Eugene Fedorenko is Writing, Reading, and Traveling

Patagonia’s philosopher-king

On taking regular sabbaticals:

He’s less involved in the management of the company than he used to be, but since he got into the gear business, more than fifty years ago, he has frequently disappeared for months, sometimes for half the year, to climb, kayak, surf, ski, fish, and ramble around the planet’s wilder precincts, whose preservation he has dedicated the better part of his life to.

On Yvon Chouinard’s cabin in Jackson Hole near Grand Teton National Park:

He and some friends built the house in 1976, out of beetle-kill lodgepole pine. It was one of the first log houses in the valley, on six acres he’d bought for fifteen thousand dollars an acre. It’s simple and small, a relic of a different idea of mountain living. (“Now everyone builds these huge trophy log houses,” he said.) The house was strewn outside with gear and inside with bric-a-brac: nature books, binoculars, the sheet music to “Don’t Fence Me In,” which the family sings at weddings.

On priorities and work-life balance:

Chouinard had always encouraged his employees to cut work and go surfing when the swell came in.

On company growth:

The company laid off twenty per cent of its workforce, which no longer consisted mainly of friends and friends of friends. “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.

On philanthropic responsibilities:

The Chouinards undertook an environmental audit of their products and operations. For a few years, they’d been tithing ten per cent of their profit to grassroots environmental organizations. Now they enshrined a self-imposed “earth tax” of one per cent of their sales: a bigger number. “The capitalist ideal is you grow a company and focus on making it as profitable as possible. Then, when you cash out, you become a philanthropist,” Chouinard said. “We believe a company has a responsibility to do that all along—for the sake of the employees, for the sake of the planet.”

On defining your audience:

One catalogue, in the nineties, had a little chart of what Patagonia was versus what it was not: Fly fishing, not bass fishing. Long-haul trucking, not delivery-men. Surfing, not waterskiing. Upland bird hunting, not deer hunting. Gardeners, not survivalists. 

On popularity of wilderness and ecological consciousness:

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”).

On a hidden connection between Patagonia and North Face:

As sales of such soft goods began to outpace those of the hard, it was determined that the concern needed a name of its own. Chouinard suggested Patagonia. It sounded exotic, and it name-checked a place that had become dear to him since his Fun Hogs trip in 1968 with Doug Tompkins, an East Coast prep-school dropout who’d headed west to ski and climb. In the sixties, Tompkins and his then wife, Susie, started the North Face, an outdoor-gear retailer, as well as the clothing company Esprit, which Chouinard looked to as a model for his fledgling business.

On Patagonia's first fleece jackets:

For example, fleece, the hydrophobic washable insulating material that the Chouinards later branded Synchilla. It took them a while to get it right. Their first pile jackets were of fabric that had been intended for toilet-seat covers.

On “management by absence” and learning from nature:

I asked him how much power he had. “Power? I don’t have any power. If I complain about something, I often get a passive-aggressive response. I put up with it, because the alternative is to micromanage. 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.

On living an unpretentious life:

Over the years, the Chouinards had taken very little money out of the business. “Until the last couple of years, it was just houses,” Chouinard told me. In addition to Ventura and Jackson, they have a small place up the coast at the Hollister Ranch, a famous surfing spot that is off-limits to the public. He’s probably worth hundreds of millions, but he’s one of those could-be high rollers who fly coach. Every now and then, he still sleeps in his car. (McGuane told me, “He lives an unpretentious life, but does it on a lot of expensive real estate.”)