let my people go surfing
Let my people go surfing – The Education of a Reluctant Businessman
Antoine de Saint Exupéry, the French aviator: “In anything at all, perfection is finally attained not when there is no longer anything to add, but when there is no longer anything to take away when a body has been stripped down to its nakedness.”
Let my people go surfing – The Education of a Reluctant Businessman. The original release in 2005 was meant to be a philosophical manual for the employees of Patagonia. This book became much more, it has been translated to multiple languages and because the inspiration for many corporations as well used in schools.
It perhaps all started in 1954 when Yvon Chouinard, Patagonia’s founder, got his first lesson on how to repel down the cliff. That sparked interest and led to live long climbing carrier, along the way came business. It started with forging and selling pitons from the back of his car. In 1965 Yvon officially started Chouinard Equipment with Tom Frost, a company currently known as Black Diamond Equipment. Designing and constructing the world’s top-quality climbing, skiing & mountain gear. The nine years partnership resulted in the improvement of almost every climbing tool there was in terms of weight, strength, functionality. One manifesto and change that I want to outline here is how the company in 1972 published their catalog with a 14-page essay on how to stop using pitons and instead move on to a new tool – aluminum chocks called nuts. While pitons were a very big part of the company’s income they were also environmental villains that left rock damaged. Each climber had to place the piton, hummer it into the rock, and later remove leaving a hole behind that was getting bigger and bigger each time.
That a good example of how a company takes into consideration its stakeholders, environment, and looks in long term. Even strictly from the business point of view, in the long-term, eventually, there wouldn’t be a rock to climb and there would be no business. That was the start of a new era called Clean Climbing.
That would not happen if the company would be run by a board of directors who look after financial results and often short-term goals. While a public company has a responsibility to satisfy the shareholders as well. These interests are protected by different parties within the corporation. It’s also common practice to provide bonuses for the management and board members to support the right decisions. Compensation packages mentioned before are usually paid when a company hits its financial targets, set often as 3-month periods. The idea of compromising the finance of the company on behalf of the environmental matter was radical in the early ’70s. That could only happen in a privately owned company, that was driven by its very own standards and they proved that business can be done differently. It’s worth mentioning that at the time, Chouinard Equipment was the biggest climbing hardware supplier in the USA.
After one of his climbing trips, Yvon brought with him a rugby shirt from Scotland that was hard-wearing and turned out to be great for climbing. That started the journey with what is today knows as Patagonia, Inc. It was a mix of imported products like wool mittens from Austria, shirts from Scotland, or some products from the USA. The company faced many problems on the way to its today status, but as of 2018, it was worth 1 billion dollars. While Yvon Chouinard the owner of Patagonia Works net worth for 2021 was 1,8 billion dollars. To me, it is clear that a business can be successful and utilize the triple bottom line mindset. That means the bottom value accounting framework consists of financial, social, and environmental parts.
That was not always so simple. In the ’70s and ’80s, there were a few companies with a similar mindset and there wasn’t any framework on how to do it at that time. It was a vision and something that had to be created. Perhaps not so clear at the start of this journey there were 8 pillars that the current company was build and is still standing. They are the following:
The raison d’etre is to build the best product. Innovation took different forms, but it was always there. Pursue to create a better, more functional, more durable, fixable product is the goal. There have been many products, that from this perspective were rather failed. That didn’t stop the company to continue and develop new better products.
The second pillar is production. Cause no unnecessary harm are the words we can find in the mission statement of Patagonia, Inc. While clothing business is very dirty, and practices need improvement. These are not hidden facts from customers, carbon footprint, place of production, or conditions of workers are transparent. The company works on long-term contracts with suppliers, never justifying the quality. The designer and the producer are working in a close relationship, these are extra steps to make sure the process runs correctly.
Versatile distribution, from own shops to wholesale. That guarantees the steady flow of the goods.
Branding. It started as a group of hardcore outdoor enthusiasts aiming to make the best quality and durable gear possible for hardcore outdoor enthusiasts. The core values remain the same today, but products are made to satisfy the wider range of customers, while not justifying the quality. Patagonia is cherished by environmentally conscious customers who don’t get triggered by sales and fast fashion trends. Foremost brands are considered legitimate and trustworthy.
When it comes to the financial aspect, Yvon had a taste of fast growth until 1991, when the company’s rapid expansion was interrupted by a loan issue mixed with the recession in sales. The company faced a difficult decision and it resulted in layoff of 20% of its staff. After that vision was readjusted, the company pick-up strategy limited the growth and provided a safety net for future turbulence.
Human resource management has changed over the years. In the start, it was the climbers making gear for climbers, but now it’s not the case anymore. Therefore, it is much more challenging to keep the company’s culture strong and find the right people. There are around 900 job seekers for each position. It is time taking process, but the company takes time to do this properly as well as includes extra training for their staff. What I personally really like, is the flexibility people have, as the name of the book calls for: to let my people go surfing is a call for freedom. You cannot schedule powder day on your local ski resort or good waves next Thursday. You go when the conditions are good. That was something that Yvon understood well and wanted to provide this opportunity for its workers. That also follows proper insurance for active people, on-site childcare, or healthy food at the office’s canteen. These might be taken for granted in Finland, but that has not been always the case in the USA. Even today healthcare and accessibility to fresh and healthy food products are not granted.
Management strategy is an open plan. No doors and everyone can be involved. The owner himself is available for most – if he’s not gone fishing. There has never been car space reserved for CEO or closed-door meetings. The Decision-making process is transparent and based on common agreement.
The last pillar is the environment. Chouinard claims that this is the reason why he’s still in the business. He wants to use business for good porpoise and inspire change. The company has been putting pressure on many institutions or governments to take action against the climate crisis. One local example of the company’s reach is Patagonia’s support of Jasper Pääkkönen who’s an actor in day-to-day life but also advocates for wild fish in Finland. They contributed to the removal of several dams in Finland.
I don’t think every company has the possibility to be like Patagonia and change from day to day, but every company should consider its actions and the impact it creates. It is worth outlining some parts about what can be done, and I would like to inspire people to think and challenge the status quo and look beyond the industry’s standards. Being sustainable is an ethical choice and companies should be conscious about their actions as well as these should be transparent to their customers. A lot lays in customers’ hands, after all, no company can exist without its clients. Although the push for change should also come from the leadership as I strongly believe that this is really the only way how companies can go forward and address the current climate and social crisis along with the needs of external stakeholders who are more important than ever for a healthy company.
Chouinard Y. (2006). ‘Let my people go surfing: the education of reluctant businessman’. New York: Penguin.
MacKinnon, J. B. ‘Patagonia’s Anti-Growth Strategy’. The New Yorker. Accessed 19 April 2021. https://www.newyorker.com/business/currency/patagonias-anti-growth-strategy.
‘Finnish Breakthrough – Patagonia’, 19 November 2019. https://www.patagonia.com/stories/finnish-breakthrough/story-74633.html.