October 31, 2005
Excerpts: Spark - Part II
Rob Bon Durant, the director of brand development at Patagonia, typifies many of the people who work there. First, they passionately believe in the vision that the companys owner, Yvon Chouinard, has laid out. Patagonia is more than a company; it is a cause to improve the environment and make the earth a better place to live. Since 1985, the company has pledged 1 percent of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment; it has given away over $18 million in grants to environmental groups worldwide. Who wouldnt want to be part of a company with such a wonderful vision? Its easy to believe in and join a cause that is aligned with your own personal beliefs; thats one of the reasons Patagonia receives thousands of applications for the small number of positions that become available each year!
I wanted to include Rob in the book because he also perfectly represents the fun hog aspect of the company. When youve got a compelling corporate vision, people will work hard, but theyll also have fun. Sure, its easy for the folks at Patagonia to have fun; they work in the outdoor sports industry. But fun can be instilled in any company. The bottom line is that if people are doing something they are passionate about and having fun, chances are they are going to be innovative. Such an environment encourages co-creation with suppliers, customers, and the culture itself. Robs thoughts on the importance of a broad corporate vision, getting out of the office to spend time with customers, working in an open environment, and last but not least, having fun can give you options for applying some of these principles, with the result of being more innovative.
INSPIRATION: Rob Bon Durant Have Fun
Ive had a couple of different roles in the company. I have a marketing background and was the marketing director for five years and then switched over to the sales and brand development side. Previously, my responsibilities primarily revolved around brand marketing and product marketing, and I worked with our design and development teams on both the product and collateral marketing sides to develop brand messaging and do research and development for line building.
If you look at Patagonia, we have a variety of different sales channels. Its a pretty unique opportunity because we sell online, have our catalogue and mail order business, have our own direct retail stores, and then have a very robust wholesale business.
Open and Fun Environment
As far as our physical environment goes, Patagonia has no offices. We have office buildings, but we have no doors that close except for the conference rooms. Basically, we have an open and very sharing environment, which encourages communication maybe sometimes too much but it also absolutely fosters a cooperative type of interaction. The overall theme of the office that its very open and fun happens in a variety of different ways. When you call Patagonia and the machine picks up, it says, Thanks for calling Patagonia. Were usually open if the surfs not up. So its very much a Let my people surf philosophy.
Thats the philosophy that Yvon established 35 years ago when he founded Chouinard Equipment.
We were not businesspeople before we came here. We were pretty much climbers and surfers and skiers who found our way through serendipity or otherwise to Patagonia because Patagonia was an extension of the lifestyle that we all supported and lived. We have a boardroom here, but its not a typical boardroom its actually a board room, filled with surfboards. We have communal bikes with board racks attached that can be taken down to Surfers Point. Were very much living on the fly in terms of professional versus personal endeavors, but I want to reiterate that we do cover for each other the work gets done, but it doesnt necessarily get done on a nine to five timetable. Were very nontraditional in that aspect. That in and of itself makes the work environment very unique and very dynamic if we wind up staying late, its probably because we took a two-hour lunch to catch a big swell coming in.
Lead, Dont Follow
I cant remember what the statistics are, but we get something like 30,000 applications a year for an average of 30 positions. We dont tend to hire industry professionals or MBAs. Its been a firmly held belief here that its easier to teach a fun hog to be a businessman than to teach a businessman how to be a fun hog. Its always been the philosophy that we supported, and if we have to do that extra work, we do it willingly because it improves the quality of our professional life. There is no place like Patagonia that Ive really run across, especially for a quarter-billion-dollar company a company this size that can maintain this sort of corporate culture and still stay in the black year after year.
I think much of our success comes from the fact that we clearly understand and know the product we sell we live it. When we start our design cycle each season, we dont start it in a boardroom, we dont start it in a conference room under fluorescent lights. We start it in Hawaii if were designing for the spring and in Colorado or Alaska if were designing for the winter, and we usually go pretty deep into the backcountry to start that process. We drag everything with us that weve made over the past year. We bring our athletes our ambassadors out with us and we talk about the product. We ski in it, we climb in it, we rough it up, and we figure out whats wrong and what needs to be improved and whats perfect. So we come back with a very clear and rich understanding of what it is that were up to.
Play and Work Together
Most of us are very close; we have a tendency to work together and play together. My closest friends sit a few feet away from me, and Im with them all the time on Fridays we hit the road at four oclock to spend the weekend climbing or skiing. If were going skiing for the weekend because of the company that we are, because we supply so many outdoor professionals, I might call a ski patroller and say, Im coming up for the weekend and go out and sweep with him or her in the morning. Basically, what youre getting is a continuation of a lifestyle thats both professional and personal. When I go out skiing with patrollers, it helps me professionally because Im experiencing what they experience Im seeing firsthand the challenges that they put their clothes through and Im taking that information back. Okay, we need more durability on the knees or, We need to extend a zipper three inches so it can fit a communication device more appropriately. And all of this happens via the relationship itself its not a questionnaire or an online survey; its very much hands-on, experiential contact.
I think for us, the end of the workday on Friday is the opportunity to really go out and live the lifestyle that were building professionally during the week. For me, heading out on Friday with a bag full of samples to go climbing is probably the most exciting way I can think of to start a weekend. That may
sound kind of corny or trite, but if Im going to go up there and spend the weekend climbing, I want to try out a bunch of different products and see how they perform and I want to take that information back to the office and be able to speak from a position of experience, not supposition.
That doesnt mean it feels like Im working on the weekend. Not at all. Were playing, having fun, and having a great time. Sometimes people tell us to stop talking about work and were not talking about financial statements or meeting budgets; were really talking about whether a particular piece of apparel performed to our expectations on that given climb or that given ski or whatever it might be. For us thats a joy were pretty passionate about what we do.
Everybodys interested in what were doing, and everybody roots for us. Lets face it were a company thats doing the right thing, thats walking the walk and talking the talk, and everybody looks at us with a fair amount of curiosity. Weve made significant steps toward swaying the corporate cultures that exist both within and outside of our industry. We do it primarily on the environmental front ten years ago we made a very strategic decision to move all of our sportswear to organic cotton, which at the time was pretty risky because our sportswear division represented about 60 percent of our sales. And obviously in order to make that switch to organic cotton, we had to subsidize some of our organic cotton farmers so they could afford to grow for us. That raised our retail prices by two or three bucks, which is significant. Our fear was that our customers wouldnt embrace that. But we came together as a company and decided that we were willing to go out of business if it didnt work, because this was important enough to us to make the switch.
You know how the story winds up not only did our customers support us, but our competition came to us via an invitation and learned how to do it as well. We now have more clothing companies than ever looking at us. If we could only get someone like Gap or Levis to make the switch to organic cotton, it would destroy the conventional cotton industry there would be no reason to grow conventionally. So we have an organic cotton symposium every year, and we invite our competition to come to Patagonia to learn how to do it. They share with us, and we share all the dos and donts of growing and maintaining a sustainable business. Were going to do this and were going to keep doing it
Have a Human Face
When people envision Patagonia, I dont want them to envision our logo; I dont want them to envision our type font or even our catalog. I want them to envision a face or a person that they actually met a living, breathing human being that they had an enjoyable interaction with. That should be the face of Patagonia. That should be the voice of Patagonia. I think that is very much a philosophy that is embraced by all of us.
We dont work here for the money; we work here because were in business to inspire solutions, primarily to environmental crises that are occurring everywhere. The company doesnt exist to make money; the company exists as an environmental action corporate model. We joke all the time that were this grand experiment, and if we can make this thing work, then hopefully we can be a model to inspire corporate change.
Everybody Can Do It
Were in a sort of unique position working here, because its easy to be passionate about what we do. But I think that even if you worked for, say, General Mills, its not so much about being passionate about the cereal; its about being passionate about the lifestyle that youre living. Obviously, that includes the professional element and existing in a corporate culture that supports creativity, because lets face it, even cereal needs to be creative.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.