Douglas Tompkins, 72, the entrepreneur behind the legendary North Face and Esprit clothing brands, died Tuesday after his kayak capsized in heavy waves in the Patagonia region of southern Chile.
According to his obituary in the New York Times, he was boating with five others on General Carrera Lake. No one else was seriously injured. A patrol boat rescued three of the boaters. A helicopter lifted out the other three, including Tompkins, who was hospitalized with severe hypothermia.
For entrepreneurs, Tompkins's life and achievements serve as a reminder that it's possible to build enduring companies and still retain your sense of self--and your sense of adventure. Based on the Times obituary and Inc. archives, here's a snapshot of how Tompkins pursued his vocation, as a business builder, and his calling, as an outdoorsman.
He never graduated high school and never attended college. He began his career at age 17 in 1960 in Aspen, Colorado. He worked there for one year, saved his money, then flew to Europe and skied the alps. His next stop was the Andes Mountains in South America. He returned to the U.S. when he ran out of money, in 1962. But to some extent, he'd figured out the general template by which he'd live his life: Work, earn money, then pursue an adventure or project in the mountains.
He met his wife hitchhiking. He settled in Tahoe City, Calif., where he worked in the ski lodges. He founded a small business called the California Mountaineering Service. The Times obit notes that he often hitchhiked from place to place. In 1963 a woman named Susie Buell picked him up. She too enjoyed the outdoors. Soon they were married. In 1968 they co-founded The North Face as a ski and backpacking retail store in San Francisco. He was with the company until 2000, when apparel giant VF Corporation acquired it.
He co-launched Esprit out of a station wagon. A few years after founding The North Face, Tompkins, Buell, and a partner named Jane Tise began selling dresses out of a station wagon. That business grew to become Esprit, a retail brand for casual sportswear and lifestyle clothing. In 1990, Tompkins sold his share of the company for more than $150 million.
After cashing out of Esprit, he moved to South America. He went there with his second wife, the former Kristine McDivitt, who'd served as CEO of Patagonia. They split their time between Chile and Argentina and launched conservation efforts in both countries. Over time, Tompkins would buy 2.2 million acres in Chile through his various conservation groups, including as Pumalín Park, which contains 715,000 acres of rain forest stretching from the Pacific Ocean to the Andes.
He was best friends with legendary Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard. In fact, he famously trekked to Patagonia in 1968 with Chouinard, a journey retraced in the 2010 documentary 180 South. An Inc. story from 1988--called "I'm Sorry, Yvon's Out Surfing"--touched on the friendship between the famous founders.
The story was all about how to run a growing company when you're going on outdoor adventures for six months every year. Tompkins used one of Chouinard's ideas--called the "5-15 report"--to help him keep tabs on business while he was outdoors. (Remember, all of this was before the cell phone era.)
The idea was simple: Employees spend 15 minutes a week writing reports for their managers about their ideas, challenges, and how things are going. The managers spend five minutes reading each report--then they distill the highlights to their managers. Eventually, the CEO receives a short, greatest-hits version of what's going on.
At the time, Inc. wrote: "The standard fantasy of the CEOs we write about 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."
Tompkins was never afraid to get away from the paperwork. The result was an entrepreneurial career that will always be remembered.