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Wilderness Outfitter Patagonia Offers Different Kind of Corporate Climbing : Workplace Playground

October 15, 1987|DENISE HAMILTON | Times Staff Writer

The Ventura entrepreneur who once rallied his employees with a speech called "Let My People Go Surfing" is offering some of them job opportunities 1,037 miles from the beach.

Yvon Chouinard, who operates four mountaineering companies under the corporate umbrella of Lost Arrow, announced last week that he will move about half his 60-member mail-order division to Bozeman, Mont., by the fall of 1988.

How many will abandon the surf is yet to be seen, but the move is typical of Chouinard, who has built his $46-million company on the premise that workplace and playground should mean about the same thing.

"It's sort of like 'Zen and the art of doing business,' he says. "If you forget about the end goal, the bottom line, and just worry about having a good, excellent company, the bottom line just comes along."

The Perfect Playground

Why Bozeman? It's the perfect playground, Chouinard says, for employees testing out the rugged outdoor sports equipment and clothing that Chouinard makes and sells under the names Patagonia, Patagonia Mail Order, Great Pacific Retail and Chouinard Equipment. Together the firms constitute the third-largest company in Ventura and one of the powerhouses in the booming outdoor-gear trade.

There were other considerations as well: proximity to Chouinard's home in Moose, Wyo., where he spends half the year skiing, kayaking, fly-fishing and designing and testing equipment; a desire for decentralized growth, and an awareness that Bozeman is an economically depressed place that could use some jobs.

Within five years, the Bozeman division will employ 100 during peak season--most of them local people, company officials estimate.

"The Chouinards aren't trying to 'save' Bozeman, Mont., but they're concerned about what's happening. They figure, if that's where people need jobs, that would be a good place to move," said Karen Frishman, public relations director.

Although the company is based in Ventura, its products are known for traveling well. Patagonia clothes have outfitted winners of the 1987 America's Cup and kayakers paddling the Pacific from California to Hawaii. Chouinard's climbing gear has accompanied climbers to remote ice canyons in Antarctica and alpinists trying to scale Mt. Everest without oxygen.

But mostly the company works at a much lower altitude--about 18 feet above sea level in a converted slaughterhouse on East Santa Clara Street.

In a Ventura economy suffering from the prolonged oil-industry slump, Lost Arrow employs almost 400 people, many of whom work there for the endorphin-charged atmosphere and benefits as much as for the weekly paycheck. Chamber of Commerce officials say Lost Arrow operates the only on-site day-care center in Ventura. More than 60% of the work force is female--including much of the upper management.

Lost Arrow has also forged the way--in spirit at least--for several other mountaineering firms that have settled in Ventura over the years, including Gramicci Products of Oxnard and the Wilderness Group of Ventura.

Innovative Backpack

Like Chouinard, owners of those firms say that fresh air, good surf and open beaches first drew them to Ventura County.

"We had a sailboat up here, and we were tired of the smog," says Reanne Douglass, who owns Wilderness Group with her husband, Don. In the 1970s, their Alpenlite line was among the first to feature stand-up frame backpacks whose load was supported by a belt around the hips.

Business boomed, and, in 1978, the couple left Claremont for Ventura. Reanne Douglass says that Chouinard, who has lived in Ventura since 1965, "gave us some ideas about where we could find property."

But the backpack industry has slumped in recent years, forcing the Douglasses to move into smaller quarters, cut their work force by more than half and diversify into day packs and bike packs, which constitute 80% of sales, Reanne Douglass says.

Lost Arrow did more than just inspire Mike Graham, the 30-year-old owner of Gramicci Products. It helped transform him from a self-described climbing bum to a successful Oxnard businessman who expects sales of $1.5 million this year on his line of climbing shoes, hardware and sports clothing.

Graham, a climbing buddy of Chouinard's, got his start seven years ago when Chouinard asked him to make some climbing harnesses and loaned him $800 to buy equipment.

From there, orders for mountain gear mushroomed, and Graham eventually diversified into clothing and climbing shoes under the name Gramicci Products. He has 35 employees, and although subcontracting for Lost Arrow accounts for half of his work, Graham's own clothing and shoe business grew 40% last year and is "on the verge of being out of control," he says.

"I owe it all to Yvon," Graham says unabashedly.

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