Learning from the CEO of Patagonia.
He’s one of my idols, really. Every book he’s written I’ve devoured. Every time I see an interview with him, a podcast or an article, I track it down and pour over it. I think he has a lot to teach us all about what business can and should be.
So, today, I want to talk about the things I’ve learned from Yvon Chouinard, the visionary leader of Patagonia, the outdoor equipment and clothing brand.
Forgive me if I get a little gushy.
I’ve just whizzed through his 2005 book, Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of Reluctant Businessman, and, honest to God, I just couldn’t put it down. Here’s a link to it if you fancy reading it yourself, or there’s a podcast interview with him here.
It’s a really humble book about his passion, his vision, and his love and care for the environment. And whilst Patagonia has become a billion-dollar company, it’s also a book that traces the development of the brand as the sort of accident it was. A brand built from his desire to produce equipment he could use himself.
And, finally, it’s a book about learning, trying and failing, and improving – hence the name, The Education of…. Rarely do you see such honesty from a business leader!
So, in the spirit of education – here are the things that I myself have learned from Yvon Chouinard.
Maintain Integrity to your Vision.
One of the most famous things about Patagonia is the brand’s commitment to their vision, their original intention, and their core vision.
This vision is one of environmental friendliness and consciousness – and it informs everything they do. And so, they promote particular causes among their customer base and the wider public. Since 1985, Patagonia has pledged 1% of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment through the 1% For the Planet initiative. And we probably all saw them make their voice heard when Trump threatened the US national parks.
Even though the brand has become hugely successful, the integrity of their core values has never been challenged. And there are very few big firms of which the same can be said.
Develop a Workplace Culture that Satisfies Everyone.
Years before the business world latched onto the idea of workplace culture, Patagonia was doing everything brilliantly already. And, as someone that guides companies in their own business structure, this is one of the most resonant things I’ve learned from Yvon Chouinard.
His integrity doesn’t extend merely to the environment. But it is there in the way he treats his staff. The whole time he has sought to make Patagonia a company that people want to work for. And to do this cultivated radical measures – opening the Great Pacific Child Development Centre in 1984 which was one of only 150 on-site corporate child care centres in the country. Or even, when the surf was good, letting staff run off with their boards to enjoy it through his ‘Let My People Go Surfing’ flextime policy. (Hence the book’s title!).
It’s become a business that is known for its culture. It hires motivated and independent people who are aligned with the core values of the company. And anyone that comes into that ecosystem immediately shares in its culture.
In a world in which brilliant workers can be lost in unproductive business cultures, this is an inspiration.
Enjoyment Needs to be Central to Work.
Chouinard calls himself a reluctant businessman. And this is because his goal was never to make money. As a result, he was never the sort of entrepreneur who, Elon Musk-style, would work all of his waking life.
Rather, he’d never forget his true love: exploration and adventure. Consequently, he would take four to six months off a year to indulge in this pleasure. Many of us dream to be able to leave our businesses like this. But interestingly in doing this throughout the lifetime of the business, the people who work for him have adapted to his absences and he has inadvertently created one of the most autonomous work forces out there!
When asked how the business runs without him, he responds ant colonies don’t have bosses. I wrote about this in my article The Ant Nest Principle. This is a principle that has been instilled in the deepest parts of the company. That staff are autonomous, that they can be trusted to do the things they need to do. That, if they know the values and beliefs of the business and are allowed to get the hell on with things, they don’t need a manager breathing down their necks.
Customers are Your Friends – Not Just People Who Give You Money.
One of the most personally inspiring things I’ve learned from Yvon Chouinard is his absolute dedication to the customer. For Patagonia, ‘the customer is always right’ doesn’t cut it at all.
Customer care is first and foremost, and this comes both from a care for the product and an ability to understand the customer’s needs. They design clothes to last, even down to the positioning of the zip or pockets, to facilitate repair and longevity of the item. If you were to send a broken product back to the company, they have an Ironclad Guarantee and will repair it for a small cost or replace it if the product has failed in some way.
They even have a van that drives around the US, to which products can be taken and fixed. And it isn’t only Patagonia products. This commitment to quality and customer care is exceptional.
After-care and creating a long-term customer relationship is crucial to the firm’s core values. And, as a result, they have an incredibly loyal customer base. All customers are brand ambassadors, and Patagonia inspires a customer dedication like almost no other brand.
Simplicity Wins, Always.
One of Chouinard’s comments throughout the book is that corporations tend to over-complicate things. And this tends to have the result of businesses missing hugely important things.
Patagonia’s philosophy, meanwhile, has been always to strip things down to the basics. Rather than grand strategic visions, they see what works. Rather than radical changes, they take baby steps. They prefer to go slowly rather than rapid growth.
This, I think, is a necessary antidote to much business thinking around growth, profit and progress. Better to grow slow and well, than fast and with poor structure. Yvon describes it as ‘Measure Twice, Cut Once’ method both when discussion manufacture of Patagonia’s clothing and approach to business.
At a slower pace and a focus on customer service, the business structure can grow at the rate of the business and better support the mission of the business. Challenges can arise and good, long-term solutions can be found that will stand the test of time, rather than fix the immediate problem with a solution that will not be fit for purpose in six months’ time. Then you are back to the drawing board again, finding the next solution.
I like this slow and steady approach with methodical analysis of the issues as they arise, finding long-term solutions to issues. I think, in today’s business world of rapid growth, this is often overlooked.
There is much to learn from this business model, I highly recommend you learn from this pioneering and a little unconventional business leader!