I have lots of opinions and have a tendency to share them both widely and often. It’s a trait that has gotten me in trouble more times than I’d care to remember but one which has also given me many opportunities. Never one to learn a lesson early, however, I am gradually getting a realization that given the various roles I hold, those views need to be tempered somewhat. Indeed, this came up just the other day as I (somewhat awkwardly given the setting) discussed this very fact with a colleague in a public toilet. Perhaps to avoid a lavatorial conversation, or perhaps genuinely, he told me that saying the hard things in public is important and that, despite the opprobrium it sometimes causes myself, it is worth doing.

That conversation was in contrast to a few others I’ve had recently, the gist of which was that someone in my situation needs to be slightly less transparent with his opinions. In other words, not everyone needs to know what I think all the time. In my defence, my outspoken tendency is borne from a strong sense of social justice. Whatever the pros or cons of my historical approach, I am currently on a mission to put into practice an approach that sees me decide NOT to opine on everything.

There are some things, however, that just demand comment. So it was last week following an announcement from Yvon Chouinard, the venerable founder of Patagonia. For those who haven’t come across it, much like my own Cactus Outdoor, Patagonia is an outdoor apparel brand. The company was formed by Chouinard half a century ago and has always been an accidental business. In ways I can’t help but feel parallel our own business journey, Patagonia was founded to make good gear, to tread lightly on the planet and to encourage a broader consciousness.

Patagonia has stayed on that path and while others have succumbed to the temptation of fat chequebooks and to sell to the highest bidder, Patagonia has stayed with the same ownership model it has had right from the start.

That is until now. The 83-year old founder announced last week that ownership in the company was being passed to a series of charitable trusts whose sole intention was for the betterment of the world – in particular fighting climate change. As Chouinard explained:

Instead of ‘going public’, you could say we’re ‘going purpose. Instead of extracting value from nature and transforming it into wealth for investors, we’ll use the wealth Patagonia creates to protect the source of all wealth.

There are so many levels of discussion to be had here. Firstly, that the company still exists half a century after it was formed. In this world of ever-decreasing business cycles, when brands are manufactured, scaled and then evaporated in a few short years, Patagonia’s longevity is a refreshing departure from the orthodox approach.

The fact that success for Chouinard and his family isn’t measured in profits but rather impacts. When social and environmental benefits are put front and centre of what the mission is. The fact that Chouinard recognises that without a healthy planet, his customers will not exist, let alone his business. It really is the stuff of legends.

Of course I did have people comment about our intentions for Cactus. After all, we are thirty years old next month and, while Patagonia was already nearing its coming-of-age when we were founded, we’re still long in the tooth compared to the norm. One friend suggested that perhaps we too would go down this charitable ownership path.

While predicting the future is always fraught, it does strike me that the ownership structure of Patagonia is less important than the particular mission that they are on. It is that word, purpose, that is of highest import. While we are still privately held and a minnow (at best) when compared to a juggernaut like Patagonia, I’d like to think that we share some similar values – trying to tread lightly on people and the planet and, in that most Kiwi of vernaculars, trying to be good buggers.

Success for me is less about a complex set of charitable trusts and more about ensuring that, in 100-years time, my grandchildren are still involved in making some of the best apparel in the world. None of which in any way lessens the respect with which we regard Chouinard’s decision. It truly is a corporate stake in the ground. And that is something that is certainly worth opining about.

Ben Kepes is a Canterbury-based entrepreneur and professional board member. He hopes that one day Yvon Chouinard’s grandchildren hold Cactus in high regard.

Ben Kepes

Ben Kepes is a technology evangelist, an investor, a commentator and a business adviser. Ben covers the convergence of technology, mobile, ubiquity and agility, all enabled by the Cloud. His areas of interest extend to enterprise software, software integration, financial/accounting software, platforms and infrastructure as well as articulating technology simply for everyday users.

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