Whether you care about adventure sports, the fate of the natural world, or pure brand maintenance and business success, Patagonia, Inc. is one of the earth's most interesting and inspiring companies. For almost forty years, its reputation for unsurpassed high quality, maverick innovation, and long-term environmental responsibility has put it in a class by itself. And everything flows from Patagonia's founder, Yvon Chouinard.
Chouinard's creation myth is now an American business legend. As a child, he moved with his father, a French Canadian blacksmith, and the rest of his family to Southern California in the 1950s with little English and less money. He escaped into mountain climbing as a teenager and by his early twenties was among the best climbers in America, making famous first ascents of a number of notorious faces. When he decided he could make better climbing tools himself for less money and when his fellow climbers agreed and clamored for more, a way of life became a business. Some forty years later, Yvon Chouinard still summits peaks around the world (though he now spends more time surfing). Patagonia still makes exceptionally high-quality things, only it now earns more than $250 million a year from worldwide sales, and Chouinard is able to leverage his concern for the natural settings he's spent a lifetime enjoying. His resolve to minimize Patagonia's impact on the environment has led the company to make its famous fleeces out of recycled soda bottles and to donate at least 1 percent of its revenue each year to environmental causes, among many other things.
In Let My People Go Surfing, Yvon Chouinard relates his and his company's story and the core philosophies that have sustained Patagonia, Inc. year in and year out. This is not another story of a successful businessman who manages on the side to do great good and have grand adventures; it's the story of a man who brought doing good and having grand adventures into the heart of his business model--and who enjoyed even more business success as a result. Let My People Go Surfing gives ample evidence as to why there have been few more influential companies in American business in the last forty years than Patagonia, Inc.
Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia Inc., presents his philosophy for a "new style of responsible business" along with a chronicle of his personal and company history in this sincere if self-congratulatory creed. A Californian of French-Canadian descent, Chouinard started forging climbing hardware and selling it out of his car in 1957 and published his first catalogue, a one-page mimeographed sheet, in 1964. Today, his sporting goods company has annual revenues of $230 million, but he nonetheless identifies himself as more of "a climber, a surfer, a kayaker, a skier and a blacksmith" than a CEO. In this vein, he lays out his alternative vision of business, detailing eco- and people-conscious philosophies on aspects of the supply chain from product design and production to human resources and management. Chouinard has backed up his rhetoric with action: Patagonia pursues sustainability, gives 1% of annual net sales to environmental groups and has set benchmarks with its employee-friendly policies. Patagoniacs and socially conscious businesspeople may appreciate this account despite its wooden writing, especially as an antidote to headlines of corporate fraud. (Oct.)
Copyright (c) Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to the Hardcover edition.
-- PUBLISHERS WEEKLY.
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September 05, 2006
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Excerpt from Let My People Go Surfing by Yvon Chouinard
I'VE BEEN A BUSINESSMAN for almost 50 years. It's as difficult for me to say those words as it is for someone to admit to being an alcoholic or a lawyer.
I've never respected the profession. It's business that has to take the majority of the blame for being the enemy of nature, for destroying native cultures, for taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and for poisoning the earth with the effluent from its factories. Yet business can produce food, cure disease, control population, employ people, and generally enrich our lives. And it can do these good things and make a profit without losing its soul.
My company, Ventura, California-based Patagonia Inc., maker of technical outdoor apparel and gear, is an ongoing experiment. Founded in 1973, it exists to challenge conventional wisdom and present a new style of responsible enterprise. We believe the accepted model of capitalism, which necessitates endless growth and deserves the blame for the destruction of nature, must be displaced. Patagonia and its thousand employees have the means and the will to prove to the rest of the corporate world that doing the right thing makes for good, financially sound business.
One of my favorite sayings about entrepreneurship is "If you want to understand the entrepreneur, study the juvenile delinquent." The delinquent is saying with his actions, "This sucks. I'm going to do my own thing." Since I had never wanted to be a businessman, I needed a few good reasons to be one. One thing I did not want to change, even if we got serious: Work had to be enjoyable on a daily basis. We all had to come to work on the balls of our feet and go up the stairs two steps at a time. We needed to be surrounded by friends who could dress whatever way they wanted, even be barefoot. We all needed flextime to surf the waves when they were good or ski the powder after a big snowstorm or stay home and take care of a sick child. We needed to blur the distinction between work and play and family.
Breaking the rules and making my own system work is the creative part of management that's particularly satisfying for me. But I don't jump into things without doing my homework. In the late seventies, when Patagonia was really starting to grow some legs, I read every business book I could find, searching for a philosophy that would work for us. I was especially interested in books on Japanese and Scandinavian styles of management, because I wanted to find a role model for the company; the American way of doing business offered only one of many possible routes.
In growing our young company, however, we still used many traditional practices--increasing the number of products, opening new dealers and new stores of our own, developing new foreign markets--and soon we were in serious danger of outgrowing our breeches. By the late eighties we were expanding at a rate that, if sustained, would have made us a billion-dollar company in another decade. To reach that theoretical mark, we would have to begin selling to mass merchants or department stores. This challenged the fundamental design principles we had established for ourselves as the makers of the best products, compromised our commitment to the environment, and began to raise serious questions about the future. Can a company that wants to make the best outdoor clothing in the world be the size of Nike? Can we meet the bottom line without giving up our goals of good stewardship and long-term sustainability? Can we have it all?
It would take 20 years, and the near collapse of our company, to find the answers.