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Joe Vernachio of Mountain Hardwear on his Outdoor Industry career, Climbing Mt. Everest and more [EP 215]

I think that the thing that's most inspiring is just the really good outdoor industry retailers, the really good brands and the really good factories are all linking arms and realizing that we all need each other.” – Joe Vernachio, Mountain Hardwear

Thukla Memorial Everest Base Camp Trek
Photographer: Ananya Bilimale | Source: Unsplash

Tell us about your attempt to climb Mt Everest, did you top out?

No, we didn't. We went in the fall, last October. The mountain hadn't really been climbed in about six years in the autumn. The conditions are tougher, it's getting colder, it's getting windier, and the Icefall was in really rough shape. It took us almost a month just to get through the icefall. And then when we did, there was a huge Serac overhead, right in the same spot that took out many of the Sherpas a few years prior. It was just way too risky. So we backed off, but it was awesome to be back in the mountains and on that mountain specifically.

The Mountain moves around a little bit more, I think than it does in May. We're just looking at the jet stream and just seeing when it's not on the top of the mountain. So we could time our summit attempt for when we had a good window when it wouldn't be so windy. We'd never really even saw that window. So it just made the most sense to not put anybody at risk more than we needed to. What was amazing was that there was nobody on the mountain. It was just three of us. There were maybe 20 people in base camp versus a thousand people.

How were you introduced to the Outdoors?

The classic story. My dad was a woodsman, a hunter, and a fisherman and we'd go canoeing as a family. So I was introduced to the outdoors that way. When I was about 13, this guy named George Willig climbed the twin towers in New York City. And I lived just outside of New York City. There were lots of articles in the newspaper about this guy and this thing called rock climbing. And this place that he climbed called the Shawangunks up in New York. Being close enough to it, I made my way up there and got exposed to this thing called rock climbing. I just became fascinated with it and did what I could on my own as a kid. Then I went to the University of Wisconsin, and there was a climbing area out there called Devil's Lake, which is just a nice little top roping area that I was able to hone my skills and, and learn quite a bit about it.

How does a guy with degrees in biochemistry and biology get into the outdoor industry?

After I got out of school, I just had no idea what I was going to do with any of those degrees. I got a job at Erehwon Mountain Shop in Madison working for Jeff Weidman. He was the store manager and I loved it. I just loved being around the product. I love opening the boxes when they came in and I just couldn't wait to see all the new stuff. I think our Patagonia rep at the time was Rock Horton, who's a long time outdoor industry employee with Black Diamond. I think he just retired just recently. He made some introductions for me. At the time Patagonia and Chouinard equipment were very, very small. Peter Metcalf said come on out and I'll give you a job. I think there were about 12 of us at Chouinard equipment at the time. I worked in the area attached to the original Patagonia store.

The view of the Sierra Nevada from highway 395 outside of Bishop, California. Mount Basin is located in the centre and Mount Tom on the right. The Eastern Sierra and the Ownes Valley is a magiical place.
Photographer: Ross Stone | Source: Unsplash

You've been with an impressive list of brands, which of your roles has been most inspiring?

I would say my education in business and how to make great product was Nike, no doubt about it. I was there from ‘89 to 2000. It was just the skyrocket of growth and just the culture and how to make great products while still growing business very rapidly. The culture there was, was fantastic

I've always admired Mark Parker. I think he just recently stepped down as president, CEO. But Mark was part of the team back then. It was just an amazing group of talented, people there that I got to work shoulder to shoulder with.

I definitely learned the product side of it and the design and the respect for the process of design from Nike. My time at Spyder was really valuable and just understanding the financial side of it. Running a company on a line of credit, going deep in debt, and then coming out of debt, much like a retailer operates was really valuable. And then there really isn't a day that goes by that I don't rely on some of my memories at outdoor industry retailer Erewhon working on a store floor and what that feels like. Having a rep come in and, and engage with you as a store kid and how it really just grabs you and makes you a brand champion.

How is Mountain Hardware navigating the current environment?

We're all working from home. We're on video conferences all day long. We were able to do a couple of weeks of prep prior to it. We could kind of see it coming. So we did some prep. So it was a nice transition. It wasn't that abrupt. Our motto to ourselves is we're not surviving. We're preparing. We're not just trying to figure out how to survive this thing. We're actually trying to make sure we use this time to hone our outdoor industry product positioning and our brand messaging and our values to make sure we come out of this really strong, really sharp. We just feel strongly that people are actually going to probably have more of a connection to nature and to the outdoors and appreciation for it than they did going into this. I don't see any indication that it's going to go the other way

What are you hearing in the last weeks or six weeks as we've gone through this that inspires you?

I think that the thing that's most inspiring is just the really good outdoor industry retailers, the really good brands and the really good factories are all linking arms and realizing that we all need each other. And if we are mean to each other and disrespectful to each other through this process, it's not going to work. I think in situations like this, the best come out and people, and that's what we've seen. We've seen mostly cooperation and understanding, and everyone just trying to find stable ground to stand on and I feel like six weeks into it, it's kind of where we are. And today, we're starting to hear about some stores that are starting to open around the country. So we'll take a look at what that looks like and see what this feels like. I don't think we're under any impression that outdoor industry doors are just gonna be wide open and everyone's gonna rush in. Just some movement, I think we'll start to make people feel a little bit better and set us up for probably early next year to start to get a little closer to whatever the new normal is.

How do you think it's gonna impact the outdoor industry supply chain?

I lived in Asia for seven years, work directly with the factories while I was with Nike. So I've had a number of years in Thailand, Singapore, and Taiwan and know the factory side of things as well. If I learned anything during that time, it's just how resilient and how customer service focused the factories and mills are. We certainly had some disruption when China shut down and now some of the other countries are shutting down. But boy, their ability to recover is miraculous. And, while we've had some disruption in the supply, it's not that impactful. I'd say it's just a little bit worse than a normal season where you always have some problems somewhere in the world that you're dealing with. But nothing we can't recover from. The biggest challenge in this whole event will be inventory and where does it pile up and how does it get dispersed? That's the game. I mean, retailers, they're trying to reduce their pile. Brands are trying to reduce their pile and factories are trying to reduce their pile

What about the future of outdoor industry trade shows?

I was in the sports and fitness industry when the super show is going on in Atlanta. That was a show was maybe the biggest and everyone thought that would never end. And it did and the industry went on and you worked out other ways to do it. I think there's a much bigger cultural component to it for us in the outdoor industry. So, on a personal level, I would hate to see it go away. On a business level, I think there are ways to do it. They're not as personal and there's not as much comradery around it, but it still gets the business done. I mean, we're going to do it this year. But I really, really hope it comes back and that we can all get together again and, create that culture that really existed. I mean, you just get to see so many more people than you would have otherwise.

Suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get into the outdoor adventure business or grow their career?

I think my advice to get in the outdoor industry is just to get in with a retailer or a brand that you respect and admire. What I say to young people is to be sure you understand the company's values before you join. Because if you don't align with their values, then you're not going to like a lot of the decisions they make. So that, and a lot of companies won't be able to articulate their values, if they can't articulate them, then that tells you something too.

Other things we talked about

Favorite Gear under $100: Mountain Hardwear Kor Pre Shell

OR Banner: “Be nice to each other”

Find Joe on Linkedin

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