JanSport President Paul Delorey and how to Have Fun Every Day [EP 217]
Great conversation on episode 217 of the Outdoor Biz Podcast with previous JanSport president and the master of Fun Every Day, Paul Delorey. Paul talks about the growth and fun he experienced at JanSport. The inspiration everyone received from Skip Yowell His involvement with the Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy, and his new venture Polycore, manufacturers of sustainable fabrics and coatings for the Outdoor Industry.
Let's start off with how you got introduced to the outdoors.
Growing up in a big family, my mom and dad had eight kids and it was an unusually small house. So being outside was a big deal and family vacations were camping. If you wanted your own room, you had to get a small tent. So as a kid my dad got me a pup tent. When we'd go, I'd find a spot off by myself and pitch my tent and have my own space.
What kind of activities did you do?
You know, kid camp stuff, fishing, and making pancakes on the Coleman stove. That kind of thing, just exploring state parks. Growing up in Wisconsin, there were some beautiful state parks that there to this day.
How did you connect with Skip Yowell and JanSport?
In 1977, I had gone back to school to finish a master's degree. When I went back one of the things open at the time was the bookstore. They were looking for a bookstore manager. So I took the job and one of the benefits was free tuition. So in 1977, I'm going to a college bookstore trade show in New York City. And I was really familiar with the JanSport brand from my local outdoor store. I saw they were on the list of vendors. So one of the first places I went to was the JanSport booth. I told them who I was and they said, well, we'll have somebody with you in a minute. And this guy comes out and he's wearing a fringed buckskin jacket with a Bolo tie and pressed white shirt, jeans, and cowboy boots.
He's got long hair and a foo man choo mustache. He kind of stood out you know? And it was Skip Yowell. I was immediately impressed and, I looked at Skip and I really had a feeling this is one of the reasons this brand is so cool. So we started talking and they were basically there just to take a look at the market and see if they wanted to start selling in it yet. At the time there were other brands selling backpacks in the college bookstore market. I told Skip, I said, man, I'll give you an order right now. And he said, well, we're just not sure we’re gonna sell in this market yet.
So, you know, a few months went by and I called him up and I said, Hey Skip, I don't know if you remember me. I met you in New York. He said, yeah, yeah. I said, you know, I'm still interested. And he said, well, we just don't have the capacity right now. He said, so we're going to have to pass. So one thing led to another, I stayed at the university for about two or three years. And in 1979, I met this guy who was running a company up in Wisconsin that sold tee shirts and sweatshirts to the colleges. We had kind of struck up a relationship and he asked me if I'd come up and go to work for him to start a division to sell colleges. You know, I was ready for a change.
So I went to work for this company called Downers. Kim Vander Heiden and Dan Spalding owned it. In any case, I got up there and got started. I told the guys that owned the business, I said, you know, we really should be selling day packs in addition to T-shirts and sweatshirts. So we ended up going over to China or someplace in the orient and trying to source packs and basically looked at JanSport day pack designs and tried to copy them.
In 1982 JanSport was owned by Sitka corporation, which owned K2 skis and a bunch of other outdoor businesses. And they had gone through a real bad ski season. They were short on cash. So their bankers told them they need to raise some money, so they put JanSport up for sale. And at the time the guys that own Downers were starting to realize Downers was a very difficult trade name to try to peddle. So JanSport had come up for sale, they decided to buy it. And one of the first assignments I had with that, they sent me out on a diligence team to Seattle to study the business and see what was going on.
The first office I walked into was Skips. And I looked at him, I said, Hey man. I said, do you remember me? And he scratches head sitting here. And he says you look familiar. He says, but I'm really not sure. I said I tried to buy backpacks from you in 1977 in New York City, you wouldn't sell me. And I said, buddy, it looks like I'm going to get all I want now Skip and I hit it off and just became forever friends. And you know, all through the years we had a lot of adventures all over the world and a lot of fun too.
This was 1982. So at the end of 1986, the guys that bought JanSport had gone through two corporate takeovers. In 1984, JanSport was bought by a corporation called Bluebell. Then in 1986, Bluebell was bought by VF Corporation. So the guys that originally owned the company stayed around a little while but eventually decided they didn't want to be there anymore and they made me president.
How many years did you end up staying with JanSport?
A little over 22 years and then they had me consult for them for a couple of years as you know. So the thing for me, especially at that time, Rick was the guy that had preceded me was really just a business genius. He had a great mind for numbers and math was never my strong suit. So, you know, I'm sitting in his office the first day after he left and I thought, how am I going to do this? And you know, we all use what we have in the toolbox. My toolbox included, I just want to have fun. So you know, I just figured if I could make the environment enjoyable and everybody has fun, you know, good things would happen. And they did, they really did.
JanSport went through some really significant growth. Those were some pretty heady times. Was the biggest challenge trying to make enough packs?
Well, yeah, I mean, absolutely. You know, we expanded our sewing capacity domestically for many years and built several plants in Washington. But then as you know, the competitors started to go offshore to Mexico or China. We had to follow suit as well, just to keep up cost-wise. But it was an exciting time trying to keep up with warehouse facilities and making sure we had enough space. The JanSport business went from the like under 20 million to, by the time I left was over 300 million in total.
I was working at A16 at the time with Tim McGuire and was a huge JanSport fan. All the packs I carried were JanSport packs. When you did the Everest program I had all the T-shirts and stuff, It was great.
When you mentioned A16, I met Timmy in 1984 on the JanSport dealer climb. It was the first time I tried anything like that. So, you know, you're a little unsure of yourself. You've trained and you think you're ready to go. So Skip told me, come on, let's go. We got me all the gear that I would need to get up and get down. And so the first day you go from Paradise up to Camp Muir and it's a long slog. You know you get, get up there and get settled. So I get up to Camp Muir and I look around and there are two young guys from A16, and they've both carried a full case of Rainier to Camp Muir. I'm sitting there, I'm saying, man, it'd be great to have a beer. So Skip walks by and a kid says, you know, Mr. Yowell, would you like a beer and Skips says sure. So he takes it, grabs a Caribiner, and snaps off the top and drinks it.
And I'm standing there and I'd say, Hey, you know, you guys, uh, would you mind sharing another beer? The kid says, well, no, we, uh, we really don't have enough for ourselves. No, we're not gonna. We're not gonna do that. So many years later, uh, we had recruited Tim McGuire to come work at JanSport. And so I’m sitting in my office and, uh, he doesn't remember this, well, he does now. I'm looking at him and I said, Hey man, I said, I know you. In 1984 up at Camp Muir, you were from A16 and you wouldn't give me a beer. Well, I had a picture of that climb up on my wall and so I pointed to him, I said, there you are. And I sit there. There I am in the back row and I'm really looking like I could have used that beer.
Your mission now is to convert the outdoor industry to totally sustainable fabrics and coatings through your Polycore venture, how'd that come about?
Another old JanSport connection from the time I was there. I got a call a couple of years ago from a guy named Arthur Chen who had done a lot of work for us back in the day. And in addition to doing sourcing and manufacturing, Arthur was also a material scientist. His expertise is he studied the solidification process of polymers for over 40 years. So he had patented a process to coat fabrics that are water-based as opposed to solvents. And the first thing he talked about was the fact that it would make the fabrics up to 500% more abrasion-resistant. So, immediately you think about it in your world and JanSport. You know, we sold millions of bags that little kids would drag on sidewalks and rub holes in them. You think about warranty service, but the bigger issue with it was it was a water-based PU as opposed to solvent-based. And I like to explain it in the sense that, when you used to paint and you opened a can of paint and it was solvent-based, those fumes filled the house and you know, would make you sick and that type of thing. But it changed and it all became latex or water-based. So you didn't have the fumes escaping into the environment.
So you guys go to the trade shows, you have a booth there. Okay. I didn't know about this until, uh, I was looking up your, your bio. That's great.
Yeah, we were at the last three outdoor retailers and it was a good start and things were really rolling along. Then the virus hit and it changed a lot of people's plans.
So have any of the brands adopted your products?
They're starting to. We've come up with a couple of other products through those conversations. You know you sit down with people and they say, well could you do this? And one of the things was some people want to just to reinforce certain areas. So we came up with this process of turning the PU into a film that can be heat sealed onto fabrics, into different stress spots. We call that spot welding if you saw it on the website.
I love your fun everyday philosophy, where did that come from?
When I was a kid, my mother used to ask me if I wanted to grow up and be a big man and go to work every day like my daddy. And, uh, I’d always tell her, “Mom, I don't want to, I want to just be a little boy and just play”. But the thing there, especially all of those years at JanSport was, I mean it was a real company and it made a lot of business, made a lot of profit. But one of the things for us as a group, we had a lot of fun. If you think back to some of those parties, the ‘Shake n Bake’. I think back to some of those times, Rick, and I don't know if you remember the one we had in Salt Lake at the Delta Center? It was a thing where they always say, it never rains in Salt Lake at that time, in the summer. And so we got up there and we'd had a lineup of like three or four bands and the opening act was John McCune, The Nitty Gritty Dirt Band. So they had played their sets and then The Fabulous Thunderbirds were due to come up on stage and the skies just opened up. And if you recall next to the Delta center was a parking garage and people started rolling barrels of beer into the parking garage. I went and asked Jimmy Vaughn, I said, Hey, you know, we found some power over there, would you consider coming over and playing? And he says, no. He says, we're not doing that, but John McCune was standing there and he says, hell, he says, we'll play. So he came over with his band and played for probably an hour, hour and a half. I don't know how many people we had in that parking garage.
We used to have them at a place called the Little Waldorf Saloon there in Reno. And the owner's name was Louis Chatel. And one of the things that I always liked to do with those deals was become a bartender and just stand behind the bar and serve people. Get to know people. And so a lot of the times it was somebody you didn't know and they'd be standing there at the bar and they'd order something and tell you to hurry up or whatever. And somebody would say, Hey, you know who that is? No, it's the bartender. They’d say, no, it's the President of JanSport. And embarrass them a little bit.
Tim McGuire wanted me to ask you about your high school football career. Did you play high school football?
I did. As a matter of fact. I went to a pretty small high school, I think it was about 175 kids in total. My freshman year I was five foot one and 86 pounds. You know, it was a tradition in my family that you play. I was definitely the runt of the litter. My next oldest brother was six foot. My coach would say, you know, you're not big but you're slow.
So that first year the smallest cleats I could find were seven and a half. And I think I wore about five and a half or six. So I stuffed paper in the toes and you lace them up real tight. And I can tell you there were several times that year that I got knocked right out of my shoes, hold the tackling dummy. At the end of my freshman year, I'm sitting on the bench, which was my normal spot at the end. And the coach, you know, turns to me. We're winning like 48 to nothing. Uh, the coach, he says Delorey, get in there and he says, I want you to be mean. I want you to growl at somebody. So it ended up I got in there, I start growling and we lost, 48 to 70. The next play went right over the top of me and all I remember was the bottom of cleats. My older brother told me, he said, you know, if you're going to do this, you're going to have to get bigger and stronger. So that summer I ate, ran, lifted weights. And I grew to the height I am now, which is short at five, six, but I put on almost 50 pounds of weight, now 135 going back my sophomore year, I was still slow, but I thought I was a world beater and my best friend was about six, five and he was almost 300 pounds and he was the right tackle. So I was the right guard. Anything I couldn't handle, we used to call him gentle Ben, he would just lean on my guy, knock him down, and tell him to stay down.
You're also involved with the Skip Yowell Future Leadership Academy. What is your role there?
The big thing with that is, you know, just making sure that Skip's memory stays alive. And so at the start of every class the past couple of years at the leadership Academy, they asked me to come in and give a talk to people about Skip. And you know, he was my friend, but he was also probably one of the most unique people I think I've ever known in my life. I mean, Skip had a mind like a rusted trap. Once he knew your name, he never forgot it. Then if he, if he did for a second, he had a lyric or used to say Hey Slugger or something like that, then all of a sudden memory would kick in.
He’d get up and just give presentations to people and I sat there and I think, how can he just be so calm and cool about this as he's doing it? And a wide variety of groups, right? I mean it's like how does he know what to say to these people? You know, he just did it off the cuff. I watched him do it in groups of two or three as we'd go around doing clinics and in shops. I saw him do it in settings where he'd be in front of thousands of people, you know, so pretty amazing guy. We stayed friends right up until the end. The year or so before he died, we were out in St Peter with him and had a party at the saloon, invited everybody in the town, all nine of them. And I think seven of the nine showed up. The other two were mad at somebody else in the town and so they didn't come. But you know, just had a, a good time just hanging out together. But we did that with he and Winnie, you know, all over the world.
I have another wildcard question that came in from somebody else who wanted to know if you really got rousted by security in a five-star hotel in Paris because they thought you were a homeless guy sleeping in the lobby.
Who asked that? Do you sense that person's initials would be Jim Thomsen? Jim and I also had a number of great adventures all over the world. And, you know, some of them included late-night pub crawling around certain cities and, you would not get much sleep. So I can remember falling asleep in a chair. You know, they came and told me that, uh, no sir, you cannot do this. You must go to your room. And I was just waiting for Jim to come down to get ready to leave for a flight, I think. So they, they rousted me. But the deprivation of sleep was well-deserved by hanging with Jim Thomsen.
What outdoor activities do you participate in these days?
You know, we're there paddling on the Lake and down here. I like to think of the little area that we live in, As I tell people, it's like a geriatric JanSport. A lot of my neighbors remind me a lot of those people. And so we started playing a form of tennis that we call funiss. Funniss is full contact tennis. And the object of the game is to hit, the opponent on the opposite side of the net, as hard as you can, physically with the ball, rocket shots each other. We play five days a week, and usually, at the end of the season, which would be around now, we have an annual banquet where we hand out awards. There are usually six or eight guys that play through the course of the winter, but there are usually 20 or 30 people that show up to the banquet to see the awards and, watch us do an exhibition match after we drink beer and eat pizza. Some of the awards we always have most injured, you know, there's one of the guys for the past few years was on Coumadin, so if he got hit, he would bleed. So, you have most home runs for who hits them out of the court, you know, you have a most improved player, those kinds of things.
Do you have any suggestions or advice for folks wanting to get in the outdoor biz or the adventure biz?
Well, the thing I would tell you, and you know this Rick, from being in the industry, it's, probably one of the greatest places that you can go to work because the fabric of the people involved in the outdoor industry is everybody's cool. And you know, usually, everybody will help everybody else out. And, those are the things that, for me when I started it just impressed me, you know, and it's an impression that has never gone away. I mean, there's that core of those people that I worked with that I'm still friends with. I've been retired now 19 years basically, you know, other than these consulting jobs, and there's a whole group of them that, you know, will be friends for life.
It'll be five years now that Skip passed, and they had me come out and do a eulogy type tribute, you know, for him. And I had not been back to the show in those 14 years. But you know, you start walking around and it's like, Oh my God, Paul and I say, yeah, I'm what's left of him. You know, you, you just walk around and all of a sudden like no time has passed, right. Because you're seeing all these people that you hung out with and those events and had a lot of fun. And it's the same thing, you know, doing this Polycore thing. There was a little pause there for a couple of years and then, you know, you come back, you're walking the show or you're in a booth, people say, Oh my God, it’s Paul Delorey.
What's your favorite outdoor gear purchase under a hundred dollars?
I have two, both of them surprisingly enough given my history, have to do with drinking. One is my LifeStraw. You know, you think about when you're outdoors and you need something to drink, more than anything, you need good water. So that is a great tool. That, and then the other is just a good Yeti mug. Which, you know, in the morning you can have a cup of coffee or tea and then at night you can have a martini in it and the ice doesn't melt for days.
If you could have a huge banner at the entrance to or what would it say?
Well, I would tell you, Rick, it would be a picture of the planet and it would say over the top, “We Gotta Fix This”. And for so many years a lot of people ignore the signs. I've told a lot of people that I think there's truly a connection between, you know, what's going on with things like this virus and a change in the climate. I mean, you watch species are starting to migrate differently and you know, germs are morphing. It's like, guys, we gotta do something about this. And we all have a part a, so, you know, the sooner the better and the more the better. So yeah, we got, we gotta make some changes. I think one of the things, especially these last couple of years going back to OR, that I find encouraging, I see all these new young companies, they get it. And you know, are consumer-focused and are gonna deliver on that promise. Making a product that's more sustainable, doing it right. Start to finish. Those are the companies that, if we make it as a world are going to be the ones that are gonna lead the way.
As we wrap up here, is there anything else you'd like to say to our listeners?
Get outside and enjoy it. And support companies that reflect your, your personality, and your causes. And right now, support your local businesses. Cause there's a lot of 'em that are struggling. We have a couple of them here, there's a favorite breakfast spot called Mrs. Mac's and a couple of the guys in the neighborhood and me, we have a little band. So we go down there every Wednesday morning and play for an hour in the parking lot for breakfast and get the waitresses and the people coming by for pickups singing and you know, just try to make sure they're still going after this is all over.