Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman

November 30, 2013 - Comment

In his long-awaited memoir, Yvon Chouinard-legendary climber, businessman, environmentalist, and founder of Patagonia, Inc.-shares the persistence and courage that have gone into being head of one of the most respected and environmentally responsible companies on earth. From his youth as the son of a French Canadian blacksmith to the thrilling, ambitious climbing expeditions that inspired

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In his long-awaited memoir, Yvon Chouinard-legendary climber, businessman, environmentalist, and founder of Patagonia, Inc.-shares the persistence and courage that have gone into being head of one of the most respected and environmentally responsible companies on earth. From his youth as the son of a French Canadian blacksmith to the thrilling, ambitious climbing expeditions that inspired his innovative designs for the sport’s equipment, Let My People Go Surfing is the story of a man who brought doing good and having grand adventures into the heart of his business life-a book that will deeply affect entrepreneurs and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

Like the carefully engineered dies which created his company’s first products–steel pitons and carabiners which climbing enthusiasts would recognize as primitive forerunners of today’s sleeker gear–Yvon Chouinard is if nothing else an original. How many other shy French-Canadian boys become surf-and-climbing bums, then blacksmiths forging their own play tools, and eventually founders of world-renowned sports equipment and apparel companies like Patagonia? How many other heads of multi-million dollar enterprises open their memoirs by stating bluntly, “The Lee Iacoccas, Donald Trumps, and Jack Welches of the business world are heroes to no one except other businessmen with similar values. I wanted to be a fur trapper when I grew up.” The proverbial mold from which Chouinard was cast got broken.

In Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman, readers get a fascinating look inside the history and philosophy of both Patagonia and its irascible, opinionated founder. From its beginning, the book shares a sense of Chouinard’s strong-willed personality and his love of the outdoors. He recounts a mostly happy childhood spent in a still-unspoiled southern California, climbing, diving, fishing, and surfing. The narrative soon moves into Chouinard’s early entrepreneurial efforts, which were less focused on market-share domination than on earning a basic living to finance his own sporting habits. As his company’s first catalog noted, delivery could be slow in the summer months, when Chouinard typically left the “office”–a dilapidated shack converted into an ironworks–for climbing adventures across the American West.

Eventually, though, the story settles into a pattern familiar to business audiences: Patagonia grows rapidly, takes on more employees and product lines to sustain hungry demand from customers, but overreaches with over-ambitious expansion plans and suffers a hiccup in its adolescence. This make-or-break juncture of a business’s development often contains the most interesting material, and here Chouinard and his beloved company are no exception. He describes a series of wrenching decisions through which he and Patagonia management team navigated in 1991, as sales growth stalled while capital and operational expenses sprinted ahead. From this crisis emerged Patagonia’s first-ever layoffs, affecting a hefty 20% of the workforce, and a serious re-examination of the business’s core principles and methods.

The historical part of Chouinard’s book largely ends at this point, and gives way to an exposition of philosophies which emerged at Patagonia during its dark moments in the early 1990s. The rest of the book serves as a kind of primer to business, the Patagonia way: one chapter each on product design philosophy, production philosophy, distribution philosophy, image philosophy, financial philosophy, human resource philosophy, and so on. Fans of Patagonia can revel in the company’s working details, as can those who support or want to build businesses with self-consciously cultivated soulfulness. Readers who enjoyed Gary Erickson’s story about Clif Bar, for example, should definitely find this a welcome addition to their bookshelves. –Peter Han

Comments

R. M. Williams "just an avid reader" says:

just drop everything and read the book This is one of those drop everything books that you want to buy and give to all your friends and relations who will read and gain from it.I don’t even know how the book came to my attention to buy i the first place, it sat in my TBR pile for several weeks until i had the time to read the first chapter and skim the rest, my usual routine with new books as they come into the house. However it is so good, from the first sentence that i just set aside my other reading and finished it.It is about doing good and having an adventure while doing so. Partly biographical, partly a history of the company’s beginning, mostly a philosophic discussion of how to interact with an increasingly polluted and destroyed planet in a responsible corporate way. It’s a story about a man, from all indications one of those rare individuals who consciously walks through life (perhaps climbing is a better word for his travels) aware of what is around him and how he is responsible for his…

John F. Mcmahon says:

Incredible insights from incredible man Yvon Chouinard takes all current and accepted business practices and turns them on their ear! Being involved in the “corporate world” I am witness to all sorts of techniques, behaviours, policies, practices etc. The driving force is always the bottom line. While Chouinard is, and has to be concerned with the bottom line his path to that bottom line is both bold and unique. Clearly this is a very practical guide to a more healthy and sustainable business culture.Chouinard is clearly a wonderful man leading a wonderful charge. Hey, I want my boss to let me go surfing!!A must read!

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