Patagonia boss, Yvon Chouinard, is a welcomed break from tech billionaires. Instead of doing just his ‘bit’ for the environment, this octogenarian entrepreneur donated his $3 billion company, American outdoor apparel brand Patagonia, to combat the climate crisis.
The more you learn about Yvon Chouinard, the person, the more the billionaire aspect astonishes. Living life in your stead seems to be the mantra of this accomplished 83-year-old businessman. He prefers to be introduced as a rock climber, environmentalist, or philanthropist (not necessarily in that order). “The earth is now our only shareholder,” stated the American businessman Yvon Chouinard who transferred all of Patagonia’s voting stock to the Patagonia Purpose Trust, created to protect the company’s values. Its nonvoting stock has gone to Holdfast Collective, a nonprofit working to combat the environmental crisis.
They surely don’t make such men anymore, and such men seldom achieve the riches Chouinard has. Let’s take a closer look at the life of a billionaire who never wanted to be a businessman, is the epitome of eco-consciousness and anti-corporate ideals, and is obsessed with tenkara fly-fishing.
Yvon Chouinard is a son of the soil who nurtured, thrived, and prospered with nature
Fascination with Yvon Chouinard, the son of a French-Canadian handyman, mechanic, and plumber, begins early on. After moving to Southern California from Lewiston in 1947, the 11-year-old catholic climber was taken by the natural flora and fauna of the place. Chouinard founded the Southern California Falconry Club, and his investigations of falcon aeries ushered him to rock climbing, which became a life-long passion. One of the leading climbers of the “Golden Age of Yosemite Climbing” wasn’t satisfied with the tools around him. The perfectionist and passionate climber didn’t find the kind of pitons he wanted. At 19, he revolutionized mountaineering by creating a piton he sold from the trunk of his car for $1.50 each. In 1965, he founded his first company, a small climbing equipment firm – Chouinard Equipment, Ltd, followed by a 1970 trip to Scotland with Chouinard selling rugby shirts like hot cakes. This great success led to the founding of Patagonia.
The Patagonia Company became synonymous with rugged, technical clothing, so perfect that your grandmother could wear it to the North Pole. In 1971, Chouinard met and married his wife, Malinda Pennoyer, an art and home economics student at California State University. She is a co-owner of the company Patagonia and works alongside her husband to run the business. They have two children, Fletcher and Claire, who aren’t clamoring for the CEO title, instead dodging the billionaire status. Surfboard designer Fletcher has brought environmental awareness to the surfing industry. At the same time, Claire Chouinard channels her creativity by working in the fashion side of Patagonia, responsible for some of the brand’s designs.
How Yvon made Patagonia different:
A self-proclaimed “dirtbag” who spent more than 200 nights a year sleeping outdoors founded Patagonia out of his little blacksmith shop in Ventura, California. From a humble beginning, the company swelled to 3000 employees who thrive in Chouinard’s un-company. The man loathes impersonal emails and computers, relies on his assistant for correspondence, and makes it mandatory for his workforce to read his book, Let My People Go Surfing. “One thing I did not want to change, even if we got serious: work had to be enjoyable on a daily basis.
Having fun should be part of the culture at Patagonia,” shared the businessman who will take a risk on an itinerant rock climber rather than a run-of-the-mill MBA. Their head office is better described as a community where the big bosses and employees enjoy subsidized healthy lunches daily in the café. Chouinard’s wife Malinda introduced on-site child care in 1981, a radical idea for the time.
He recognized early on that there was no business to be done on a dead planet. “I’ve given away 1% of our annual sales to 650 environmental organizations through our 1% for the Planet program. Craig Mathews, the owner of Blue Ribbon Flies, and I came up with the idea in 2001. Today, more than 1,800 companies have joined. Investing in the well-being of our planet makes good business sense.”
The Chouinard siblings won’t inherit any dime from Patagonia:
Yvon passed on more to his son than the apathy in becoming a billionaire. Fletcher Chouinard didn’t inherit Patagonia but has the same dedication and zeal towards the environment and its conservation as his father. The outdoorsy surfboard designer founded Fletcher Chouinard Designs more than 25 years ago, creating green, durable, high-performing equipment. His sister Claire Chouinard ditched outdoorsy for artsy and graduated from Otis College of Art and Design. The siblings worked together in Patagonia, handling entirely different roles, and none were entitled. “We’re not just owners or board members,” Fletcher told The New Yorker in 2016 of he and his sister working for Patagonia. “We have normal salaries,” he continued. “We weren’t brought up to give a shit about money. Actually, I think we were raised to be slightly embarrassed about it.”
Claire Chouinard is as private as they come, with no presence on social media. Though, it is known that Claire helms the fashion side of Patagonia. “Our current creative director Claire Chouinard really sets the tone for inspiring us to whole-heartedly embrace our company’s statement of purpose: We are in business to save our home planet,” Patagonia design director Carrie Childs said in an interview last year. “Every creative decision, every design choice is filtered through that overarching purpose.” With so much drive and dedication to the vision and mission of Patagonia, it is refreshing to see the heirs working towards only the purpose and goal of the company, sans any vested interest.
Chouinard gave away his $3 billion enterprise in a blink of an eye:
It’s hardly a shocking move coming from a man like Yvon Chouinard, who always kept his passion for the environment at the forefront of every decision. The billionaire admitted he never wanted to be a businessman and started Patagonia as a craftsman, making climbing gear for himself and his friends. As a favorable side effect, he made billions and just as quickly has given them away for a higher purpose. Over the years, Patagonia had been donating 1% of its sales each year to grassroots activists and remaining a B Corp, a designation for companies that prioritize social and environmental standards and profits, shared Mint.
Other billionaires who won’t be passing on their immense wealth to their kids include Star Wars creator George Lucas. The filmmaker, with a $7.3 billion net worth, pledged to donate handsomely to education. His four children all have their own careers and continue to benefit from the Star Wars franchise. Laurene Powell Jobs, worth $22 bn, also does not believe in wealth accumulation. She founded a social change organization focusing on education, immigration, and social justice. Mark and his wife Priscilla Chan decided to give away 99% of their company shares throughout their lifetime to a foundation as they welcomed their first child, daughter Max. Billionaires from different walks of life do their bit, albeit differently. Although, the Patagonia boss will always be remembered for setting the bar unattainably high!