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Defining Values


The Education of a Reluctant Businessman

By Yvon Chouinard;

Penguin Press; $26.95

Yvon Chouinard, founder and owner of Patagonia, the specialty outdoor products company based in Ventura, Calif., has a lot to say about values -- his, his employees', his customers', and, occasionally and not very flatteringly, everyone else's.

In Let My People Go Surfing, his business and personal memoir, Chouinard lets us know he's as robust morally as he is physically. Born in Maine to French-Canadian parents shortly before World War II, he moved with his family to Burbank, Calif., in 1946. A self-described loner and misfit, Chouinard says he once wanted to be a fur trapper but moved on to climbing, surfing, and, as they said in the '60s, living low on the food chain. As an impoverished young backpacker, he wasn't above eating canned cat food and squirrels.

The Patagonia empire began in the family backyard, where Chouinard used a coal-fired forge from a junkyard to make reusable pitons, the spikes climbers drive into rocks to hold their ropes. At $1.50 each, they cost seven times as much as the more common single-use pitons, but they were also stiffer and stronger. Chouinard writes: "You had to have my new gear if you wanted to do the state-of-the-art climbs that we were doing."

Chouinard Equipment's first catalog, in 1964, was a one-page mimeographed list of climbing tools and prices. Today, Patagonia sells products from "baggies," men's swim trunks popular with surfers, to technical climbing wear through its stores, catalog, and Web site. It continues to be known for quality, not bargain prices.

The book is a screed for Chouinard's strong personal beliefs. Blunt and occasionally rambling, it offers hope to trailblazing entrepreneurs. "I...knew I would never be happy playing by the normal rules of business," Chouinard says. "I wanted to distance myself as far as possible from those pasty-faced corpses in suits I saw in airline magazines." His enterprise would be fun, the dress code casual, and the hours flexible enough to allow time for surfing or caring for a sick child.

Chouinard describes how he infuses all stages of the business with his philosophies, such as his efforts at "green" manufacturing and using 100% organically grown cotton and recyclables (Patagonia's famed Synchilla fleece is made from plastic soda bottles); renovating existing buildings rather than constructing new ones; using the least resource-consuming means of distribution; and donating 1% of Patagonia's sales to environmental causes.

It has to be tough for a man proud of his "dirtbag" roots to come to terms with his wealth. It appears Chouinard resolves any tension through his philanthropy. "If we wish to lead corporate America by example," he writes, "we have to be profitable." Given his antipathy to the Establishment, one might have expected Chouinard to become a rebel. But his unexpected success led him to try another tack, attempting to change the system from within.

By Marilyn Harris

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