Just in case I feel like doing an El Cap route one of these days, I’ve kept a bundle of Chouinard carabiners from my brief career as a wall jock stashed away and ready to rock. I was looking at those musty biners the other day and it occurred to me just how big the ride has been for Black Diamond Equipment, them having evolved out of Chouinard back in 1989 and now being a somewhat large, publicly traded corporation with a full line of backcountry skiing gear along with a ton of other stuff.
You see a corporate history like that, and you can’t help but wonder how the values that brought the company success can remain in place during such huge changes.
You can read about this sort of stuff and hear the rumors, but sitting down with the man in charge is always valuable. So, to get business philosophy from the source, a few weeks ago at Outdoor Retailer Lisa and I got together with Black Diamond CEO/President Peter Metcalf.
I’m not anti-capitalist or anti-corporate, but I have to admit at a smidgen of cynicism as to how ‘core’ a company can remain once it’s publicly traded and has to stay as profitable as possible in the short term.
That said, I’m also aware of huge companies such as Google and Apple that seem to do pretty well in terms of quality and innovation. So how does that happen?
Metcalf explained that first, we needed to know that with a business such as Black Diamond it was pretty much essential that they eventually go public. He explained that CEOs come and go, key employees come and go, and that it can tough to institutionalize the things those individuals provide, to “institutionalize the future” as he put it. He explained that doing what BD has done in going public is not necessarily perfect, but is the best way to accomplish consistency of management and values in days to come.
Conversly, Metcalf explained that “Just because a company is privately held is no guarantee it’ll retain its core values.”
I hadn’t really thought about that, but Metcalf is obviously correct.
Plenty of companies have sold out or fizzled, and whether they’re publicly traded or not is perhaps not even near being the defining factor for that sort of thing. For example, if you’re in the building trades you might know a local plumber or electrician who did good work and had a great reputaiton, but sapped every penny from his privately held business, never sank any money back into equipment or employee training, and ended up folding his tent with nothing to show for his run except a worn out motorhome and a failed marriage. Happens all too frequently in all sectors, including outdoor recreation.
Metcalf went on to explain that even as a public corporation you can keep qualities such as those that sustain BD going by doing things such as a “deliberate instillation of values” with careful hires and such. He made the point that just as people are fond of saying about democracy, capitalism is messy but it’s the best alternative, and he wanted Black Diamond set up with the most effective form of lasting corporate governance.
Now, I do drink my fair share of BD cool-aid, but the effects eventually wear off. I read up on the BD deal and it does involve a number of players, not just Metcalf and his BD associates. Thus, other factors besides BD corporate culture will influence the outcome. As a publically traded company BD’s monetary situation will be easy to watch, and their product quality will be scrutinized by the web as we know and love. So we’ll be keeping our eyes to the LCD and watch how all this plays out over coming months.
I asked Peter how the big decision felt now that it’s been in place since May. One wouldn’t expect anything but at least a public facade of optimism if a CEO was asked such by a blogger. But I know Peter and he’s a sincere individual, and his telling me “there is always some risk in a change like this,” but that it still “feels like the right thing” was enough for now. Time will tell, but I’d bet Peter’s take is as solid as those beefy Chouinard biners I used to dangle from on El Capitan.
What do you guys think? Will BD go down the tubes now? Or will they be even stronger and better?
WildSnow.com publisher emeritus and founder Lou (Louis Dawson) has a 50+ years career in climbing, backcountry skiing and ski mountaineering. He was the first person in history to ski down all 54 Colorado 14,000-foot peaks, has authored numerous books about about backcountry skiing, and has skied from the summit of Denali in Alaska, North America’s highest mountain.