Yvon Chouinard: the Patagonia climber-surfer who inspires millions

December 23, 2021 | Surfing
Yvon Chouinard: the mountain climber who never misses a good swell | Photo: Patagonia

Rock climber, surfer, and Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard is not your average business mogul.

His path to entrepreneurial success took a different road - or different mountains and waves.

The legendary impresario followed his own beliefs and stuck to a pact with Nature while developing his work, occupation, profession, and career.

Chouinard showed the world there's a way of making money, creating long-lasting quality products, and fulfilling customers' needs without compromising our environmental footprint and respect toward the other.

Yvon chose the dirty side of the track to follow his dreams, respect Nature, and reach the pinnacle of success.

But how do you measure success? Is it all about figures? Maybe not.

Yvon Chouinard: the founder of Patagonia is a blacksmith that is always at work | Photo: Patagonia

The alternative self-made businessman taught us inspiring lessons on how to perceive the world and our lives as an ephemeral journey. We are only guests on a temporary planet.

Has the Yoda of sustainable capitalism made mistakes? Definitely. But Yvon learned from them and took lessons into the future.

The adventurer with French-Canadian roots developed, shaped, and fine-tuned his personal ethos.

Ecological consciousness and preservation of the natural habit are part of his lifestyle, culture, and education.

In a way, Patagonia's history is somehow a mirror of Yvon Chouinard's life story. He is undoubtedly one of the greatest American entrepreneurs of all time.

If there's one thing that the ultimate outdoorsman taught us is that the growth of a company should never only be measured by its balance sheet.

Here are some surprising and stunning facts about Yvon Chouinard, a philosopher, thinker, innovator, environmentalist, inventor, philanthropist, mountain climber, and surfer.

Patagonia: Yvon Chouinard is a passionate climber and surfer | Photo: Patagonia

1. Yvon Chouinard was born on November 9, 1938, in Lewiston, Maine, United States;

2. He was raised surrounded by women in Lisbon, Maine, and studied at a French school. His father, a French-Canadian mechanic and plumber, was a troubled roughneck who once used a pair of pliers to pull his own teeth to avoid spending money on dentures;

3. When he was just a kid, Yvon dreamed of becoming a fur trapper like his French-Canadian ancestors;

4. In 1947, the youngster's mother, Yvonne, convinced his husband to move to Southern California. Yvon struggled to adapt to English-speaking public schools and became a geek and a loner;

5. His life would start to take a fresh new path when he discovered the Falconry Club. Yvon and his new friends began rappelling down cliffs in search of hawks' nests;

6. After learning the basics of climbing from one of the most experienced falconers, aged 16, Chouinard headed to Wyoming in a custom-rebuilt Ford and made his first solo ascent of the Gannett Peak in the Wind River Range;

7. Before founding Patagonia, he worked as a private detective at his old brother Jeff's investigation agency and spent his free time on climbing excursions and surf trips;

8. In 1957, YC taught himself blacksmithing so that he could forge reusable climbing tools that would not harm the environment. He was not happy with the European pitons, which were unremovable and expensive, so he made his own and sold them for $1.50 each to friends;

9. With $820 borrowed from his parents, he then started producing his signature carabiners in a small workshop area behind his parents' house;

10. Chouinard eventually found a way to surf and climb Yosemite, the Shawangunk Ridge, and the Alps by traveling with portable blacksmith equipment and spending the nights resting in a sleeping bag;

Yvon Chouinard: an entrepreneur, philosopher, thinker, innovator, environmentalist, inventor, philanthropist, mountain climber, and surfer | Photo: Patagonia

11. In 1962, the draft sent him to South Korea and the mountains near Seoul. Yvon spent more than a year in Asia before being granted an honorable discharge and returning to Yosemite, where he completed the first ascent of the North American Wall, the southeast face of El Capitan;

12. Chouinard Equipment's first groundbreaking innovation was the aluminum chock, a piece of equipment meant to replace the pitons that could be used and removed from cracks without damaging the mountain;

13. After meeting and marrying the love of his life Malinda Pennoyer in 1971, the couple began selling apparel after an inspiring trip to England and Scotland. One of their first highly successful clothing items was a rugby-style shirt;

14. The company's inaugural 1972 catalog featured a leave-no-trace, responsible climbing manifesto;

15. When apparel sales outperformed hardware, Chouinard felt he needed to create a recognizable brand name. So, in 1972, Patagonia was born in Ventura, California;

16. In 1981, Yvon, Rick Ridgeway, and a mountain-climbing team were caught in an avalanche in Gongga Shan, a peak located in China. The crew lost one member, and everyone else was severely hurt;

17. By the end of the 1980s, Frost and his wife sold their share in Patagonia to Yvon and Malinda;

18. Kris McDivitt served as CEO of Patagonia throughout the 1980s and until 1993. She was a key figure in the development of the company as one of the largest and most successful outdoor clothing companies in the world while still embracing a conservationist and eco-friendly mindset in her business decisions;

19. Patagonia was one of the first American firms to have daycare centers on-site. In 1985, Malinda founded Great Pacific Child Development Center, a pre-school program for the company's employees;

20. Patagonia nearly faced bankruptcy in the early 1990s during the decade's first global recession. Yvon Chouinard was forced to lay off 10 percent of the company's workforce;

Tom Frost, Royal Robbins, Chuck Pratt and Yvon Chouinard: on the summit of El Capitan on 30 October 1964 | Photo: Frost Archive

21. Patagonia was one of the first multinational firms to self-impose the so-called "Earth Tax" of one percent sales;

22. In 2002, Chouinard and Craig Mathews founded 1% Percent for the Planet, a global initiative that motivates companies to donate one percent of sales to environmental organizations;

23. In 2011, Patagonia paid a full-page ad in The New York Times, encouraging customers not to buy the company's products on Black Friday. "Repair or reuse" was the message for the "no-buy day";

24. Patagonia was the first California business to become a B Corp company, i.e., to adopt good employee and environmental-oriented practices. The 2012 certification led to further scrutiny of all Patagonia supply chain's social and labor practices;

25. In 2017, the Patagonia revenue hit $1 billion;

26. In 2018, the Ventura-based firm launched the Patagonia Lost Arrow Project, a collection of special-purpose clothing solutions for extreme environments harnessed by the firm's experience in material innovation, technical design, and precision manufacturing;

27. Yvon Chouinard has always said that he would like to keep Patagonia in the family. "Going public would be the death of this company. It's impossible to be a public company and be responsible," he once stated;

28. Throughout his life, the entrepreneur advocated and embraced several causes including, fly fishing (not bass fishing), upland bird hunting (not deer hunting), surfing (not waterskiing), and long-haul trucking (not delivery men);

29. Chouinard once confessed that he cries at Fourth of July parades "when the flag girls go around on horseback";

30. The Patagonia Inc. founder encourages his employees to cut work and go surfing whenever a good swell comes in;

Patagonia: the iconic logo of one of the most successful outdoor clothing and gear companies in the world | Illustration: Patagonia

31. The anti-corporate hero has a mobile phone but rarely turns it on and does not use email as a form of communication;

32. Ventura, California, is his primary home and the location of the global Patagonia headquarters;

33. Chouinard met and married Malinda Pennoyer in 1971. They have two children, Fletcher Chouinard and Claire Chouinard. When his daughter was born, Yvon fainted;

34. The Patagonia owner always loved rock climbing and surfing, but he sometimes disappeared into the wild for six months to go kayaking, skiing, and fishing;

35. Although admitting he has been a businessman for 60 years, the master of corporate responsibility acknowledged that the word "businessman" is "difficult for me to say." Chouinard says it's like someone confessing being an alcoholic or a lawyer. "I've never respected the profession," he once said;

36. Yvon Chouinard has an estimated net worth of $1.8 billion;

37. The Patagonia headquarters do not have enclosed workspaces or meeting rooms - it's an all-open space concept. There's not even an office for YC;

38. Yvon Chouinard wrote and co-authored several best-selling books, including "Let My People Go Surfing: The Education of a Reluctant Businessman," "The Responsible Company: What We've Learned from Patagonia's First 40 Years," "Climbing Ice," "Simple Fly Fishing: Techniques for Tenkara and Rod & Reel," "180 South: Conquerors of the Useless," and "Climbing Fitz Roy, 1968: Reflections on the Lost Photos of the Third Ascent";