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Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman [Paperback]

by Yvon Chouinard
4.6 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (142 customer reviews)

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Editorial Reviews

Amazon.com Review

Like the carefully engineered dies which created his company's first products--steel pitons and carabiners which climbing enthusiasts would recognize as primitive forerunners of today's sleeker gear--Yvon Chouinard is if nothing else an original. How many other shy French-Canadian boys become surf-and-climbing bums, then blacksmiths forging their own play tools, and eventually founders of world-renowned sports equipment and apparel companies like Patagonia? How many other heads of multi-million dollar enterprises open their memoirs by stating bluntly, "The Lee Iacoccas, Donald Trumps, and Jack Welches of the business world are heroes to no one except other businessmen with similar values. I wanted to be a fur trapper when I grew up." The proverbial mold from which Chouinard was cast got broken.

In Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, readers get a fascinating look inside the history and philosophy of both Patagonia and its irascible, opinionated founder. From its beginning, the book shares a sense of Chouinard's strong-willed personality and his love of the outdoors. He recounts a mostly happy childhood spent in a still-unspoiled southern California, climbing, diving, fishing, and surfing. The narrative soon moves into Chouinard's early entrepreneurial efforts, which were less focused on market-share domination than on earning a basic living to finance his own sporting habits. As his company's first catalog noted, delivery could be slow in the summer months, when Chouinard typically left the "office"--a dilapidated shack converted into an ironworks--for climbing adventures across the American West.

Eventually, though, the story settles into a pattern familiar to business audiences: Patagonia grows rapidly, takes on more employees and product lines to sustain hungry demand from customers, but overreaches with over-ambitious expansion plans and suffers a hiccup in its adolescence. This make-or-break juncture of a business's development often contains the most interesting material, and here Chouinard and his beloved company are no exception. He describes a series of wrenching decisions through which he and Patagonia management team navigated in 1991, as sales growth stalled while capital and operational expenses sprinted ahead. From this crisis emerged Patagonia's first-ever layoffs, affecting a hefty 20% of the workforce, and a serious re-examination of the business's core principles and methods.

The historical part of Chouinard's book largely ends at this point, and gives way to an exposition of philosophies which emerged at Patagonia during its dark moments in the early 1990s. The rest of the book serves as a kind of primer to business, the Patagonia way: one chapter each on product design philosophy, production philosophy, distribution philosophy, image philosophy, financial philosophy, human resource philosophy, and so on. Fans of Patagonia can revel in the company's working details, as can those who support or want to build businesses with self-consciously cultivated soulfulness. Readers who enjoyed Gary Erickson's story about Clif Bar, for example, should definitely find this a welcome addition to their bookshelves. --Peter Han --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

From Publishers Weekly

Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia Inc., presents his philosophy for a "new style of responsible business" along with a chronicle of his personal and company history in this sincere if self-congratulatory creed. A Californian of French-Canadian descent, Chouinard started forging climbing hardware and selling it out of his car in 1957 and published his first catalogue, a one-page mimeographed sheet, in 1964. Today, his sporting goods company has annual revenues of $230 million, but he nonetheless identifies himself as more of "a climber, a surfer, a kayaker, a skier and a blacksmith" than a CEO. In this vein, he lays out his alternative vision of business, detailing eco- and people-conscious philosophies on aspects of the supply chain from product design and production to human resources and management. Chouinard has backed up his rhetoric with action: Patagonia pursues sustainability, gives 1% of annual net sales to environmental groups and has set benchmarks with its employee-friendly policies. Patagoniacs and socially conscious businesspeople may appreciate this account despite its wooden writing, especially as an antidote to headlines of corporate fraud. (Oct.)
Copyright © Reed Business Information, a division of Reed Elsevier Inc. All rights reserved. --This text refers to an out of print or unavailable edition of this title.

Review

No matter what you do, you will find essential guidance and inspiration in Let My People Go Surfing. (Dave Foreman, The Rewilding Institute)

Wonderful... a moving autobiography, the story of a unique business, and a detailed blueprint for hope. (Jared Diamond, author of Collapse)

About the Author

Yvon Chouinard is the founder and owner of Patagonia, Inc., based in Ventura, California.  He began in business by designing, manufacturing, and distributing rock climbing equipment in the late 1950s. His tinkering led to an improved ice ax that is the basis for modern ice ax design. In 1964 he produced his first mail-order catalog, a one-page mimeographed sheet containing advice not to expect fast delivery during climbing season. In 2001, along with Craig Mathews, owner of West Yellowstone's Blue Ribbon Flies, he started One Percent for the Planet, an alliance of businesses that contribute at least 1 percent of their net annual sales to groups on a list of researched and approved environmental organizations.

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

I'VE BEEN A BUSINESSMAN for almost 50 years. It's as difficult for me to say those words as it is for someone to admit to being an alcoholic or a lawyer.

I've never respected the profession. It's business that has to take the majority of the blame for being the enemy of nature, for destroying native cultures, for taking from the poor and giving to the rich, and for poisoning the earth with the effluent from its factories. Yet business can produce food, cure disease, control population, employ people, and generally enrich our lives. And it can do these good things and make a profit without losing its soul.

My company, Ventura, California–based Patagonia Inc., maker of technical outdoor apparel and gear, is an ongoing experiment. Founded in 1973, it exists to challenge conventional wisdom and present a new style of responsible enterprise. We believe the accepted model of capitalism, which necessitates endless growth and deserves the blame for the destruction of nature, must be displaced. Patagonia and its thousand employees have the means and the will to prove to the rest of the corporate world that doing the right thing makes for good, financially sound business.

One of my favorite sayings about entrepreneurship is "If you want to understand the entrepreneur, study the juvenile delinquent." The delinquent is saying with his actions, "This sucks. I'm going to do my own thing." Since I had never wanted to be a businessman, I needed a few good reasons to be one. One thing I did not want to change, even if we got serious: Work had to be enjoyable on a daily basis. We all had to come to work on the balls of our feet and go up the stairs two steps at a time. We needed to be surrounded by friends who could dress whatever way they wanted, even be barefoot. We all needed flextime to surf the waves when they were good or ski the powder after a big snowstorm or stay home and take care of a sick child. We needed to blur the distinction between work and play and family.

Breaking the rules and making my own system work is the creative part of management that's particularly satisfying for me. But I don't jump into things without doing my homework. In the late seventies, when Patagonia was really starting to grow some legs, I read every business book I could find, searching for a philosophy that would work for us. I was especially interested in books on Japanese and Scandinavian styles of management, because I wanted to find a role model for the company; the American way of doing business offered only one of many possible routes.

In growing our young company, however, we still used many traditional practices—increasing the number of products, opening new dealers and new stores of our own, developing new foreign markets—and soon we were in serious danger of outgrowing our breeches. By the late eighties we were expanding at a rate that, if sustained, would have made us a billion-dollar company in another decade. To reach that theoretical mark, we would have to begin selling to mass merchants or department stores. This challenged the fundamental design principles we had established for ourselves as the makers of the best products, compromised our commitment to the environment, and began to raise serious questions about the future. Can a company that wants to make the best outdoor clothing in the world be the size of Nike? Can we meet the bottom line without giving up our goals of good stewardship and long-term sustainability? Can we have it all?

It would take 20 years, and the near collapse of our company, to find the answers.

My lifelong adventure in business took root in Southern California. My family had moved from Lisbon, Maine, to Burbank, California, in 1946, when I was eight, because my mother, the real adventurer among us, thought the drier climate would help my father's asthma. My father was a tough French Canadian who worked as a journeyman plasterer, carpenter, electrician, and plumber, and I had an older brother and two older sisters.

It was in California that I would discover climbing, at age 15, in the outskirts of Los Angeles, after helping found the Southern California Falconry Club in the early fifties. One of the adult members, Don Prentice, taught us how to rappel down to the falcon aeries on cliffs, showing us how to wrap manila rope (stolen from the telephone company) around our hips and over our shoulders to control the descent. Through high school and into my years as a student at Valley Junior College, in Valley Glen, California, I started hanging with young members of the Sierra Club—a group that included Royal Robbins, who would go on to start his own successful clothing company, and Tom Frost, an aeronautical engineer who would become my business partner from 1966 to 1975—and climbing the sandstone cliffs of Stoney Point, at the west end of the San Fernando Valley, and at Tahquitz Rock, near Palm Springs.

By the time I was 18, my climbing buddies and I had migrated to the big walls of Yosemite. Because we were pioneering long routes requiring hundreds of piton placements, I bought an old forge and taught myself blacksmithing so I could make my own hard-steel pitons. (The softer European kind didn't work well in Yosemite's uneven granite cracks.) During the sixties, I worked on my equipment in the winter months, spent April through July on the walls of Yosemite, and during the heat of summer headed out for the Alps and the high mountains of Wyoming and Canada—all interspersed with surf trips down to Baja and mainland Mexico. I supported myself by selling homemade gear out of the back of my car, supplementing my meager income by diving into trash cans and redeeming bottles for cash.

By 1971, two important things had happened: I'd met and married Malinda Pennoyer, an art student at Fresno State who spent summers working as a cabin maid in Yosemite and who would go on to become my partner in all aspects of the Patagonia business; and I had produced my first clothing: knickers and double-seated climbing shorts made from superheavy corduroy produced by an old mill in Lancashire, England. Back then, "active sportswear" consisted of your basic gray sweatshirt and pants, and standard issue for Yosemite climbing was tan cutoff chinos and white dress shirts bought from the thrift store. Though I just wanted more durable and comfortable climbing clothes for myself and my friends, I soon realized I had stumbled onto an entirely untapped market.

In the early seventies, my company, Chouinard Equipment, took over an abandoned meatpacking plant in Ventura and began to renovate its old offices as a retail store. Customers were responding to our "hand-forged" clothing, and we sold more and more items, including Chamonix guide sweaters, classic Mediterranean sailor shirts, canvas pants and shirts, and a technical line of rainwear—a predecessor of Gore-Tex—called Foamback. The apparel was such a success we decided it needed its own name to distinguish it from Chouinard Equipment's hardware line.

A few years earlier, in 1968, several friends (including Doug Tompkins, founder of The North Face) and I had taken a six-month road trip to the tip of South America, surfing the west coast of the Americas down to Lima, Peru, skiing volcanoes in Chile, and climbing 11,073-foot Fitz Roy, in Argentina's Patagonia. To most people, especially then, Patagonia was a name like Timbuktu or Shangri-La—far off, interesting, not quite on the map. It seemed like just the right idea for our clothing. To reinforce the tie to the real Patagonia, in 1973 we created a logo with a stormy sky, jagged peaks based on the Fitz Roy skyline, and a blue Southern Ocean.

We debuted our pile sweater—the precursor to our Synchilla fleece—in 1973; it was made from a polyester fabric intended for toilet-seat covers. Then we launched our first polypropylene underwear, in 1980, and became the first company to preach the virtues of layering. This new type of high-performance "system" amounted to blockbuster success: From the mid-eighties to 1990, sales skyrocketed from $20 million to $100 million. Most companies would relish such rapid growth, but for us it was nearly disastrous.

By 1991, I had transformed from a modest smithy and adventurer in business with a few friends—including Kris McDivitt (now Kris Tompkins), our CEO and general manager on and off for 15 years, between 1979 and 1994—into the guy in charge of a multi-million-dollar corporation with 650 employees. But with a big company came big problems.

In the late eighties, Chouinard Equipment became the target of several lawsuits. None involved faulty equipment or climbers. We were sued by a window washer, a plumber, a stagehand, and someone who broke his ankle in a tug-of-war contest using our climbing rope. The basis of each suit was improper warning—that we had failed to properly warn these customers about the dangers inherent in using our equipment for uses we could not predict. Then came a more serious suit, from the family of a lawyer who was killed when he incorrectly tied into one of our harnesses in a beginner climbing class.

The litigators thought that Chouinard Equipment and Patagonia were the same company and that, since Patagonia was doing so well, they could milk the corporation. Our insurance company refused to fight any of the suits, because of the costs involved, and settled out of court. Our premiums went up 2,000 percent in one year. Eventually, Chouinard Equipment filed for Chapter 11, a move that gave the employees time to gather capital for a buyout. They successfully purchased the assets, moved the company to Salt Lake City, and built their own company, Black Diamond Equipment Ltd., which to this day continues to make the world's best climbing and backcountry-ski gear.

Still other issues loomed. The general interest in outdoor sports and adventure was exploding in the U.S. and overseas, and we were riding the growth. We expanded internationally, opening retail stores in Chamonix and Tokyo. At the beginning of the nineties, we added another 100 em...

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