Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of the Patagonia outdoor clothing company, has offices all over the world. Argentina, Belize, China, Kenya, Nepal, Scotland. But you won't find these offices in glass-and-steel skyscrapers. Chouinard works in more out-of-the-way places: on the face of a jagged mountain or along some desolate beach.
His office this day is a twisting sliver of rushing water called the Lewis River, in northwestern Wyoming. Chouinard (pronounced shi-NARD), 52, is 5'4" and well-built. His tanned calves are thick and muscled, and his hands are callused and strong. He wears a blue-and-gray cotton shirt with rolled-up sleeves, gray canvas shorts, a fishing vest, and felt-bottomed boots that make it easier for him to walk over the river's slippery rocks. Everything but the boots is made by his company. His dark hair recedes to the top of his head and is speckled with gray. Chouinard carries a fly rod. Standing knee deep in the river, he sets a caddis fly on top of a calm pool of water and gently strips it back across. "I spend most of my time in places like this," he says. "It's where I do my best work."
He certainly gets things done, for between fly casts, Chouinard has inadvertently created one of the most successful U.S. businesses of the past 15 years. Inadvertently, because when he started he was a college dropout looking for a way to support his passions for surfing, climbing, skiing, scuba diving, kayaking and fishing. His approach to business has been based on the belief that if the products are good, people will buy them. And they have. Revenues at Patagonia are expected to be $120 million for the 1990-91 fiscal year, with profits of more than $10 million.
Chouinard has changed the way people dress in the outdoors. Patagonia jackets, pants, gloves and hats are now ubiquitous among serious sportsmen. Astronauts on shuttle missions have worn the company's Capilene long underwear. Not only has Patagonia produced some of the most innovative and functional gear around, but it also has splashed it with dazzling colors—e.g., fuchsia, electric blue and guava—that appeal to fashion animals in much tamer locales.
"Patagonia is one of only a handful of companies that really drive the outdoor clothing and equipment market," says Glenn Bischoff, spokesman for the National Sporting Goods Association and former editor of Outside Business magazine. "Its products have always been on the cutting edge, both in function and fashion, and people in this industry watch very carefully what the company does."
This, in spite of a chief who claims he isn't a businessman at all. First and foremost, Chouinard is an athlete. He is a topnotch ice and rock climber, and his book, Climbing Ice, published in 1978, is considered the bible on the subject. "Yvon is an icon on the American climbing scene," says Michael Kennedy, editor and publisher of Climbing magazine. "He revolutionized ice climbing, and he has probably done more for climbing equipment in general than anyone else."
Chouinard is also an accomplished surfer, diver and kayaker and an expert skier. "I like sticking my neck out," he says. "I like the rush of adrenaline, the challenge of beating my own fears. But I am not foolish. I know exactly what I'm doing." Chouinard also excels at less heart-pounding pursuits. He is a fine fisherman and flytier.
As befits someone who spends so much time in the outdoors, Chouinard is a passionate environmentalist. Each year Patagonia sets aside part of its pretax profits for environmental causes, a practice it began in 1984. The company will hand out more than $1 million to 350 organizations this year. Chouinard also makes substantial contributions of his own. "Yvon puts his money where his mouth is," says John Sawhill, president of The Nature Conservancy, one of the country's largest environmental groups and the recipient of more than $100,000 from Patagonia, plus an undisclosed amount from Chouinard, over the past three years. "He understands better than most that business and conservation must work together."
Chouinard's generosity is fueled by a deep sense of urgency. "I am so damned pessimistic about what is happening to the environment," he says. That concern sometimes causes trouble. His support of controversial groups like Earth First!, for example, has so angered some longtime customers that they have stopped buying from Patagonia. That doesn't bother Chouinard. "I don't care how many people I tick off," he says. "I want to use this company as a tool for social change. I want to take a stand, and I want people to notice."
No one took much notice of Chouinard when he was a boy. Born in 1938, in Lewiston, Maine, of French-Canadian parents, he spent his first eight years in the nearby town of Lisbon. His father, Gerard, who worked as a plumber and handyman, in 1947 moved" his wife, Yvonne, and four children (Yvon has two older sisters and an older brother) to Burbank, Calif. It was a tough adjustment for Yvon, who had attended a French-speaking school in Maine. He struggled mightily in his new English-speaking school.