Yvon Chouinard learned his English from Southern Californians; his love of rock-climbing from falconry; his steelworker's skills from a 1940 Ford; and his managerial ethos from the Japanese. Now he is chief executive officer of a company, Lost Arrow Inc., to which he insists he is totally expendable. That attitude, he says, comes straight from intimations of his own mortality.
"I stopped counting dead climbing friends many years ago -- when the number reached 50," says the 47-year-old mountaineer par excellence. "I almost died in an avalanche on a climb in China. Since I spend only five months a year with my company anyway, I've tried to make myself as dispensable as I can, and I instill that trait in all my managers. If you work here, you can take a month off any time you like -- as long as the work gets done. I like to hire friends, and I like to take my friends with me."
Accompanying Chouinard can be a dizzying trip. As a businessman, he has taken Lost Arrow (known as Great Pacific Iron Works Inc. until last July) and its six satellite companies from $2.7 million in sales in 1979 to $16.4 million in 1983; Patagonia, his wholesale clothing concern grossed $13.3 million alone last year, and Chouinard's line of personally designed mountaineering gear is considered de rigeur among serious expeditioners. As a sportsman, he continues to indulge in every outdoor passion from Alaska fly-fishing to white-water kayaking. During a recent three-day run down Wyoming's Clark Fork, for instance, Chouinard and his group became "the first to traverse it successfully -- although rappelling down the cliff walls in kayaks got a little hairy." Right. And Yosemite National Park's El Capitan, which he was also among the first to scale, is just another nice little firewall.
Chouinard, a French Canadian who moved to Burbank, Calif., at the age of eight, splits his year between corporate headquarters in Ventura, Calif., and a hand-built log house in Moose, Wyo., surrounded by the Tetons he has loved and climbed for 20 years. Although Chouinard the entrepreneur may be forever overshadowed by Chouinard the summiteer (the Himalayas, the Sierras, Mt. Kenya) and Chouinard the engineer (the piolet ice axe, the Salathe chrome-molybdenum piton), his contributions to all three disciplines are the stuff of myth. The first Chouinard equipment catalog, published in 1971, was an instant collector's item, taken more as serious climbing literature than as a glorified order form; his first manufacturing operation, begun in 1957 and run out of the back of a truck, now commands 16,000 square feet of office space and a staff of 180. For a man of studied spontaneity, he has built something that is beginning to look pretty permanent.
"I decided a few years back that I never wanted a big company," he explains," and I had to have a management system to allow for that. We have Japanese-style management by committee, and our group meets three days a week to make all the decisions. I do most of the long-range planning and much of the equipment designing. Otherwise, I call in to the company once a week or so and get weekly reports from probably 75 employees."
"I refuse to hire MBAs," he adds, "or anyone else with much prior experience. They have too many old ways, too many ingrained faults. Men especially, so I mostly hire women [around 67%]. I don't like planning my athletic program, either. I like people to call me a few days in advance and say, 'Yvon, let's go.' And I go."