Rose Marcario – The woman pushing Patagonia’s radical revolution to scale

16 March 2016

Rose Marcario
Image: NYT conference

Rose Marcario was perfectly successful as an executive vice president of Capital Advisors LLP when she basically burned out on the demands of private equity business. She quite her job in 2006 and went and spent time in India and Nepal to look for some sort of meaning. She didn’t find it, but returned to Los Angeles sure she needed more purpose in life than conventional commercial success offered her.

It may not have been obvious at the time, but she’d already demonstrated the qualities that were going to make her the perfect fit to lead Patagonia.

It was pure chance that the job for chief financial officer for Patagonia came along at just the right time. A friend pointed it out to her, but initially she was reluctant because, whatever the company’s rhetoric about doing business differently, she really assumed it would be more of the same. Because that’s how it is – all companies are driven by the numbers first and foremost. Right?

But then Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard phoned her up and talked to her about the company he’d founded, and how he worked. She came away from that conversation genuinely impressed by his commitment, and how this was reflected in his company. A company that she began to think might take its purpose beyond profit more seriously than she’d first thought.

So she joined. Within a short period of time, she’d become head of operations. And then in 2013, she took on the top job.

Rose is one of those inspiring people whose ideas and attitudes could reshape how we see business in the 21st century

She has exactly the right mix for a company like Patagonia. Her previous financial and commercial experience enabled her to make the company more profitable than it had ever been, and to help push the company’s growth to new heights. Since she joined, the company’s operations have more than doubled, and its profits tripled.

But she achieved this whilst also driving hard the environmental philosophy of the company. Patagonia is not just yet another eco-conscious brand that keeps its own product footprint as light as possible, it also looks for ways to change consumer attitudes and to promote a more sustainable retail culture overall.

Patagonia has become famous for promoting repair as a desirable process to make goods last longer. The company offers repair services, and trains retailers to carry out minor repairs on the spot. Marcario wrote a blog post describing repair as a radical act, criticising the industry norm where companies deliberately build products with built-in obsolescence.

Marcario wrote: “These conditions create a society of product-consumers, not owners. And there’s a difference. Owners are empowered to take responsibility for their purchases – from proper cleaning to repairing, reusing and sharing. Consumers take, make, dispose and repeat – a pattern that is driving us towards ecological bankruptcy.”

It seems something of a contradiction. On the one hand, you have a company and its leader talking about encouraging people to buy less. At the same time, this message is part of the growing profile that is leading them to sell more – to become more successful.

That has led some people to accuse them of hypocrisy, but then whatever you do, there will always be people who will make a caricature of your position and use it to attack you.

As a small company, Patagonia can grow strongly by attracting customers who are looking for a more authentic voice. The fact that it can then help those customers get more value by offering products that are designed to be repaired, and will help to repair them if need be, is part of the appeal. That is such a departure from the norm right now that the downsides of such an approach – ie. encouraging people to spend less money with you – isn’t a factor.

But it’s a very important challenge. Patagonia is one of the most ‘mainstream’ brands that is asking radical questions about what it means to be a retailer of ‘stuff’ in a sustainable age. To have credibility in doing so, it also helps that it’s being successful. Failing companies inspire nobody with their radical departures from the norm. They are cited instead as evidence that such departures are foolish and unwise.

Rose Marcario has been the key agent in making Patagonia’s challenge to the mainstream potent and important because she has made it radical and successful. She is one of those inspiring people whose ideas and attitudes could reshape how we see business in the 21st century.

 

Some additional reading:

Profile in Fortune

Video - The Energy for Tomorrow conference panel