No one ever grows up wanting to be a businessman

Island Peak Summit Ridge

Many years ago, when Peak Mountaineering was just a fledgling enterprise, I read Yvon Chouinard’s book ‘Let My People Go Surfing’.  Chouinard is the founder and owner of renowned outdoor clothing brand Patagonia and in the book he sets out his business philosophy and, inextricably linked to that, his environmental stance.  I really loved the book and learnt a lot – I have always admired Chouinard’s dedication to using his company as an environmental role model and business force for good.  Now, ten years after his first book, Chouinard has released an updated version and I have been revisiting his wise words….

Chouinard subtitles the book ‘The Education Of A Reluctant Businessman’ and explains that he never set out to create the billion dollar organisation Patagonia has become.  He really just wanted to be a climbing and surfing dirt bag who made enough to support the lifestyle he craved. As the business grew and became more influential, he started to see ways it could help environmental causes and influence others.

There is a section of the book where he describes going to see a business analyst.  At the time he felt unsure of Patagonia’s future path and he was hoping for guidance and inspiration. The analyst listened as Chouinard explained how the company had given millions to environmental causes, influenced government policy and become a leading light for environmentally responsible business, and yet he still really saw himself as that wave seeking surfer and exploratory climber.  

The analyst said that the solution for Chouinard was easy.  Sell the business, keep a few million dollars to live on and then gradually feed the remaining money to the environmental causes he cherished.  Chouinard left the meeting feeling more confused than ever – he knew he didn’t want to let Patagonia go and yet it was sometime later that he fully understood why.  

He realised that he saw the business as a vehicle for influencing others.  Influencing them about responsible business practice, guiding the future of environmental sustainability and even helping to shape the future of the outdoor world. Patagonia was a supplier of great outdoor clothing and it was also a powerful vehicle for change.  He wanted to stay involved and it was all about influencing that journey.

Any business owner reading the book will inevitably draw parallels with their own companies journey and business practices and I was also struck by how one comes about owning a business at all – in my case a pair of outdoor guiding and training businesses.  Like Chouinard it inevitably came about from a love of the outdoors and a passion to share that with others, but many outdoor lovers tick that box by choosing just to work as freelance instructors for other companies.  There must be something else that drives those who choose to start up for themselves.

Chouinard starts his book by saying something I thought was very powerful.  No child, he explains, ever grows up wanting to be a businessman.  Children grow up wanting to be firefighters, sponsored athletes or rangers.  Businessmen like Donald Trump, he suggests, are heroes only to other business people with similar values.  He is right of course. I grew up wanting to join the Royal Navy and my own children currently want to be a mountain guide and fireman (their plans do change pretty regularly though!), but somehow, like Chouinard, I am now running two businesses and never did take to the high seas.

Chouinard is clear that Patagonia, much as it strives to be a responsible company, is still at odds with the natural environment.  They have led the way in sustainability but if you make outdoor equipment you can’t avoid damaging the environment to some extent.  He recognises this and recognises how every company does this too.  Chouinard says business’s are to blame for destroying nature and damaging the planet and of course he is largely right.

We will never be another multi million pound Patagonia and I feel proud enough simply to know our businesses have been able to provide a reasonable lifestyle to a family of four, but whether the business is big or small, the responsibility to be responsible still exists.  

Patagonia focussed on carbon neutral buildings to house hundreds for their office space and yet our choice to use a super insulated log cabin that is cosy for three is only different in scale.  We chose vehicles that were as efficient as practical and yet still we end up covering many more road miles than I would like.  We recycle equipment when possible and pass on unwanted items when practical, and yet we still trash more ropes in a season than many climbers probably use in their whole climbing careers.

But when I pondered on all this for a while I at least was able to draw comfort from Peak Mountaineering and Tor Lea Training’s contribution.  Of course we rely on those manufacturers that provide our outdoor clothing and equipment, but at least I see the benefits, rather than damage, we can try and bring to the natural environment.

Our businesses are all about training others and enriching lives and I feel very proud of that.  Every Peak Mountaineer we skill up to enjoy their own adventures is another person enjoying the richness and beauty of the natural world.  We educate them in their responsibilities towards protecting this precious environment and then we hopefully watch as they take flight for themselves.  It is a powerful and privileged role.

And I was also left wondering about my own journey into business ownership.  What, I wondered had lit that spark in me?  My parents were both business owners and my elder brother took that path too.  Was that the spark that lit the touch paper? I don’t think so.  I think it was, whether I rationed it out at the beginning or not, for exactly the same reasons as Chouinard.  

Just as he wanted his business to be a facilitator for the life he wanted to live, I hoped for the same from our little enterprises. We don’t always hit the mark with this and I work many more weekends than I would choose, but at least I have the flexibility to close up the office for that afternoon ride or head to the local crags when the sun shines.  I have taken chunks of time off for adventures when I reckon many employers would have laughed me from their offices for asking.  Owning a business has been a burden at times, but has created freedoms too.

But, of course, it is the influential role his business can make in trying to educate others and avert the encroaching environmental catastrophe that keeps Chouinard driving the ship ahead and I see that we can all do, albeit in a much smaller way, something along the same lines.

We have dabbled in this with environmental initiatives and conservation projects and yet, as I put down his book after this latest reading, I wanted to do more.  It has kept me awake at night over the last week and plans are still hatching, but I want our business to strive for better.  If we do, hopefully we will influence others (both individuals and other businesses), to strive for better too.

Please make sure you read Chouinard’s book.  It is a masterful analysis of the current state of play and will at turns both inspire and terrify you.  But beyond that, please share ideas with us if you think you have something to offer or a way you can help.  I’ll definitely be getting some of those initiatives on the go in the coming months and years and it would be great if you could share that journey too.  That wise man once said ‘you must be the change you wish to see in this world’ and yet he never lived to see that we are running out of time for change.

Posted by Paul