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B I G I N T E RV I E W

YVON CHOUINARD

Do something for the planet – before it’s too late... TTW caught up with the charsimatic leader of clothing giant Patagonia, Yvon Chouinard – to find out what the French Canadian has in store for the fishing division of his business.

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TackleTrade Fair • AUGUST 9th to 11th, 2008 B I G I N TERV I EW

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von Chouinard is the founder and owner of California-based, eco-friendly apparel giant Patagonia Inc. He started in business by designing, manufacturing and distributing rock-climbing equipment in the late 1950s. His tinkering led to an improved design of ice axe that facilitated the French ice-climbing technique and it’s now the basis for modern ice axe design. In 1964 he produced his first mail-order catalogue, a one-page mimeographed sheet containing advice not to expect fast delivery during the climbing season! Business grew slowly until 1972, when Yvon added rugby shirts to his catalogue and his clothing business took off. The rest as they say, is history! The stature and size of Patagonia as a global High Street brand is unquestionable and you must be very proud. How do you still have the drive to continue with the business? Have you ever considered retirement? In the late 1980s, Patagonia’s success was such that I considered early retirement. In some ways I would have preferred to disappear to the South Pacific with my fly rod and surfboard. However, I decided to continue steering Patagonia’s course, in part to use the company to inspire and

implement solutions to the environmental crisis. As part of this goal, Patagonia instituted an ‘Earth Tax’, pledging one per cent of sales to the preservation and restoration of the natural environment.

“A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” As many of you know, I spend much of my time in the outdoors while also serving on the boards of numerous environmental groups. I work every day of my life. My job is to be the ‘outside’ man, studying lifestyles around the world, coming up with ideas for new products and new market trends, and ensuring that Patagonia stays relevant in a rapidly changing world. Patagonia is famous for some of the materials that it has brought to outdoor clothing. How do you stay ahead of the competition? Fabric and design have been the heart of the company

over its 34 years. Product development begins with the fabric and materials that provide the basic performance element of a product. The product is designed around the fabric – form follows function. Patagonia’s fabric team works with mills all over the world. It’s expertise, and our willingness to participate in the cost of research and development, provides us with the first look at fabric innovations. Competitors work in the opposite way by beginning with a design, and then searching for ‘standard, offthe-shelf fabrics’. As for design, timeless simplicity and superb performance of their product line follows the philosophy of Antoine de Saint-Exupery – “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” Additionally, Patagonia provides a very different ironclad warranty that supports the quality of its products with replacement due to any defects in fabrics or workmanship. By combining this with 17 new, and redesigned, fishing products for spring 2008, Patagonia has already seen double-digit pre-season order increases from angling accounts.

Yvon in action in Patagonia. Nice steelhead!

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YVON CHOUINARD The Patagonia story is well documented. However, certainly in Europe, Patagonia is not recognised as a fishing brand. How important is fishing to the company? When Patagonia targeted the fishing market as a global initiative in 1989, it soon learned that this technical market required a very different business model – a new approach in selling, marketing and even product development from its normal business. Although Patagonia products were ideal for the climatic challenges that anglers face in pursuing various species of fish around the globe, communicating how a collection of products would benefit the angler was the challenge. Fishing retailers were in abject fear of how to sell soft goods as a category since they were unfamiliar with fabrics, features, how to display it and sell it – the basics necessary for success. Initial success with fishing dealers had been made, but sales reps lack of fishing-business knowledge, time constraints in developing the dealers’ ability to sell soft goods, lack of internal product-development support, minimal marketing dollars and not having the support of upper management had severely restricted growth. In Europe, they faced an even greater challenge since the Patagonia brand did not have the recognition that it had in the USA. The core business mandate in Europe was to build the brand and sell to outdoor markets – fishing was not a major priority. Having only 350 global fishing dealers heading into the late 1990s, Patagonia opened the door to its competitors, as soft goods in fishing became more popular in the US and Europe. Dealers were interested in the broad categories of underwear, fleece, insulation and shells, so they sought out fishing companies that could offer these collections. Competitors entered that wide-open door 50

Caught napping? Or thinking about how to save the earth. We think it may just be the latter...

and capitalised on this potential business, leaving Patagonia playing catch-up. Is Patagonia well established as a fishing brand in the USA? Patagonia is very well established as a brand – but as a fishing brand I think we let it slip. We have a new range of products for spring 2008 and we will be pushing hard into this market. Currently we are way behind Simms, the market leader. It owns that market and it deserves what it has. We took our eye off the ball on that one and I am the first to admit it. Simms, William Joseph, Cloudveil and Patagonia all started out as mountaineering companies, yet diversified into successful fishingapparel companies. What’s the deal here? With the exception of Simms I’m not sure how successful the rest of us have been! However, I think that the Yvon is a radical free thinker and does not hold his thoughts back.

answer to your question lies, in part, with the technology that we use. For climbing we are utilising some of the latest technologies around. For example, we are using rubber that utilises motorsport technology. It lends itself to climbing and, in turn, lends itself to clambering over rocks for fishing. So do we invent or innovate? I think the answer is that we innovate. It can take 30 years to come up with an invention, but within months there can be 1,000 innovations spawned from that

original idea. Innovations can be spawned much more quickly because you already start with an existing product or design. So, to answer your question about what the deal is with climbing companies being ‘successful’ in fishing – we hunt out the latest technologies for climbing and then find that they often lend themselves to fishing. Operating in multiple fields can be advantageous! So what does the future hold for Patagonia in Europe? Our high-quality products are

legendary. The reputation as a supplier, along with the services we provide in the US and Europe, has been rated the best in their outdoor industry. Actively seeking sustainability for our products, our dealers and environmental initiatives have raised the bar on manufacturer/ dealer relationships. You will be seeing and hearing more of this company in Europe and Scandinavia. And you will be impressed with how different a company we truly are. So what has changed now Yvon? Why the big push? Changes have been evolving at Patagonia over the past 18 months that have re-focused Patagonia’s efforts to become serious about the fishing business. Casey Sheahan, our new CEO, is a hardcore angler who came onboard two years ago. He shares a passion for fishing with myself and we both understand the potential success that fishing

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TackleTrade Fair • AUGUST 9th to 11th, 2008 B I G I N TERV I EW

sustainability in business, new products that fuel anglers’ interests, marketing, inventory fulfilment and so on. But looking at the Patagonia mission statement more clearly defines the strategy for the global fishing market “build the best product, do no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis”.

can offer Patagonia. The board of directors and our US and European managers gave their blessing to recommit to growing our fly fishing business. With that mandate in hand, Casey created a more intensely focused fishing team with long-time fishing guru Bill Klyn taking on the role of fishing marketing manager. Steve Straqualursi, a longtime Patagonia rep from New England and passionate striper angler became product line director. Another Patagonia rep, Brian Bennett, a trout and steelhead fanatic, came onboard as fishing sales manager, to lead and further develop our US independent fishing reps. I could continue about the obvious fishing-business strategies that are necessary to become successful in Europe: building the Patagonia brand, increased distribution, enhanced dealer communication and support where we are partners with our dealers to ensure

Tell me about ‘1% For The Planet’. This is an alliance of companies that recognise the true cost of doing business. They donate one per cent of their sales to environmental organisations worldwide. Through our corporate giving, grants and philanthropy, we encourage responsible business and corporate responsibility. Our environmental alliance is designed to help our members become sustainable businesses, and our environmental group database aids our membership to make choices with their corporate grants to environmental organisations. That may sound like a prepared speech – but I do sit on the board of directors so I have reeled that line off before. Patagonia was one of the first companies to embrace recycling – something which you are keen that other companies should take up – can you tell us more about this? Patagonia was one of the first companies to use organic cotton and recycled fleece and soda-pop bottles to produce fleece garments. This initiative has evolved into our ‘Common Threads Recycling Programme’ that takes back our own Capilene underwear, plus our own and our competitors’ Malden-fleece products, keeping them out of landfills. Our latest ambitious goal is to be able to take back every product they make by 2010 to recycle them into new fibres for fabrics. Inspiring businesses begins with our unique selling strategy

– becoming partners with our dealers. Our reps bring our business expertise to review a dealers’ business, where it wants to be next year and in the future and formalise a short and long-term strategy. This allows building a productcollection strategy, along with merchandising tools and support to help achieve those goals. The Patagonia green model has inspired other companies to follow. Even the giant retailer Wal-Mart has been looking to Patagonia to develop stronger green business strategies. Patagonia’s environmental tithing programme has supported grass-roots environmental groups around the world and has provided $29 million since 1985. We cannot depend on governments to take care of our natural resources. So it’s up to individuals to make things happen. We have to support those grass-roots groups working on our behalf. How many tackle companies are part of ‘1% For The Planet’? Currently there are 750 members in the ‘1% For The Planet’ cause covering 25 countries. It’s taking off big time. However, only 33 fishing-tackle companies are members – and none of them are what you would call big players. I have a message for the tackle trade: “Be aware that our livelihood depends wholly on the outdoor environment. We have more responsibility for the outdoors than the average taxpayer – we are totally dependent on the environment. Join ‘1% For The Planet’. Join something. Do something. Be warned, if we do nothing we will have nothing. We must invest in our own futures…” Yvon, what is the meaning of life? That’s an easy one! The meaning of life… we’re here on this planet to lead an examined life. We are here to bear witness and when we move on we have to report back to HQ! FEBRUARY 2008 | TTW

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Yvon UK Tackle and Trade Interview  

Interview of Yvon by Nick Marlow, Editor of UK's Tackle Trade World Magazine, in the new February issue.

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