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'i'm Sorry, Yvon's Out Surfing'

How to run a company when you're gone six months of the year
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The standard fantasy of the chief executive officers we write about in INC. goes like this: "Someday, I'm going to get away from the paperwork, the budgets, the meetings. I'll have the chance to do what I'm really good at: thinking up new products and new ideas."

But then the daydream is interrupted by the latest crisis, and the dream is deferred again.

For all those who share that dream: meet Yvon Chouinard, founder of Patagonia Inc.

Or at least try to. It's not easy.

The first time we tried, Chouinard was out fishing a stream in Montana.

The second time, we came closer. We set up a phone interview at Patagonia's Ventura, Calif., headquarters -- only to have his assistant tell us at the appointed hour: "I'm sorry, we'll have to reschedule. Yvon is out surfing."

"I am probably here four or five months a year," Chouinard says later. "When I'm here, I work hard. But when I'm gone, I am out of here. I don't call in every day."

It is a style that has been in place at Patagonia since the day it opened. "Even when we started I was gone -- climbing -- more than four months of the year. One of the advantages of starting a company is that you can do what you want to do."

And what Chouinard wants to do is be outside testing the company's rugged, high-performance outdoor clothing designs, and thinking up new ones. What he does not want to do is sit inside an office pushing papers. Says he: "The company has to be managed, but I don't want to manage it."

None of this means that Chouinard is out of touch with either the company or the business world at large. He is a part of an informal network connecting several California entrepreneurs whose companies appeal to upscale members of the baby boom. Chouinard, Doug Tompkins of Esprit, and Paul Hawken, head of the Smith & Hawken garden tool company (and a former INC. columnist), are best of friends who frequently exchange management ideas. The "5-15 report," a brief report written by most employees at the end of each week (see "The Employee as Customer," November 1987) is an idea of Chouinard's that the others have adopted. And through those memos, Chouinard says, he can stay on top of what is going on.

Besides, he adds, the traditional approach to business -- the one that says you have to know about every little thing and have your eyes glued to the bottom line -- always struck him as a little bit silly. "I guess my approach is sort of like Zen archery. In Zen, instead of concentrating on the bull's-eye, you make sure that you draw your arrow perfectly from the quiver, that you notch it just so, and that your breathing is right. If you do that, you'll hit the bull's-eye. With Patagonia, I figure if we do all the little things right, the profit will happen."

The result? This approach appears to work. Not only has Patagonia produced excellent numbers from the start, but the employees are clear about what Chouinard wants. Virtually every third sentence a visitor hears from them -- be they in the art department or direct marketing -- begins, "Yvon wants" or "Yvon believes."

And what does Chouinard make of all those entrepreneurs who say they envy his freedom and would like more time to think about their companies? He doesn"t believe them.

"They talk about delegating, but they like to feel important and be in the middle of everything," he says. "If they really wanted to delegate, they would. People do what they want to do."

Last updated: Mar 1, 1988




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