationship of business to the environment in all of his endeavors.

In his speech he spoke of our relationship to the earth, particularly in these challenging economic times when it would be easy to declare environmental issues an expense item vs. a way to create jobs and generate revenue.

“There is invisible writing on the back of the diploma you will receive, and in case you didn’t bring lemon juice to decode it, I can tell you what it says: You are Brilliant, and the Earth is Hiring. The earth couldn’t afford to send recruiters or limos to your school. It sent you rain, sunsets, ripe cherries, night blooming jasmine, and that unbelievably cute person you are dating. Take the hint. And here’s the deal: Forget that this task of planet saving is not possible in the time required. Don’t be put off by people who know what is not possible. Do what needs to be done, and check to see if it was impossible only after you are done.”

I encourage you to read the entire text of the speech. It frames the issue of preserving the earth in poetic term with realistic urgency. But his words do not just apply to our environmental challenges. They can be applied to any obstacle you encounter on the way to your dream.

“Each of us is as complex and beautiful as all the stars in the universe. We have done great things and we have gone way off course in terms of honoring creation. You are graduating to the most amazing, stupefying challenge ever bequested to any generation. The generations before you failed. They didn’t stay up all night. They got distracted and lost sight of the fact that life is a miracle every moment of your existence. Nature beckons you to be on her side. You couldn’t ask for a better boss.The most unrealistic person in the world is the cynic, not the dreamer. Hope only makes sense when it doesn’t make sense to be hopeful. This is your century. Take it and run as if your life depends on it.”