Book Review: Let My People Go Surfing, by Yvon Chouinard

Yvon Chouinard is a maverick, but can other budding entrepreneurs learn from his management techniques and company values to maximise their bottom line?
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The Independent Online

Yvon Chouinard is not very well known in Britain. But in the US and, to a lesser extent, in mainland Europe, he is revered as the founder of Patagonia Inc, the maker of outdoor clothing that is not only highly effective for skiers, climbers and the like but is also among the most stylish of its type.

Chouinard claims to have a problem with this last part, since it means not everyone wearing his products is a diehard outdoors type. But without them, Patagonia would probably neither enjoy its levels of sales (more than $200m a year at last count) nor its impact. Patagonia is an example of how a company run by a person with strong beliefs can use its products and market them to spread those beliefs among the public.

It has been a pioneer in the use of organic cotton, in using recycled plastic bottles to make its "fleece" garments, and - through its decision to donate 1 per cent of sales to environmental and related causes - has done a great deal to put sustainability on the political agenda in the US, Europe and Japan.

As the book's subtitle, "the education of a reluctant businessman" suggests, Chouinard never sought to be the head of a multi-million-dollar company. He says he only first started making mountaineering equipment and then the clothing associated with it because he wanted access to better stuff. But, having found himself in this role, he has seen the opportunity it provides to, if not change the world, then at least change some people's perceptions of it.

Forty-odd years after he first started, Chouinard remains a maverick. His business approach is "management by absence" - meaning that he spends part of the year testing the goods and coming up with new ideas through indulging his passions for climbing, surfing, fly-fishing, canoeing and being outdoors.

However, part of Chouinard's reasoning for this approach is that he knows his own limitations and so appoints properly qualified staff to run the company. And, as the book makes clear, the free-wheeling image largely belies a lot of hard effort on getting the products as good as possible through a focus on "clean design" and quality while ensuring top-notch customer service.

It has not all been plain sailing. Patagonia learned about the perils of growth the hard way. The economic recession of the early 1990s forced an organisation that prides itself on looking after its employees through baby care, a subsidised canteen, flexi-time and the like to retrench through laying off staff. The day in question was "the single darkest" in the company's history, Chouinard writes.

Such setbacks aside, you might expect a man who lives this way to be happy-go-lucky. But for Chouinard the close connection he has with the environment means he is more aware than most of what is happening. He and his wife, Malinda, see the company as a force for change.

Committed outdoors people and environmentalists will be fascinated by this behind-the-scenes look at one of the icons of the age. But there are plenty of lessons for would-be entrepreneurs in how following your instincts and believing in what you are doing can create a niche in even the most apparently crowded field.

Chouinard says he and his wife are regularly approached by potential buyers. But he says: "Being a publicly-held corporation or even a partnership would put shackles on how we operate. Our intent is to remain a private company, so we can continue to focus on our bottom line, doing good."

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