He's in His Element in the Elements

Yvon Chouinard, the man behind Patagonia outfitters, does his best work in the rugged outdoors
February 11, 1991

Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of the Patagonia outdoor clothing company, has offices all over the world. Argentina, Belize, China, Kenya, Nepal, Scotland. But you won't find these offices in glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Chouinard works in more out-of-the-way places: on the face of a jagged mountain or along some desolate beach.

His office this day is a twisting sliver of rushing water called the Lewis River, in northwestern Wyoming. Chouinard (pronounced shi-NARD), 52, is 5'4" and well-built. His tanned calves are thick and muscled, and his hands are callused and strong. He wears a blue-and-gray cotton shirt with rolled-up sleeves, gray canvas shorts, a fishing vest, and felt-bottomed boots that make it easier for him to walk over the river's slippery rocks. Everything but the boots is made by his company. His dark hair recedes to the top of his head and is speckled with gray. Chouinard carries a fly rod. Standing knee deep in the river, he sets a caddis fly on top of a calm pool of water and gently strips it back across. "I spend most of my time in places like this," he says. "It's where I do my best work."

He certainly gets things done, for between fly casts, Chouinard has inadvertently created one of the most successful U.S. businesses of the past 15 years. Inadvertently, because when he started he was a college dropout looking for a way to support his passions for surfing, climbing, skiing, scuba diving, kayaking and fishing. His approach to business has been based on the belief that if the products are good, people will buy them. And they have. Revenues at Patagonia are expected to be $120 million for the 1990-91 fiscal year, with profits of more than $10 million.

Chouinard has changed the way people dress in the outdoors. Patagonia jackets, pants, gloves and hats are now ubiquitous among serious sportsmen. Astronauts on shuttle missions have worn the company's Capilene long underwear. Not only has Patagonia produced some of the most innovative and functional gear around, but it also has splashed it with dazzling colors—e.g., fuchsia, electric blue and guava—that appeal to fashion animals in much tamer locales.

"Patagonia is one of only a handful of companies that really drive the outdoor clothing and equipment market," says Glenn Bischoff, spokesman for the National Sporting Goods Association and former editor of Outside Business magazine. "Its products have always been on the cutting edge, both in function and fashion, and people in this industry watch very carefully what the company does."

This, in spite of a chief who claims he isn't a businessman at all. First and foremost, Chouinard is an athlete. He is a topnotch ice and rock climber, and his book, Climbing Ice, published in 1978, is considered the bible on the subject. "Yvon is an icon on the American climbing scene," says Michael Kennedy, editor and publisher of Climbing magazine. "He revolutionized ice climbing, and he has probably done more for climbing equipment in general than anyone else."

Chouinard is also an accomplished surfer, diver and kayaker and an expert skier. "I like sticking my neck out," he says. "I like the rush of adrenaline, the challenge of beating my own fears. But I am not foolish. I know exactly what I'm doing." Chouinard also excels at less heart-pounding pursuits. He is a fine fisherman and flytier.

As befits someone who spends so much time in the outdoors, Chouinard is a passionate environmentalist. Each year Patagonia sets aside part of its pretax profits for environmental causes, a practice it began in 1984. The company will hand out more than $1 million to 350 organizations this year. Chouinard also makes substantial contributions of his own. "Yvon puts his money where his mouth is," says John Sawhill, president of The Nature Conservancy, one of the country's largest environmental groups and the recipient of more than $100,000 from Patagonia, plus an undisclosed amount from Chouinard, over the past three years. "He understands better than most that business and conservation must work together."

Chouinard's generosity is fueled by a deep sense of urgency. "I am so damned pessimistic about what is happening to the environment," he says. That concern sometimes causes trouble. His support of controversial groups like Earth First!, for example, has so angered some longtime customers that they have stopped buying from Patagonia. That doesn't bother Chouinard. "I don't care how many people I tick off," he says. "I want to use this company as a tool for social change. I want to take a stand, and I want people to notice."

No one took much notice of Chouinard when he was a boy. Born in 1938, in Lewiston, Maine, of French-Canadian parents, he spent his first eight years in the nearby town of Lisbon. His father, Gerard, who worked as a plumber and handyman, in 1947 moved" his wife, Yvonne, and four children (Yvon has two older sisters and an older brother) to Burbank, Calif. It was a tough adjustment for Yvon, who had attended a French-speaking school in Maine. He struggled mightily in his new English-speaking school.

Things didn't get much easier when he learned English. "I was a loner," Chouinard recalls. "Antisocial. A real geek." He played some team sports but quickly learned they weren't for him. "During practice I was one of the best players on the baseball team," he says. "But at games, with people watching and all the pressure, I tensed right up. I couldn't get it done. I realized then that I had better try other things."

In high school he joined the California Falconry Club and spent much of his free time looking for hawks' nests. He and his friends often trapped and banded birds for the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. Falconry gave Chouinard his introduction to climbing, because he often used ropes to get at aeries on the ledges of cliffs, first moving down hand over hand and then eventually learning how to rappel. "It took me a while to figure out you could also climb up," he says.

It was hard keeping him off the mountains after that. In 1956 he traveled to Jackson, Wyo., to test his mountaineering skills in the Tetons. The climbing was so good that Chouinard returned the following summer, living for two months inside an old incinerator.

After graduating from high school, Chouinard took some geography courses at a community college in the San Fernando Valley. But he never earned a degree. Instead, he concentrated on climbing. He was unhappy with much of the equipment he was using, so he picked up a book on blacksmithing, scraped together enough money to buy an anvil and a coal-fired forge and began making pitons in the backyard of his parents' Burbank house. A year later he borrowed $825.35 from his folks to buy an aluminum forging die to make his own carabiners. When he went climbing, he sold his equipment out of the trunk of his car.

It was then that Chouinard started honing his unorthodox business practices. At the time, the only pitons on the market were made in Europe, of fairly malleable iron. Chouinard forged his own from a tougher steel alloy, and he sold them at four times the price of the European pitons. "There was a lot of resistance early on," he says. "But people began to realize that my equipment was that much better, and worth it."

"Yvon's equipment was that much better," says Royal Robbins, a renowned U.S. climber who has also written two best-selling books on rock climbing and who runs a $10 million sportswear company that bears his name. "His gear stood out because of its inventiveness and its quality."

Still, Chouinard wasn't making enough money to support his climbing habit. So he began working part time as a detective for his brother, Jeff, who was chief of security for Howard Hughes. "Hughes had a lot of those starlets' contracts," Chouinard recalls, "and I spent most of my time keeping track of his girls. I remember one of them bringing home a stray German shepherd. Hughes was scared to death of germs, and he didn't want the girl to have a dog. So I broke into her house and took the dog."

In 1964, after a two-year stint in the Army, Chouinard headed for Yosemite National Park, where he joined some of the world's best climbers as they made knee-knocking first ascents of the park's treacherous peaks. Perhaps his most remarkable effort was a 1964 climb up the North American Wall of El Capitan, a vertical rock face that rises 3,000 feet. He and Robbins and two other climbers spent 10 days inching up the wall, and nine nights hanging in tiny hammocks suspended horizontally from the rock face. Most of the equipment they used had been made by Chouinard.

By this time he had begun putting out a catalog, a one-page mimeographed price list of climbing gear. At the bottom it said: "Don't expect speedy delivery in the months of May, June, July, August and September." Those, of course, are the peak climbing months, and business or no business, Chouinard would be in the mountains, not at his forge.

He moved to Ventura, Calif., in 1966, mostly to be closer to good surf, and worked out of a rented tin shed behind an abandoned slaughterhouse. He took on fellow climber Tom Frost as a partner, and called the company Chouinard Equipment. They incorporated in 1972, calling it the Great Pacific Iron Works. Though Chouinard had an 80% share of the U.S. climbing-equipment market, it was grossing only around $300,000 a year.

Fortune finally came in the form of rugby shirts and canvas shorts, which Chouinard brought back from Britain in 1974. The items proved so popular with friends that Chouinard began offering them as climbing clothes through his Great Pacific catalog. Within a year, company sales had doubled.

The clothing business grew so fast that in 1976 Chouinard decided to spin it off, calling the new company Patagonia, after the hauntingly stark region of South America he liked so much. Frost, more interested in climbing than clothing, decided to leave the partnership.' That same year Chouinard started selling jackets made from a synthetic fleecelike fabric called pile. It is lightweight, yet as warm as wool and dries much faster. Within three years, pile garments accounted for more than 50% of Patagonia's sales. A basic pile jacket with a Capilene mesh liner is $150 in the current catalog.

The original company, Chouinard Equipment, continued to lead the U.S. climbing-gear market. But in the late 1980s it was hit with four lawsuits, all the result of accidents involving its products. One was settled out of court, and the other three are pending. With insurance premiums rising—Chouinard's had increased more than 1,000% in three years—and soaring legal fees, the company, which had been only marginally profitable at best, was pushed to the brink. Though the company felt confident it would prevail in those legal cases, there was serious concern that a future complainant might take a run at Patagonia's bountiful assets, even though the two enterprises were separate. So in April 1989, Chouinard Equipment filed for bankruptcy protection. A group of Chouinard employees bought the company's assets and eight months later renamed it Black Diamond Equipment Ltd. It continues to operate today, but without the involvement of the man who shaped its first piton.

"I know there are fish in there." Chouinard says, eyeing an inviting pool on the Lewis River. He casts once. Twice. Three times. But nothing strikes. Back and forth his line goes. Swish. Swish. Swish. He casts for a fourth, then a fifth, then a sixth time. Chouinard doesn't say a word. Finally a 17-inch brown trout hits the fly, and Chouinard brings it in.

He releases the fish and walks farther upstream. He picks thimbleberries that grow along the bank, plops a bunch into his mouth and washes them down with a handful of river water. Then he starts casting again. "I'm not any good at managing people or sitting behind a desk," Chouinard says. "What I'm best at is bringing back ideas. Every time I fish or surf or climb, I'm thinking of ways to improve our current lines and add new ones. This really is work for me."

He's not kidding. Consider the fishing vest he's wearing. For years he had used vests made by other manufacturers, but he never really liked them. So in 1987 he went to see Richard Siberell, Patagonia's director of technical design.

"Yvon came to me with some very specific ideas," Siberell explains. "We had never made a fishing vest before. But we worked up some sketches, picked out some fabrics and in a couple of months made a few prototypes. Yvon took one for himself, gave out a couple to fly-fishing friends, and in a few weeks they all reported back to us with their comments. It took three prototypes to get it right."

The new Patagonia vest was made mostly of durable mesh, to be cool on hot days. The pockets didn't sag, and it hung comfortably from the shoulders even when fully loaded. Rod & Reel magazine described it as "one of the best fishing things to come along in years," and it became one of Patagonia's hottest technical products. "That happens all the time," says Kris McDivitt, a top executive at Patagonia. "A lot of our products are born when Yvon returns from the wilds somewhere and says, 'You know, I was thinking....' "

Perhaps Chouinard's most unusual idea has been to create a $120 million business without spending more than a few months a year in the main office. "Yvon has been able to do it because he nurtures his people," says Robbins, his climbing buddy and business competitor. "He sets goals with them, then he sets them free."

It didn't hurt having McDivitt on the payroll, either. She started working for Chouinard in 1969, when she was 19 years old and between semesters at the College of Idaho. She labored mostly in the mail room, packing boxes of climbing equipment. When McDivitt finished school in 1972, with a double major in sociology and psychology, she came aboard full time. Six years later, Chouinard made her the chief executive officer of Patagonia. "He was the visionary around here," McDivitt says, "and he wanted me to translate that vision into everyday life." McDivitt was the CEO for 10 years before stepping aside in 1988—"I needed to try something else," she says—and she is a member of the five-person board that runs the company when Chouinard has gone fishing.

Breaking business rules comes as naturally to Chouinard as climbing frozen waterfalls. For one thing, Patagonia rarely advertises. "We give more money away to environmental groups than we spend on advertising," Chouinard says. "If you do everything right in your business, then you really don't need advertising. You don't need to pay athletes to wear your stuff, because if your stuff is good enough, they have to wear it."

A business publication once described Patagonia as "the anti-marketers," but don't let that fool you. Chouinard is a genius at the very practice he seems to disdain. "Patagonia makes some terrific gear," says Michael Kennedy, "but so do a lot of other companies. What sets it apart is the image Yvon has created. It's good, healthy, upbeat, bold, environmentally concerned." Adds Bob Woodward, editor of the retail newsletter Specialty News, "Patagonia has developed a cult following by being good and by being different, and Chouinard has really used that to his advantage."

His success has allowed Chouinard to lead a life that even Riley would have envied. His home in Ventura has such a fine view of the Pacific that his surfing pals regularly call for wave reports. Chouinard also has a log house in Moose, Wyo., just north of Jackson.

He met his wife, Malinda, 25 years ago in Yosemite, where he was climbing and she was working as a chambermaid at a park lodge. They have two children: Fletcher, 16, and Claire, 10. Malinda is very active in the company—from selecting shirt fabrics to shaping corporate policy—and like her husband, she is an ardent environmentalist. She enjoys hiking but isn't much for climbing or fishing.

Yvon can be as mischievous as he is unassuming. In between casts on the Lewis River, for example, he casually announced: "This is grizzly country." He paused to watch the color drain from his companion's face. "We could come in here with a sidearm, but that would take away a lot of the adventure." Chouinard smiled broadly, and then explained exactly what to do should a grizzly appear.

This sort of thing happens frequently to those who join him in the outdoors. "We have all been Chouinarded," says Paul Bruun, a Jackson fishing guide who is a Patagonia consultant and a longtime friend of the boss. "He will suck you into doing something that seems absolutely insane. You are sure it will be the end. But he won't kill you. He knows, even better than you, what you can do."

Looking at Chouinard today it's hard to imagine him as the shy, lonesome geek he says he once was. Outdoor adventurers seek his advice. Environmentalists solicit his ideas as well as his financial support. Harvard and Yale invite him to lecture on business. Tom Brokaw and Harrison Ford ask him to fish with them. "The success I've enjoyed has given me a lot more confidence," he says. "I think that is the only way it has changed me. That, and having a bit more money to spend." Says Robbins, "Yvon is pretty much the same person I met almost 20 years ago."

Chouinard is not sure what the future holds. He has just embarked on a yearlong sabbatical, which he'll spend surfing in France and climbing, hiking and fishing in Argentina. "It could be time for me to move on," he says. "Complacency will kill you in the end, and I don't want to get complacent."

He's more sure of the company's future. "I really believe this is a movement, not a business," Chouinard says. "When Malinda and I are gone, I want Patagonia to become an environmental foundation. That's why I won't sell out. I want it to make a difference."

Back at the cabin, Chouinard sits on the living-room couch and sips a mixture of beer and tomato juice. He talks about what he'll likely be doing the next day. Maybe he'll climb a 10,000-foot mountain in the Tetons. Perhaps he'll fish one of his favorite pools on the Snake River. For the head of Patagonia, it'll be just another day at the office.

PHOTOERIC SANFORDA ski-slope brainstorm led Chouinard to market this seat. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEChouinard forges tools for friends now, having given up making climbing gear two years ago. PHOTORICK RIDGEWAY/ADVENTURE PHOTO[See caption above.] PHOTORICK RIDGEWAY/ADVENTURE PHOTOChouinard, his passion for big mountains unabated, went climbing in the Himalayas in '85. PHOTOCRAIG MOLENHOUSEAn accomplished surfer and kayaker, Chouinard takes to the waves near his Ventura house.
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)