DOUG TOMPKINS DOESN'T meddle very much once he's delegated decision making at Esprit. There aren't many phones where he spends much of the year -- climbing peaks in the Alps and Himalayas.
Tompkins, co-founder with his wife, Susie, of Esprit, is one of five entrepreneurs profiled in a 90-minute documentary scheduled for broadcast on most public television stations on November 5. The film Entrepreneurs, was produced by John Nathan and Sam Tyler, the same team that made the documentary based on the best-selling business book In Search of Excellence.
Entrepreneurs is heavy on hero worship. Steven Jobs is a "business visionary" despite the fact that only a palace coup saved Apple Computer Inc. from the cider press. But the show manages to rise above this weakness as it portrays small-company executives working at some difficult management issues.
One theme that surfaces is a familiar one in the world of emerging companies: the founder's struggle in giving up control to managers as the company grows. Although Entrepreneurs features three "stars" -- Frederick W. Smith (Federal Express), Mitchell Kapor (recently resigned chairman of Lotus Development), and Jobs (Next) -- it is two relatively obscure executives who provide most of the drama.
The first is Tompkins, whose Esprit, according to the film, sold $900 million worth of fashion clothing last year. Tompkins has delegated authority so well that he spends half the year climbing mountains all over the world. Nevertheless, he is still the sole source of the "corporate vision," and as such holds on to the few things he considers critical. For example, when his management committee proposed bringing out a line in pink, as other designers were doing, Tompkins said he didn't ever want Esprit to follow anyone else's lead. Besides, he said, "I think pink is ugly and looks like hell." Now there's a sentiment his managers can remember when Tompkins leaves for a couple months of climbing.
The second showstopper is Lane Nemeth, founder, president, and chief executive officer of Discovery Toys, a $40-million operation that sells through a network of 15,000 commissioned salespeople. Nemeth should hire Tompkins as a consultant. She understands the imperative to relinquish day-to-day control, but her attempts are disastrous: she doesn't trust her managers, and her managers don't understand what she wants. The camera is more powerful than the pen in capturing the pain and indecision on her face.