Jody Victor wanted to know more about Yvon Chouinard and his desire to improve climbing.
“Business can make a profit without losing its soul.”
– Yvon Chouinard
Yvon Chouinard was born in rural Maine in 1938. His father was a French-Canadian blacksmith. They led a rugged life enjoying the outdoors. When Chouinard was eight years old the family moved to Burbank, California. Chouinard’s love for the outdoors expanded to the ocean. He spent a lot of his time growing up surfing. When he was 14 he became a member of the Southern California Falconry Club. He learned how to rappel down the cliffs to the falcon aeries. He became so fond of the sport that he and a good friend would hop freight trains to rappel the cliffs of the San Fernando Valley. Eventually they learned to climb up the cliffs. At the Tahquitz cliffs above Palm Springs Chouinard met other young climbers who belonged to the Sierra Club. The next climbing mission for them was climbing the big walls of Yosemite.
The only climbing pitons at the time were made of soft iron. They were placed once and left in the rock’s face. One ascent of Yosemite entailed hundreds of pitons. During one excursion to Yosemite Chouinard met a Swiss climber who made his own hard iron pitons from Model A axles. He decided to make his own reusable pitons. In 1957 Chouinard went to a junkyard and bought a used coal-fired forge, a 138-pound anvil, tongs and hammers. He set up shop in the family garage. With memories of observing his father’s blacksmithing skills for guidance Chouinard taught himself how to forge his own pitons. He could make two of his steel pitons per hour and sold them for $1.50 each.
Chouinard’s love for and desire to be outdoors made him decide to take his forging tools to the beach. He traveled the California coast surfing during the winter months. After a morning surfing session he would set up his forge on the beach. He spent April through July climbing Yosemite and headed to Wyoming, Canada or the Alps to climb during the heat of summer. He sold his climbing gear from the back of his car.
Soon the demand for his gear was so great that he couldn’t keep making it by hand. In 1965 Chouinard partnered with Tom Frost, an aeronautical engineer and fellow climber, and started Chouinard Equipment. For the next nine years they redesigned and improved every climbing tool to make them stronger, lighter, simpler and more functional. The two partners’ guiding principle came from Antoine de Saint Exupery, a 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.
During these years Chouinard attended Stanford Business School and earned his MBA. In 1971 he met and married Malinda Pennoyer who was an Art and Home Economics major at California State University. Together they have one son, Fletcher. Yvon Chouinard and his wife Melinda committed themselves to keeping their company private and free from the normal corporate bounds. Chouinard has never sat behind a desk even when his company was earning upwards of 270 million dollars a year. The company headquarters today has no private offices. The company cafeteria is where its workers congregate to exchange ideas. At Melinda Chouinard’s insistence they started an on-site child care center. At the time there were only 150 in the country. Now there are over 3,000.
By 1970 Chouinard Equipment was the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the U.S. But with the growth in popularity of climbing came an environmental issue. Rock climbing remained very concentrated on the same rocks and cliffs. All that climbing gear was damaging the rock faces. The rocks had to endure repeated hammering during placement and removal of the pitons. Chouinard and Frost decided to phase out of the piton business. They knew it was a big business risk but they believed the environmental risk to the rocks was greater. This difficult decision made them search for another way to continue climbing and protect the cliffs. They came up with an alternative – aluminum chocks. The chocks could be wedged in by hand rather than hammered in and out. They introduced their aluminum chocks in the first Chouinard Equipment Catalog printed in 1972. Within a few months of the catalog’s release the piton business was done. They were selling chocks faster than they could be made.
On a winter climbing trip in 1970 to Scotland Chouinard bought himself a regulation rugby shirt for a souvenir. Up until this time “active sportswear” in the U.S. consisted of gray sweatshirts and pants. The basic climbing uniform consisted of cut-off tan chinos and white dress shirts from thrift stores. Chouinard’s rugby shirt was built to withstand the rugged sport with its reinforced seams and smooth collar. Plus it was colorful – blue, red, and yellow stripes, a noticeable departure from outdoor wear’s tan and forest green palette. When he wore his rugby shirt back home in the U.S. all his climbing friends wanted one. They began ordering and selling shirts from England, New Zealand and Argentina. They couldn’t keep them in stock. They had started a fashion craze in the U.S.
Chouinard’s active wear sales helped support the marginally profitable hardware business. But as they sold more and more Chouinard decided that they needed a name for their clothing business. Even though Chouinard Equipment had a good company image, he didn’t want people to associate their clothes with just mountain climbing. The Patagonia label was born.
Chouinard’s Patagonia Company spent years working with Malden Mills in California developing fabrics that would include the best of wool (insulates when wet) and the best of synthetics (wicks moisture away from the body). They developed polypropylene, Capilene polyester and Synchilla fleece. They also kept the vivid colors of the rugby shirts to keep the “bland” out of active wear.
In 1994, Chouinard once again made a hard business choice on behalf of the environment. He had become aware that the cotton products, which made up 20 per cent of their sales, came from industrial farming and required all sorts of Earth-damaging toxic chemicals. He threatened to walk away from Patagonia. He said, “I don’t want to be in business if I have to use this product.” He gave the company 18 months to switch completely to organic cotton. The transition was difficult. They had a hard time finding organic farmers. They had to fight banks whose interests were tied to big chemical companies. They had to find new gins and mills. They went a year without making a profit on their cotton products. Patagonia survived. “But the bigger point”, he said, “is that the switch was profitable and the right thing to do, a concept that corporate America often doesn’t get.”
Since 1985, Patagonia has donated 1 percent of its annual sales to grass-roots environmental groups. It has even convinced more than 1,200 companies to follow its lead and join its “1% for the Planet” group. They have brought together an unprecedented coalition of governors, businesses and environmental groups to protect animal migration corridors. Yvon Chouinard was elected to Newsweek’s “Best Leaders of 2009”.