At the age of 14 years, Yvon Chouinard joined the Southern California Falconry Club. When an adult leader of the club taught the boys how to rappel down cliffs to the Falcon aeries, Chouinard’s passion for rock climbing was born, as well as one of the world’s most innovative entrepreneurs. By 1957, Yvon had taught himself to blacksmith and was making his pitons out of old harvester blades and trying them on early ascents of the north face of Sentinel Rock in Yosemite with his friends. Word spread, and soon Chouinard sold his first product, a climbing piton, out of a small shop in his parent’s backyard for $1.50 each.
When Yvon was not out rock climbing with his friends, he was surfing. His tools were portable, so he could load up his car and travel the California coast, selling gear out of his car to support himself. But profits were slim, and one summer, to feed himself, he bought two cases of dented, canned cat tuna from a damaged-can outlet in San Francisco, supplemented by oatmeal, potatoes, and poached ground squirrel and porcupines.
In 1965, Yvon partnered with Tom Frost and started Chouinard Equipment. By 1970, Chouinard Equipment had become the largest supplier of climbing hardware in the United States. But it also caused environmental problems because its gear damaged the rock, particularly the pitons and how they used them. So Chouinard and Frost decided to minimize the piton business and found an environmentally sound alternative introduced in 1972 — their first big environmental step. By 1972, the company was manufacturing clothing, and in 1973 Patagonia opened its first store in Ventura, California.
After many years of rapid growth, even being included in Inc. Magazine’s list of fastest-growing privately held companies, that growth stopped in 1991 when a recession caused sales to plummet. Their bank called in the company’s revolving note. After laying off 20% of his workforce, Yvon took his top management team to Patagonia to decide what type of company they wanted to be. The evolution of Patagonia began after that retreat.
By 2022 it was clear to most what type of company Patagonia not only wanted to be but what kind of company Patagonia was. From healthy foods in the cafeteria to company-organized ski trips to an onsite childcare center, the Patagonia company became a family-friendly community.
But if any doubt remained, in August of 2022, the family irrevocably transferred all the company’s voting stock into a newly established trust, the Patagonia Purpose Trust. The Chouinards donated the remaining common shares to a newly established nonprofit called the Holdfast Collect. The family received no tax benefits for their donation.
As a leader and socially responsible entrepreneur, Chouinard has been innovative in protecting the environment, aiming to “create the best quality with the least impact.” He is considered a trailblazer and a leader in the apparel industry. Other mega-corporations such as The North Face, Walmart, Levi Straus, and Nike have followed similar sustainability processes. But, profit maximization with Patagonia was never Chouinard’s intent. In his eyes, he feels that Patagonia is his opportunity to do good in the world and that it’s a way to demonstrate to other corporations that they, too, can lead by example. Although it is not precisely Chouinard’s intent to be a successful entrepreneur, his actions inadvertently make him one.
Jennifer Krebs-Ellis is president & CEO of Cosmetic Specialty Labs, Inc, former Mayor of Medicine Park and serves as a commissioner on the Oklahoma Employment Security Commission.