Patagonia Gets Serious About Fly Fishing
MANUFACTURER PROFILE - PATAGONIA GETS SERIOUS ABOUT FLY FISHING
Story & Photographs by Joseph Daniel - February, 2007 issue of Fly Fishing Trade
“It’s never going to snow again,” laments Yvon Chouinard in a resigned yet pragmatic tone. “Everything is melting and we’re headed towards becoming a water planet.”
Provocative statements like this zinger on climate change are a reportedly common response from this quiet (read that introverted), reluctant (hands-off boss who hates confrontation) anti-businessman (contrarian capitalist). But it gets better.
“Patagonia has always been known as a mountain company, but now we’re repositioning to become a 50% mountain company, 50% water company. And part of that water side is fly fishing.”
I love this guy. Like legions of Chouinard groupies who admire the famous, self-described “dirtbag climber,” and often stand in line for the possible honor of serving the legendary eco-warrior/corporate non-conformist (Patagonia receives over 900 applications for every job opening), I have long been smitten by his raw individualism, his proclivity to playing outside, and his obstinate refusal to sell out. But like all heroes whom you hold unrealistically high in private esteem, when you finally get to meet them you forget you’re just another anonymous fan, and you expect instant rapport. In this area Chouinard is not quick to deliver. In fact, when I first sat down to interview him he offered nothing back in polite social discourse, waiting instead for each of my questions through uncomfortable (for me, at least!) gaps of silence.
I know that I’m trying too hard, but I so want to bond with Chouinard, to let him know how much I admire his achievements, his genuine business bravery, and his contribution to saving the planet. But it’s not until I mention steelhead fishing on the Rio Santa Cruz in southern Argentina that he meets my gaze. I’ve finally struck a chord and for a moment we connect. I tell him that exploring the river is the cover story for our new issue of Wild On The Fly and he asks several questions about what we discovered. Later, talking with his lieutenants, I’m reassured he’s this way with everyone. That over time he warms up to people, quietly doling out fierce loyalty and support.
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The history of Patagonia has been written about often, most recently in primer form as Chouinard’s inspiring memoir of his company Let My People Go Surfing, and just this past April as “The Coolest Company On The Planet” cover story by Susan Casey for Fortune Magazine’s “Green Issue.” The story is pure juice for any aspiring entrepreneur wishing to better the world, make money and avoid a numbing corporate existence: Eight-year-old son of French Canadian parents moves to southern California. Shy and reclusive, he spends time alone exploring the ocean and nearby forests. At 15 he joins a falconry club, where he in turn learns to rappel in order to reach cliff-top raptor nests. Suddenly it’s all about the climbing, a sport that defines his life for the next several decades. He gravitates to Yosemite’s famed Camp IV where he joins the ranks of a new breed of big wall climbers. Scaling sheer, vertical rock faces several thousand feet in height requires a new generation of climbing tools. Chouinard installs a coal-fired forge in his parent’s garage and teaches himself blacksmithing, eventually hammering out pitons, which are stronger and more elegantly designed than anything on the market. At first he sells his pitons out of his car simply to survive, but he eventually expands his business, moving it to a tin shed in Ventura and calling it Chouinard Equipment Co. At about the same time he meets Malinda Penoyer, a rock climbing art student who steals his heart. A few years later they marry.
Chouinard Equipment Co. evolves over the years, but exists mainly to fund the climbing, fishing and surfing expeditions of its owner. Malinda helps to bring focus but shares Yvon’s philosophy that work is simply a means to an end, definitely don’t let it get in the way of life. In 1972 they expanded into clothing, launching a new company called Patagonia.
And the rest really is history, from rugby shirts to fleece to organic cotton to wool-backed, non-petroleum neoprene. As Patagonia excels in developing technical apparel and teaching consumers how to use it, outdoor enthusiasts adopt the brand for their particular discipline. And all along, most of Chouinard’s decisions to diversify into a certain niche are fueled by his own passion for the activity, hence the production of clothing and gear for everything from climbing to backcountry skiing, surfing to paddle sports. Where Choinard plays so grows Patagonia.
But what most folks don’t realize, even many anglers, is that Patagonia has also been in the fly fishing business – albeit seemingly half-heartedly – for over 20 years. Chouinard is a competent (including Spey casting), obsessed angler, a passion that continues to grow for him as the 68 year-young adventurer dials it back a little on the more demanding sports.
In 1987 Patagonia introduced its mesh fishing vest, as well as the Sawed Off Rainjacket utilizing their new H2No breathable, waterproof fabric. This was the genesis of their SST Jacket, a fishing raincoat that set the standard in the industry.
In 1989 Bill Klyn came from working at Simms to join Patagonia as its first Product Line Director for fly fishing. At that point the company had decided to focus on outdoor technical markets and fly fishing was one of the areas being targeted.
1990 saw the introduction of Tropical Flats clothing and the birth of an entirely new niche of technical saltwater fishing apparel. Although the company still didn’t have much in the way of core fly fishing products they wrapped their highly successful Capeline layering system, and their legendary fleece around vests, raingear, and tropical wear, and a line was born.
“Anglers have been buying Patagonia clothing since the company began so it was a natural way to enter the market,” explained Klyn. “With the SST Jacket and our Tropical Clothing concept we were poised to get serious about fishing. We had just designed a true line of core fly fishing products and we were anxious to get them into production. Everyone was feeling very ambitious at the time and Patagonia was growing rapidly.”
Unfortunately, way too rapidly. After years of 30- to 50-percent growth Patagonia was about to hit a wall. The country was entering a recession and for the first time dealers were cancelling orders. Banks were tightening their lending practices, particularly to clothing companies, and Patagonia was in trouble. It could no longer sustain its meteoric growth and financing constraints were forcing the company to cut spending drastically. On July 31, 1991 Patagonia let go 120 employees – 20-percent of its workforce. This was, in Chouinard’s words, “the single darkest day of the company’s history.”
Needless to say, while Chouinard and company took a long hard look at how and why they were in business, and then implemented the necessary painful steps to turn the company around, Bill Klyn’s new line of fly fishing gear got shoved to the back burner. It was imperative for Patagonia to concentrate on products that produced the highest return on investment and with the concurrent slowdown of the angling market in the early ‘90s, technical fishing vests were not going to be one of them.
In hindsight Chouinard likely views the crisis of 1991–92 as one of the best things that could ever have happened to Patagonia. As horrible as it was it forced a complete revision and recommitment of the company to his earlier values, and the remarkable social and environmental ethic of present day Patagonia emerged.
However, for the next decade fly fishing at Patagonia tried to find traction with little success. Penetration into the market had been lost to other competitors while Patagonia was recovering and fly shop dealers remained non-receptive to soft goods like fleece and layering systems, preferring to stock only technical gear. Certain Patagonia innovations were brought to market including the patented Pack Vest, SST waders with their internal suspension system and beefy wading shoes, but the waders and wading shoes were initially plagued with quality issues like leaky seams and felt soles that came unglued.
On top of that, Patagonia management at the time did not buy into fly fishing as a viable niche and the line received little in the way of support and development.
“It was a frustrating decade,” recalls Klyn. “We didn’t really have a line, we had no budget for marketing and certain quality problems were killing us. And I couldn’t get the support I needed from the top to remedy much of anything.”
A consummate practitioner of what he calls his MBA style of management, “management by absence,” Chouinard nonetheless recognized the need for change. As an angler he too was frustrated with the company’s lackluster performance in fly fishing.
“Our biggest problem with fishing at the time was that we didn’t have management in place that believed in it,” he recalls. “Eventually we had to change that.” The search for a new CEO of Patagonia was underway.
Enter Casey Sheahana skilled executive with stints at Kelty, Merrell, and Nike ACG, he was also a fanatical fly fisherman. Sheahan was hired in 2005 and initially replaced Bill Klyn as Fly Fishing Product Line Director. Klyn in turn became Fishing Marketing Manager.
2005 was the year Patagonia came back into the fly fishing business with a full line of core fishing products including revised versions of some of the original designs developed by Klyn back in 1989. A year before, Steve Hitchcock had been recruited from Marmot as Sales Manager and he breathed new life into Patagonia’s relationship with its fly fishing retailers.
In 2006 Casey Sheahan was promoted to CEO, and Steve Stracqualursi came on board from a VP position at Nike (and with experience as a fishing rep) to take over the job of Sales Manager from Hitchcock, a position which eventually was merged with the Product Line Director position. Suddenly, for the first time in Patagonia’s history, a team of serious fly fishing enthusiasts was in place from the top down. And what gave this dream team even more credibility was that they all lived (and still do live) in areas where fishing was a way of life, Bill Klyn in Jackson Hole, Wyoming; Steve Stracqualursi in coastal Maine; Casey Sheahan in Carbondale, Colorado: and of course Yvon Chouinard for whom the worlds premier fisheries were his playground. The focus was incredible and the design and development of new and revised products was in full swing. It is during this upcoming 2008 season that consumers will see the first fruit of those efforts with 17 new and redesigned core fly fishing products being introduced.
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Visiting Patagonia headquarters in Ventura, California has a certain Alice in Wonderland feel. Housed in beautiful, light-yellow, mission style buildings – which encompass both a modern retail outlet and the original Chouinard Equipment Co. tin shed (see cover) – the Patagonia campus includes various “corporate” offices, apparel design and photography studios, fabric sample rooms, production and testing stations, child care facilities, and an organic employee cafeteria – all exuding an ambience somewhere between high tech and home grown. This is after all a successful $270-million clothing company so there are naturally a few computers, commercial sewing machines and a CAD cutter or two lying about, but the front foyer is untidy with bicycles, surf rods, raft oars, life plants and a chalk board with the daily surf report. Tibetan prayer flags adorn the ceiling in a wide open room where the apparel designers work, and everywhere there is the clutter of creative minds feeding off a visual stew of fabrics swatches, pattern charts, color samples, and racks of prototype clothing. Birdsong, children’s laughter and the rich perfume of oleander bushes seep in through windows open to the outside. This is decidedly not your average corporate work environment despite a sense of focused concentration throughout the open cubicles forming a maze of workstations in various large open quarters.
When I first arrive I wait at a picnic table outside next to the company’s child care playground for Marketing Director Rob Bondurandt who has promised me a tour. I watch a short, athletically-built older guy wearing flip flops, khaki-colored twill pants and a short sleeved Island Hopper shirt walk by himself across the parking lot from the shed where Patagonia now manufactures its own line of surfboards towards the entrance of the main building. He stops a moment, tipping his head to the right and inserts a finger in his right ear, shaking it slightly as a swimmer might to dislodge water. It’s a moment before I realize it’s Yvon Chouinard himself, showing up for a vendor meeting after (I learn later) his customary morning surfing session.
Patagonia is nothing if not fabric. They are the undisputed leaders in the development of technical fabrics for outdoor clothing and gear. Where most other companies in the outdoor apparel business might design a specific piece of clothing and then search for the best “off the shelf” technical fabric to manufacture it with, for Patagonia it’s just as often the opposite approach of form following function.
Rob Bondurant explains further as he leads me into the prototype room, an open space of 20-odd sewing stations framed by hundreds of colorful rolls of fabric, thread and cord samples. “We work with mills around the world to develop fabrics that satisfy a specific technical need we have. But because we’re willing to participate in the cost of research and development, and then allow mills to later bring to the open market fabrics we’ve helped to develop, we often get first look at innovations coming from the cloth makers themselves. And every once in a while a truly benchmark fabric is created, like Capeline or Synchilla or H2No, which in turns drives design and the creation of new products”
Patagonia rejects 94% of the fabrics it evaluates each year because they don’t perform to the company’s rigorous standards. The remaining 6%, maybe 800 to 900 samples, are subjected to a battery of tests at both its on-site testing facility and through rigorous field testing with professional athletes, guides and company “ambassadors.” Only about 50 new fabrics are finally adopted each year to be made into commercial products, but when they are, they represent the cutting edge of technical application.
Bondurant shows me everything at Patagonia, and I mean everything. His tour is far more transparent and his answers to my questions more honest and forthcoming than I could have imagined. He allows me to photograph anything I want and gives me free rein to wander. But that openness is a Patagonia philosophy. Everyone here works in open rooms, there are no doors or separations, and there are no private offices. This is an egalitarian environment where communication is king and employees are encouraged to take risks and question convention.
Eventually he drops me off at an open conference table where I meet Steve Stracqualursi in the middle of a design and production review of the new Stormfront Pack, which is being reintroduced by Patagonia in 2008. I spend much of the next two days with “Straq” (as he is affectionately known by coworkers cowed by the pronunciation of his name) and we go over every detail of every product in the 2008 line. Straq’s knowledge of his fly fishing product line is encyclopedic and his constant quest to apply to his wares the philosophy of Antonine de Saint-Exupery – “A designer knows he has achieved perfection not when there is nothing left to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.” – has resulted in some terrific new pieces of gear and clothing.
To describe them here in one-dimensional prose and even pretend to do them any justice would take pages more; so I encourage you instead to check them out at the Patagonia booth at the Fly Tackle Retailer Show, or later in the year online at www.patagonia.com/flyfishing
What is perhaps more salient to this article and to fly fishing as a whole is the realization that Patagonia’s evolution of product and design, their recommitment to our pure and simple sport of fly fishing, has occurred within the strict, self-imposed policies of their mission statement, “Build the best product, do no unnecessary harm, use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”
For if fabric and design innovation are the heart of Patagonia, environmental consciousness and social responsibility are the soul. Patagonia was one of the first companies to institute recycling and their current innovation in sustainable, non-polluting fabric solutions is groundbreaking. Their record of environmental and social tithing is laudable, with over $28 million given to grassroots organizations since 1985. On the employee side, they were one of the first to offer onsite childcare, maternity and paternity leave, and flextime. They even give time off for employees to participate in demonstrations and acts of civil disobedience against social injustice and environmental degradation – and they’ll bail you out of jail if you’re arrested in the process!
But it is Patagonia’s simply stated goal of “being able to take back everything we make by 2010” that has raised the bar of corporate activism to a new height, even for them. Already, through a partnership with Japanese supplier Teijin, they are able to totally recycle polyester apparel like their Sunshade Shirts and Sun Masks, but the technical components of waders, boots, packs and raingear may prove more challenging. However, at Patagonia, when Chouinard issues an edict, particularly in his quest to minimize harm to the planet, he rarely backs down in the face of adversity.
An enthusiastic student of Zen, perhaps Chouinard is using fly fishing as a metaphor for what in life is most precious to us, and what we have to lose if we continue in our reckless abandonment of Mother Earth. From a conventional business perspective, the market share of technical fly fishing gear in an already overcrowded industry is hardly worth the bother for a $270 million lifestyle clothing company. As Rob Bondurant confides, “I sell more black fleeces in a year than the entire fly fishing product line combined.” But that’s not the point. Fly fishing engages world-weary folks with the rarity of something wild and unaffected. Produce perfect products that allow this communion to occur and you have initiated motivation for positive change.