Wednesday, October 31, 2007

Pumalin Park founder and Chile conservationist, Kristine Tompkins speaks about corporate responsibility at the Wharton Business School

Leadership, Patagonia-style: Changing the Criteria for Success

Kristine Tompkins, former CEO of outdoor apparel company Patagonia, pulled no punches with the audience attending her recent Wharton Leadership Lecture. Although Rachel Carson's book, Silent Spring, warned of the dangers of indiscriminate pesticide use as early as 1962, Tompkins said that when she began working full-time at Patagonia in 1972, she didn't understand how the actions of the business world as well as the behavior of individuals "affected the very underpinnings" of the individual, the family and the community. "You know that now," she said, and "the choices you make count more and more." People who can manage "the tough decisions and incorporate" difficult issues into their lives, she said, "are the future leaders."

Tompkins spent more than two decades with Patagonia and its founder, Yvon Chouinard, building an environmentally responsible and socially innovative company. After she retired as CEO in 1993, she and her husband, Douglas Tompkins, co-founder of The North Face and Esprit, moved to Chile and began channeling their respective fortunes into conserving wilderness in that country as well as in Argentina. Nearly 2.2 million acres have been placed in permanent protection to date through their foundations -- The conservation Land Trust, Conservacion Patagonica and The Foundation for Deep Ecology.

Tompkins focused her remarks on the ethical and environmental responsibilities of business and business people. "You are headed out the door -- practically and figuratively speaking," she told her audience. "I think you are really in a tough situation. You are coming out of Wharton well-schooled. You can probably get great jobs" that pay a lot of money, she noted, adding, however, that she hoped her audience would give themselves the "latitude" to think about their personal values and align themselves with work that reflects those values.

"Think hard about what your personal ethics are, what your needs are versus your wants, and chip away at the common cultural norm, which is [to] run out, get what we can -- and to hell with whatever we leave in our path," she said. "Because I don't think you have that luxury anymore."

'Blood-sucking, Bottom Feeders'

In 1976, Kristine Tompkins was general manager of Patagonia, working with Chouinard and his wife, Malinda, to establish the nascent clothing company, a spin-off of Chouinard Equipment, based in Ventura, Calif. A former ski racer and friend of Chouinard, Tompkins had first worked at the equipment company during summer vacations. She returned to work there fulltime after graduating from the College of Idaho with a degree in history in 1972.

That year, Chouinard Equipment, already the largest supplier of climbing equipment in the United States, was experimenting with selling outdoor apparel. Chouinard had tapped into a fashion craze -- comfortable climbing and ski clothing that was "hand-forged" in-house or sourced from European companies. "There were only six of us at the time," Tompkins said. "It was a small company. We wanted to build it to make clothes for ourselves." Also that year, Chouinard Equipment was closing out its signature climbing product -- hard-steel pitons that damaged rock face -- to sell removable/reusable aluminum chocks, marking the first of many times that the company would accept financial risk in order to minimize its impact on the environment.

The Patagonia clothing brand debuted in 1973, its logo based on the skyline of the 11,073-foot Mount Fitz Roy in Argentina which Chouinard and Tompkins' husband climbed in 1968. Tompkins became Patagonia's general manager in 1975 and was named CEO four years later. She learned her job, she says, via "the school of sink or swim -- daily experience. If I have one great trait, it's that I look for people who are the best at something, and noodle my way into them and talk to them by hook or by crook." She collared the best business leaders she could find, including the "heads of giant banks.... I was a very young woman. They probably felt, 'This pathetic little creature! Let's help her along.'"

This was the 1970s, and Patagonia was evolving its own corporate counter-culture. "We believed that all businessmen were corrupt, evil ... bottom-feeding, blood-sucking people," Tompkins said. Yet "we managed to maintain a company that ethically ran in parallel to our own hopes and dreams. Environmentally and socially, we were very aggressive." But to serve as an example of both, Patagonia had to be fiscally sound.

Here is the full article.