Thirty Five Years Building Patagonia: An Interview with Mike Thompson

Mike in Punta Allen, Mexico 2014. Photo Credit Matt Jones

Since 1980, Mike Thompson has represented Patagonia as a sales representative and, most recently, its wholesale consigliere. In this position, he has been responsible for distribution of the company’s products to specialty retailers throughout the South Central United States. He has influenced not only the growth of the brand, but some of its product designs as well. Mike is not afraid to say what is on his mind, so I took the opportunity to sit down with him, drink a few Americanos, and pry into his three-and-a-half decades of history with the company that has become one of the most well-known and respected in the country.

Thirty-five years ago, Patagonia, then much smaller, possessed the same mission and culture that still exists today. Founded by Yvon Chouinard along with an iconoclastic group of surfers and rock climbers, a company evolved that pioneered new fabrics, groundbreaking designs, dedication to specialty distribution, and fearlessness in pursuit of staying true to its mission statement: “make the best products, do no unnecessary harm, and use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis.”

Mike Thompson hiking between Aspen and Snowmass, Colorado 1979

Rhyne Simpson: I’m interested in your observation of the clothing industry over the past few decades. What has been the biggest surprise?

Mike Thompson: Understand that I have been a part of the “specialty” clothing business.  In my mind that is not what you might think of as clothing or fashion in the traditional sense. So I’m surprised that it is still alive, and maybe morphing into fashion. Ha! Let’s see how long that lasts. Another surprise is how much it has changed. Many clothing customers have opted for the convenience of being able to buy stuff on their phone and online, rather than seeking it out in a store. As we get more gridlocked and as customers become weary of not being able to find a good product assortment in a local store, and Amazon continues to cater to the lowest price and next minute delivery, I, along with many others, see a shift taking place.

RS: I’m sure there were some interesting moments in the development of technology and how it interacted with your work on a daily basis. What were the developments that impacted you the most?

MT: If you were away from the office you had to find a pay phone somewhere if you were to be in touch with customers and sales managers. Technology changed and all of a sudden you had car phones; now you could drive and talk and that was life-altering. The next change brought computers that were as big as five bread boxes with a screen the size of some of today’s handhelds. Suddenly you could start doing spreadsheets, scheduling, reports, memos, oh my! Professionalism, or an attempt at it, was on the radar. Once that bubble was pierced, any technology that came along was huge (gestures toward his iPhone).

RS: I can’t imagine how long it would take to get things done without a computer!

MT: What it has done is that you can get the same amount of work done quicker, so you end up doing a hell of a lot more work in the same amount of time. Nobody gains leisure time… nobody.

Mike Thompson with sons Mark and Ben. Independence Creek Reserve, Texas 2012

RS: Where did you grow up?

MT: I grew up in the Big Thicket of southeast Texas. I was born in Beaumont in 1946. I’m 69 years old in a month or so. I lived there up to age five when my father was transferred to west Texas. He worked for the Sun Company. During my high school and college years, I worked summers for the same company digging bell holes for welders repairing leaks in the pipeline and generally working my butt off. In west Texas we lived outside of Snyder, a rain-starved outback as far from the piney woods as could be imagined. We called the place where I lived the camp; there were houses for employees and their families. My front yard was a huge cotton field and in the back was a portal to another world. It was mesquite trees, gullies and endless opportunities to make up shit and have adventures. The kids in the camp called it the woods, although the scrub brush was a far cry from what would come next in my life. Regardless, I couldn’t get enough of it, although I was restricted from going there during the warmer months, due to my mother’s inordinate fear that there were rattlesnakes on the prowl.

My dad wasn’t a hunter or a fisherman, so I was on my own in that regard. I remember my first hunting experience when we moved back to east Texas when I was in the fifth grade. My best friend, Eudell, and his father and dog Spot hunted squirrel, and we may have even gotten a couple on that inaugural trip. Hunting and fishing have continued, almost uninterrupted, right up until now.

I graduated high school in ‘65, went to North Texas State University for one year, transferred to Lamar University where I joined Sigma Phi Epsilon fraternity and graduated in 1969. When I was still in high school I started hearing about this place where we were sending military advisors… Vietnam. That was in 1963, and I figured it wouldn’t affect me as the conflict was surely to be settled by the time I got out of college.

Vietnam got hotter and hotter as you know. The draft and the probability that it would go on indefinitely loomed over my generation. I saw friends drafted or find a way into the National Guard to avoid going to Southeast Asia. When I graduated I applied to join the Peace Corps, and, thankfully, was accepted into an agricultural program in Guatemala. I spent a year there, but ended up getting hepatitis and coming back to the States in 1971. Wouldn’t you know it, we were still at war. The country was in disarray, and even the hawks were growing weary of Vietnam. I was determined to not lend my support. I applied for “Conscientious Objector” status and it was granted. I served two years of alternate service in Austin. Like many others who have moved to Austin from other parts of Texas, I have never left.

Mike Thompson, 2010

RS: What led you to Patagonia?

MT: My next job in Austin was with the Parks and Rec. Dept. where I worked from ’73-’77 first as a bus driver and finally as a rec center manager and outdoor program organizer. I did this until my stubbornness finally met an immovable force, and I was shown the door, so to speak. I had been a long-time customer at the Whole Earth Provision Company retail store near UT campus. Upon my firing I went in and told them that I was looking for a job, and I got hired practically on the spot! So, now I’m not unemployed, but I don’t know if I want retail as a long term career path. I did enjoy it, though, but I wanted to keep growing.

In the heyday of backpacking in the 70’s, no one wanted to be a sales representative in Texas - they all wanted to live in Denver, or Boulder or California. Out of necessity, retailers in the south and midwest formed their own agencies in order to get serviced by the national companies. The owners of Whole Earth formed a sales-rep group that sold Trailwise gear and Phoenix Kayaks; neither of those brands even exist today.  Since I had expressed interest in doing more than working the sales floor I became a road warrior of sorts.

My friend Walter Wakefield, one of the owners, and I ended up as the reps. Sales meetings and travel to California gave him a chance to visit his family, as he had grown up in SoCal. For my part, I was just happy growing, seeing the bigger picture, traveling and going to the trade shows. In 1979 Bill Kulczycki was the sales rep for Patagonia, and he lived in Austin and traveled north to south, border to border. He grew tired of trying to cover such a huge territory, so he asked us if we wanted to take on the southern part of it, as he wanted to move back to his home in Chicago. Since Patagonia was another company that had their meetings in California, Walter and I were very interested. So we said sure and it was off to the races. Eventually I bought the rep agency from Whole Earth and struck out on my own with multiple outdoor lines.

Yvon Chouinard and Mike Thompson 1986, Taking a break from Bonefishing near Mystery Isle. Photo Credit Steve Clark

RS: When did you first met Yvon Chouinard?

MT: It was at my first Patagonia sales meeting in January of 1980 at Copper Mountain, Colorado. It was a small event, and I am pretty sure I slept on the floor for that one. We weren’t a big company. Most of the employees were there. Claire Chouinard was there in her mother’s arms.  I remember it clearly. Claire is now one of our designers and is on the Board of Directors and has two young children of her own. I like to remind her of that.

RS: What was Patagonia like in the early 90’s?

MT: Well the company went through some hard times in ‘92. I think the bank was calling loans, the economy was weak, and we laid people off. That was a hard time. I think the Chouinards learned a lot during that period about what they really wanted to do with the company. That’s when the whole mission statement became articulated. There was plenty of soul searching and advice seeking in regards to where to take the company next. Whoever it was that they talked to really inspired them to have a more profound impact by successfully embracing what the mission is, and through inspiring other business with it. They knew that if the model they were trying to create was to be effective then the business had to be successful. So they decided to keep it, and keep it private. As you know we’ve certainly been thriving and eyes from many other business from both outdoors and Fortune 500 have been influenced by many of the things we have chosen to do.

The Chouinard Equipment team standing outside Great Pacific Iron Works in 1968. Their clothing line later evolved to become Patagonia. Yvon Chouinard standing second from left.

RS: Climate change is still ignored by many apparel companies that could make influential changes. Even the ones that do acknowledge these major problems largely do nothing. What can others learn from Patagonia's leadership toward combatting climate change?

MT: That goes back to Patagonia's mission statement. We’ve created, through the visionary that is Chouinard, a blueprint, and we’ve tried to not make proprietary everything that we’re doing. I mean, back in the mid 90s when we started using plastic water bottles to make fleece, in no way did we try to make that exclusive to us alone. We invited the industry to take that on. We invited the North Faces and whoever, to do this, because it’s the right thing. Of course, it’s more expensive, and if you have a publicly traded company stockholders want to see profit and dividends paid first and foremost.

RS: So staying private has always been a huge advantage for Patagonia?

MT: That is the key. Because you answer to the vision of the owners, you’re not trying to satisfy some stock dividend growth. Well, the Chouinards don’t give a shit about making a bunch of money. I mean they are as modest living a family as I know of; other than that they travel anywhere they want. I mean you should see their cars. He and I ran around in his old Honda Element this spring while fishing in Idaho. Between that and his ancient Toyota he is pretty well served on the transportation front.

I think one other key is having a clear understanding of what the expectations are of the business. The Chouinards use business to inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis. We’ve done things that are off the freakin’ charts. In 93’-94’ we made the decision to switch to organic cotton exclusively. That was due to the Chouinards living in California observing the devastation that conventionally grown cotton was causing. Yvon considered dropping cotton altogether from our quiver of fabrics. That wouldn’t affect change, however. More proactive would be helping an emerging organic market that needed buyers to keep their efforts moving forward. Now we hardly even talk about organic cotton. It’s been almost 20 years of using it. This had a big impact on me after living next to the cotton farm in Snyder, Texas those few years way back in the 50s. Then, it was probably all organic cotton. Nobody was flying over spraying the crop, thankfully. Texas, you know, that whole area; Lubbock, San Angelo, it’s about a 100-mile radius up to Amarillo, 25% of all the cotton in the world is produced right there. And it was through our association with the Texas Organic Cotton Growers Association that enabled us, in 1996, to actually make the full transition to organic fiber.  

Mark Harbaugh, Yvon Chouinard, Mike Thompson, 2013

RS: Factory tragedies caused by unsafe worker conditions are happening on a massive scale. I remember a building collapse in Bangladesh a couple years ago that killed over 1,100 people. Patagonia has been very transparent about its manufacturing supply chain and the labor practices of its factories. Is transparency the solution to this problem?

MT: I think transparency is one way to fix this, but people really have to care. People don’t pay attention to you in business unless you are successful. That’s something we learned a long time ago: if you want to implement solutions and inspire other business, then you better not fail. If you’re doing something different or outrageous and succeeding, then the smart people, consumers or manufacturers, are going to pay attention to you.

The percentage of money that people spend on clothing in this country relative to what we spent in the 50s, 60s, and 70s is becoming a smaller and smaller portion of all our personal budgets. There is an expectation of very cheap prices, based on places like Forever21, Target, Walmart, H&M, etc. All those retailers produce their products at the lowest common denominator which is lowest price, because the American public expects to buy clothing that they don’t even give a shit about, and that they don’t even think about the cost of. That is when the manufacturing abuses occur as vendors race to the lowest price in order to satisfy the demand for cheap clothing. That is one of the things that I like about Man Outfitters…selling quality and not cheap fashion destined for landfills. There is a book you have to read by Elizabeth Cline called “Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion.” It’s really great. We have conditioned the consumer in this country, and probably worldwide, to expect to pay less and less for what they buy and wear. The cost of that choice impacts us all.

Mike Thompson with the original Retro-X Vest, 2015

RS: What is your all-time favorite Patagonia item?

MT: I’ll show it to you… I love the black hole bags and gear of course, but I have to say it was the first Retro X Vest. At the time we only made the Retro X jacket, but in the south I could never wear it. So they made a prototype based on my request and this is it. Some of our ambassadors wore it for a year or so and said “yeah, this is great.” So, we started making it and now we sell more Retro X vests than jackets! They sent this original to me and I still wear it.

RS: You worked as a Patagonia sales rep for over 35 years, but this past year transitioned into a new role. Would you explain what you are doing now?

MT: Well, the new role is one that I helped create because what I’m doing now never existed and really doesn’t exist in most companies. That’s where you have someone who’s been in the business and had enough history in it to be able to communicate to someone that comes from the outside. It’s so normal for a new hire to show up from somewhere else and usually not get a lot of formal transition and cultural initiation. That’s my role. At this point, my focus is to work with new reps to help them integrate. Patagonia is a highly successful, dysfunctional family. It’s a family started by a couple of hippies from the 60’s that continues to have the same ideals they have always had, and you bring someone in that’s used to working in a, let’s say, Converse footwear company or a big fortune 500 company and you come into this medium-size company and you go WTF! Are you serious?  A lot of the time it works if the new hires can adjust. My job is to help bridge the gap and maintain the culture. That’s part of what I do. The job title that I have created for myself is “Wholesale Consigliere”. I came up with it after binge watching the Sopranos last summer.

Mike Thompson in Punta Allen, Mexico 2014

RS: What is a Consigliere?

MT: He’s the adviser to the bosses who, without fear of reprisal, hopefully, can say whatever needs to be said. He’s the truth teller, as he sees it. He’s also the spokesperson for the soldiers on the street who can’t really call bullshit on the boss because they could get whacked or cut off or whatever. He’s not going to get hurt by the big guys. He can help articulate for the soldiers what's going on with them to the bosses: that’s my role. I told Yvon when I was there in July that I was helping train reps, and he said, “Oh my God, can you go train the fishing reps over in Europe?” “Of course,” I said. “I’ll go fishing in Europe!”

RS: It’s pretty uncommon for someone to stay with one company for 36 years. What advice do you have for someone just starting their career?

MT: I’d say really get in touch with what's important to you. Experiment, try new ideas, and don’t just watch MSNBC or Fox without an understanding of what the other side is thinking. Be open minded. That’s my advice. Choose something that is important to you and get involved because that is what is going to bring meaning to your life.

RS: What's the next adventure for Mike Thompson?

MT: Running my skiff on the Texas coast, pheasant hunting in South Dakota with a bunch of Patagonia peeps, and thinking about becoming a grandfather.

Mike Thompson Texas Coast, Redfish Trip 2012