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Breaking business rules comes as naturally to Chouinard as climbing frozen waterfalls. For one thing, Patagonia rarely advertises. "We give more money away to environmental groups than we spend on advertising," Chouinard says. "If you do everything right in your business, then you really don't need advertising. You don't need to pay athletes to wear your stuff, because if your stuff is good enough, they have to wear it."
A business publication once described Patagonia as "the anti-marketers," but don't let that fool you. Chouinard is a genius at the very practice he seems to disdain. "Patagonia makes some terrific gear," says Michael Kennedy, "but so do a lot of other companies. What sets it apart is the image Yvon has created. It's good, healthy, upbeat, bold, environmentally concerned." Adds Bob Woodward, editor of the retail newsletter Specialty News, "Patagonia has developed a cult following by being good and by being different, and Chouinard has really used that to his advantage."
His success has allowed Chouinard to lead a life that even Riley would have envied. His home in Ventura has such a fine view of the Pacific that his surfing pals regularly call for wave reports. Chouinard also has a log house in Moose, Wyo., just north of Jackson.
He met his wife, Malinda, 25 years ago in Yosemite, where he was climbing and she was working as a chambermaid at a park lodge. They have two children: Fletcher, 16, and Claire, 10. Malinda is very active in the company—from selecting shirt fabrics to shaping corporate policy—and like her husband, she is an ardent environmentalist. She enjoys hiking but isn't much for climbing or fishing.
Yvon can be as mischievous as he is unassuming. In between casts on the Lewis River, for example, he casually announced: "This is grizzly country." He paused to watch the color drain from his companion's face. "We could come in here with a sidearm, but that would take away a lot of the adventure." Chouinard smiled broadly, and then explained exactly what to do should a grizzly appear.
This sort of thing happens frequently to those who join him in the outdoors. "We have all been Chouinarded," says Paul Bruun, a Jackson fishing guide who is a Patagonia consultant and a longtime friend of the boss. "He will suck you into doing something that seems absolutely insane. You are sure it will be the end. But he won't kill you. He knows, even better than you, what you can do."
Looking at Chouinard today it's hard to imagine him as the shy, lonesome geek he says he once was. Outdoor adventurers seek his advice. Environmentalists solicit his ideas as well as his financial support. Harvard and Yale invite him to lecture on business. Tom Brokaw and Harrison Ford ask him to fish with them. "The success I've enjoyed has given me a lot more confidence," he says. "I think that is the only way it has changed me. That, and having a bit more money to spend." Says Robbins, "Yvon is pretty much the same person I met almost 20 years ago."
Chouinard is not sure what the future holds. He has just embarked on a yearlong sabbatical, which he'll spend surfing in France and climbing, hiking and fishing in Argentina. "It could be time for me to move on," he says. "Complacency will kill you in the end, and I don't want to get complacent."
He's more sure of the company's future. "I really believe this is a movement, not a business," Chouinard says. "When Malinda and I are gone, I want Patagonia to become an environmental foundation. That's why I won't sell out. I want it to make a difference."
Back at the cabin, Chouinard sits on the living-room couch and sips a mixture of beer and tomato juice. He talks about what he'll likely be doing the next day. Maybe he'll climb a 10,000-foot mountain in the Tetons. Perhaps he'll fish one of his favorite pools on the Snake River. For the head of Patagonia, it'll be just another day at the office.