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INTERVIEW: Yvon Chouinard in conversation with Superfolk. Part 1.

INTERVIEW: Yvon Chouinard in conversation with Superfolk. Part 1.

Yvon Chouinard is the founder of Patagonia. This week it was announced that Yvon has given away his entire company, Patagonia, to an environmental charity. Some months back Gearóid (founder of Superfolk) and Yvon chatted over zoom.

In this first part of a two-part series, they chat about fishing, craftsmanship, product design, the pivotal role of women in shaping Patagonia’s policies, and the origins of Chouinard’s own unconventional approach to business.

Part 2 of this interview will be published next week.

 

As a disgruntled teenager, I struggled to find people to look up to. I admired craftsmen, explorers, artists, and people who weren’t afraid to break the rules. I didn’t think much of those who did what society told them to do. I admired and still do, people who were willing to go their own way. Today, I find that these are still the people I admire most. 

When I first began reading about Yvon Chouinard, many years ago, I knew that I had found someone whose values really inspired me. Yvon Chouinard has never been afraid to break the rules. Dissatisfied with the current state of the world he has always been an advocate for change. Now, here was someone I could really look up to, I thought. I read every interview I could find with him. I devoured all of his writing. 

In time, I became more and more interested in what he was doing in the world of business. 50 years ago Yvon founded the company Patagonia. Today, that company is valued at close to 3 billion USD. But nothing about his journey has been conventional. There was his time as a 'dirtbag’ climber, living out of his car and surviving off of cans of dented cat food, his company beginnings hand forging climbing gear, the family and childcare policies he built for his staff at Patagonia, and the ways in which Patagonia uses their platform to advocate for environmental awareness and climate justice.

In building one of the most innovative, altruistic, inventive, and profitable outdoor clothing brands in history, Yvon completely changed my perception of what a ‘business leader’ could look like and be.

Yvon began in business by designing, manufacturing, and distributing rock climbing equipment in the late 1950s. His tinkering led to an improved ice axe that is the basis for modern ice axe design. In 1964 he produced his first mail-order catalogue, a one-page mimeographed sheet containing advice not to expect fast delivery during climbing season.

Now at the age of 83, Yvon Chouinard still hasn’t stopped breaking the rules. Yvon says he hasn’t changed much. He still occasionally likes to sleep in the back of his beat-up old Suburu estate car and he is still known to eat what others would not. 

Then, this week, came the most inspiring news of all. It was announced that Yvon has given away his entire company, Patagonia, to an environmental charity. And yet, for those who have followed Yvon’s life story, and read his writing, this wasn’t surprising. Surprising and inspiring is he has always done. This is the kind of inspiring, altruistic leadership that Yvon Chouinard has become synonymous with.

So, how did a tiny design studio in the west of Ireland get to interview a living legend like Yvon Chouinard? The simple answer is… we asked. We are so grateful that Yvon had the generosity of spirit, and belief in the value of connecting with, and inspiring people, that he said “yes”.

 

A quick editor’s note: This interview was conducted over zoom some months back, before this week’s big announcement about Patagonia. Gearoid, the founder of Superfolk, is in our studio in Mayo, Ireland where it is late evening. Yvon is in his home in Ventura, California where it is late morning. For some background context, Gearoid and Yvon share a passion (obsession?) for fly fishing and fly tying. And this is where their conversation begins, with some technical chat about tying innovative and simple fly patterns. It is clear that even when it comes to fly-fishing Yvon is always thinking about the principles of simplicity, materials, and innovation. But, if fly-tying technical chat isn’t usually your thing, (don’t worry its niche!), their conversation soon veers off into craftsmanship, the value of repairing and recycling, climbing, product development, and of course, mistakes, and lessons learned in founding and leading a company.

 

Yvon Chouinard outside his original tin shed metal workshop. Which is still on the Patagonia campus.

 

It is a dark, wet night. I am sitting alone in our studio, in an empty building in the west of Ireland, late at night. I have just made myself a cup of coffee and then as if by magic, he appears. There he is. Yvon Chouinard is now sitting at the other end of my zoom screen...

As we begin to settle into our conversation I ask Yvon if he has had any time for fly tying. I know that it is currently closed season for fishing where he is and I guess that fly tying is something he might be working on at the moment.

“I’m all set up! Right beside me here. I tie during zoom meetings sometimes” he says, laughing. “I’ve been working using pheasant tail [as a material] for everything, in different sizes and different weights. So now I’m writing a little book about pheasant tail … It’s such a perfect fly tying material and, in fact, there's gonna be about fifteen different flies we tie using pheasant tail. It will fish as well, or better, than any other material in that pattern!’. We’re tying up some dry flies at the moment and if you tie with a pheasant tail, which is a kinda an olive colour it fishes as well or is better than a cream body”. “So…”, he says, excitedly “it’s getting pretty obvious that color doesn’t mean much”.

It is clear, that even when it comes to fly-fishing, Yvon is always experimenting and learning through designing and making, and simplifying. In a way, it feels as though he is always asking himself the same questions… how can this be simpler? How can it be more effective? What can be improved when we break free from norms and conventions?

 

“Working with your hands gives you the confidence that you can effect change.”

— Yvon Chouinard

 

It’s interesting to me that Yvon is still making things. We talk some more about fly-tying but I want to ask him also about craftsmanship. I have read that he describes his father, Gerard, as a handyman, mechanic, and plumber. And Yvon still often refers to himself as a blacksmith and has encouraged his son also to learn a trade. 

I also know that Yvon is an advocate of the repair, reuse and recycle philosophy. One of Patagonia’s most successful campaigns has been their “Don’t Buy this Jacket” campaign and their “Worn Wear” platform.

And it seems that this philosophy follows through in his personal life. He once built a summer house on the coast entirely made out of recycled materials. Yvon confirms to me the story that he himself spent weeks smashing up a concrete footpath to be used as part of the building materials. It seems that for Chouinard, the knowledge of making things and repairing things are essentially intertwined. 

“What do you think working with your hands, and learning to repair things teaches a person?” I ask him.

“Well, I think it teaches you confidence. Growing up we repaired everything. You know, when I was a teenager every teenager worked on his own car and could fix most of the stuff in a car. And, in those days, if you had a leaky faucet washer, you fixed it. And so I think now there's a lot of people who have very little confidence in themselves because they can’t even look underneath the hood of their car anymore, it's a computer. There is no way you can fix anything. Now you can’t even fix your washer or your faucet. Working with your hands gives you the confidence that you can effect change”.

“Today, you can't sharpen your knives. When I go and stay at people’s homes, I bring my sharpening stone with me and sharpen their kitchen knives, because, first of all they're made out of crap stainless steel. They’re dull as can be… you can’t even cut a tomato with them. I get to become pretty popular in the kitchen”.

“I bet” I say, laughing.

I picture Yvon, in a friend’s kitchen as dinner is being prepared, sharpening his host’s kitchen knives and then inviting everyone to experience for themselves just how much better a sharp knife is. I realize that there is always this unapologetic aspect of educating and ‘demonstrating by doing’ in how Yvon operates in the world. It is an admirable throughline in his personality that will come through again and again as we talk. 

 

Chouinard in Yosemite, in 1969, with climbing gear that he made himself. Photograph by Glen Denny

 

Later, as we begin to discuss the many innovative products that Patagonia has brought to the market I am reminded again of his constant reaching for improvement, refinement, and wanting to explore how things can be made better. 

I ask him, of all the products he has been involved in developing, which one he is most proud of. “The ice axe’ Yvon replies without hesitation. ”And, you know, that is because the ice axe was an innovation, it wasn’t an invention. We just improved on the existing Ice Axe. But… it made ice climbing so much more effective. When we came out with it no one knew what to do with it. And it was the same thing with chocks (climbing anchors). We had to write a book on how to use chocks. We were so far ahead of the game with the ice axe that we had to teach people how to use the product. And, so I also had to write a book called “Climbing Ice” showing what to do with this new Ice Axe”. 

 

“When I go and stay at people’s homes, I bring my sharpening stone with me and sharpen their kitchen knives”

— Yvon Chouinard

 

Chouinard- Frost, Bamboo Ice Ax.

 

Yvon demonstrating piolet ramose, french technique. Photo by Ray Conklin

 

Even in his approach to business Yvon’s approach seems to always be to question the effectiveness of conventions and do things his own way. In 2006 Yvon Chouinard wrote and published the book “Let My People Go Surfing”. The book has the telling subtitle ‘The education of a reluctant businessman”. The original intent for the book was that it would be a kind of philosophical manual for the employees of Patagonia. However, in time this simple book was translated into more than ten languages and has been used in schools and colleges, small businesses, and large corporations. 

It is clear from both the book and now talking to him that Yvon never wore the title ‘businessman” with complete ease. He says that Patagonia was, and is, an experiment in doing business in unconventional ways. In the book, he writes ‘None of us was certain it was going to be successful, but we did know that we were not interested in “doing business as usual.” 

 

“Most companies fail when the entrepreneur thinks he’s also a great manager or businessman or whatever, and then they find out that they’re not”

— Yvon Chouinard

 

 

Considering his background in craft and his obvious love of the tangible nature of making I ask Yvon, how he, and Patagonia, made the leap from directly making each product to then outsourcing the manufacturing of products as the business began to grow. How did he shift from hammering climbing pitons, 8 hours a day, to opening up Patagonia stores? I imagine it wasn’t a shift that was easy for him. What was it that allowed him to scale and grow his business ambition?

Perhaps it was because he stopped hammering, and making every single item himself that he then had the time to apply his innovative and outside-the-box rule-breaking to how he was running his business?

“Well, that's kind of a difficult question. At some point, you can’t do it all yourself and you have to trust other people to do the job. The craftsman can be the entrepreneur but at some point, there is only so much he can do. And then you have to become a manager. Or, you have to stick at what you're doing or what you're good at and let other people run the company. 

The biggest problem small companies make is for the entrepreneur to think that he is a manager. Because at some point, I mean they're two different mindsets. It takes two different kinds of people. 

 

Yvon Chouinard with partner Tom Frost and employees at the tin shed 1969. Photo by Tom Frost.

 

“An entrepreneur is born and a manager is born, pretty much. That's the way it is and you can't exchange the two. Most companies fail when the entrepreneur thinks he's also a great manager or businessman or whatever, and then they find out that they're not”. As an owner-manager, I nod reluctantly. I know he knows what he is talking about.

 

Our conversation turns back to the role of their product and customer in the evolution of Patagonia. Today, building a close, loyal relationship with customers and their needs is something that Patagonia is recognised for. But, I imagine, this wasn’t always the way. Surely this is something that they learned and developed over time? I recall reading that in the early days of Patagonia they commissioned a huge order of rugby shirts that were poorly made and, I imagine, a bit of a disaster. I ask Yvon what did they all learn from this experience?

“Well it was terrible” he recalls ‘but I mean we didn’t have to throw them away or anything. We had to repair a lot of them. What we had produced was a rugby shirt that was a fashion item. And that was wrong. That’s what the fashion business does, they’ll take an idea and dumb it down and make it fashionable. And we realized that’s not what our customers want. And that’s not what we want. We want the real thing.”

With his unconventional, risk-taking approach I wonder what other mistakes (rugby shirts aside) Yvon has made within the company. And what he has learned from them.

I expect him to cite another product disaster or moment of failing to understand his customer. Instead, he replies, without hesitation… “My biggest mistake was hiring the wrong people …, particularly CEOs. We’ve had ten CEOs. Some of them have been good, some of them, not so good. I realized quite a while ago that I was not good at hiring. I can be fooled too easily, I trust people too much. So, I no longer do the hiring at all. I don’t even sit in on interviews. Women are really good at interviewing because they can cut right through the bullshit. They can understand a person’s personality better than men can, so they are much better at interviewing people.

 

Kristine McDivitt Tompkins joined Patagonia full-time at the age of 23 and went on to become the first women to lead the company. “Kristine is very good at working with people both inside and outside the company”.

 

Indeed, women have had a pivotal role in shaping the work and philosophy of Patagonia. “Kristine [McDivitt Tompkins, who worked for Patagonia for many years, having joined Patagonia at the age of 19] was the first woman to head up the company. Women bring good communication I think, and a different way of managing people. You know the men tend to want to be top-down management, basically, go around telling people what to do and hope that they do it. And praise them when they do it. But women tend not to do that top-down management style, which doesn’t really work in our company.” 

“We have many very, very independent people [working at Patagonia]  who don’t like to be told what to do. But if you can convince them that this is the right thing to do, they’ll do it. But it’s all in how you present it. Kristine was very good at working with people.”

At this point, Yvon’s wife Malinda, who is busy in the background of the zoom chat adds. “Kristine is very good at working with people both inside and outside the company”.

“Yes”, Yvon agrees wholeheartedly, “both inside and outside the company. Kristine has saved millions of acres of nature in South America and she did that by working with these ego maniac politicians. And the way you work with these people, I learned from her, is that you make it sound like it’s their idea. Let them celebrate the victory.”

 

 

“1% for the planet” is a self tax and you know, I believe in taxes”

— Yvon Chouinard

 

And as Patagonia grew as a company, their ambition to use their platform to foster environmental activism and awareness grew too. Then, in 2002, Yvon Chouinard and his fishing friend Craig Matthews founded “1% for the planet”.  This is an organization that helps companies give back to environmental causes by donating 1% of their turnover each year. I ask Yvon how the idea for 1% for the planet came about. 

“Well… we started out doing it [donating] ourselves. And, we thought, why don’t we get other people to do it too and increase the pot, the environmental pot? When I meet Craig it turned out he was donating 2% in his little fly shop. I was pretty inspired by that. I think then, just talking among ourselves we decided to start the organisation. It has taken a long time to get where it is today”.

“But” he continues “it’s exploding now. It’s growing faster in Europe than in the States. But, then, solutions to the environmental crisis are happening in Europe, not in the States. You guys are way ahead of us”. 

“And it’s all small companies as well that are joining, all small companies. [Superfolk is a proud member!]. The big companies are hopeless. They don’t see the marketing value of it. They just see a direct expense. All the gains that we make, in making companies more responsible and stuff, are all being done by small companies. There’s nothing being done by a large company. It’s all greenwashing. I used to think that I could influence other companies to do what we’re doing just because it’s good business. But that doesn’t work for larger companies. They’re not following at all. There just making me believe they are”.

“1% for the planet” is a self tax and you know, I believe in taxes. And the best is when you decide where your tax money goes. Imagine if at the end of the year you could say where you wanted your tax money to go. It would be ideal. You could say well I don’t want any to go to the military. Ya, that’s the best part about 1%.” As of Spring 2022 ‘1% For The Planet’ membership now exceeds 6000 members in 85 countries.

(End of Part 1, to be Continued…)

 

 

 

 

 

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