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Icebreaker's former, new CEOs talk future for merino wool brand

Icebreaker's co-founder Jeremy Moon and new CEO Rob Fyfe sit down with SNEWS to talk about the recent changes and what's ahead for the brand.

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The story behind the recent changes at merino apparel brand Icebreaker — including a new CEO and the consolidation of its global services headquarters in New Zealand — is a familiar one in the outdoor world.

A start-up, niche business rapidly rises to find itself as one of the leading brands in its category, yet retains a small-company’s mentality and processes — which isn’t necessarily a bad thing. The passion and direction are still there, but the world is a big place and it needs some logistical guidance.

It’s at this point that the brand either gears up for sale, or brings in some extra help.

Icebreaker co-founder, former CEO, and now Executive Chairman and Creative Director Jeremy Moon said he’s had plenty of opportunities to sell the business since its birth in 1995, but that’s not the route he wanted to take.

As majority owner, Moon, 44, wanted to stay involved, but admitted the CEO position of the growing company was quickly moving beyond his talents, and, if anything, distracting him from his strengths.

“I have always evolved to be who the company needs me to be,” Moon told SNEWS. “But my passions lie in branding and design as opposed to management responsibilities. I admire what Yvon Chouinard has done at Patagonia — he’s taken many roles and let the business grow, but has managed to keep the soul of the company intact.”

And so, last week, Moon introduced Robert Fyfe as Icebreaker’s new CEO. Fyfe, 53, spent the past nine months as executive chairman of Icebreaker, in effect swapping jobs with Moon, but it’s his experience running larger companies that led him to the CEO spot.

Jeremy Moon and Rob Fyfe. Photo by: New Zealand Herald.

For seven years prior, Fyfe ran New Zealand Air, a multi-billion-dollar airline with 12,000 employees. While there, he turned the company culture and customer experience from what was “like flying on United on a bad day, ” Moon said, to an award-winning “best airline in the world with record levels of customer satisfaction.”

In the small country and business world of New Zealand, the two CEOs got to know each other, gave talks at each other’s events and shared philosophies on building strong brands and empowering employees.

Fyfe admits “the notion of an airline CEO becoming the head of an outdoor brand probably looks a little unusual,” especially to the close-knit U.S. industry, but in New Zealand the outdoors is a big part of the culture, no matter what market you are in. Plus, here’s a CEO who body painted himself as part of marketing an airline — it would seem he’ll fit right in.

For all focus on the people moves at Icebreaker, there are also structural changes that shouldn’t go unnoted.

Officials announced the consolidation of the Icebreaker’s global services in Auckland, which is New Zealand’s commercial hub, and will close the offices in Wellington, where Moon founded company.

“This was a very tough decision to make,” Moon said. “I want everyone in the Wellington team to move up to Auckland, but I realize this won’t be possible and I really feel for those who want to stay with us but can’t.”

Icebreaker employs 430 people worldwide, in addition to another 400 full-time-equivalent manufacturing employees … and 1 million sheep, Moon quipped.

And while there are no plans for downsizing — more employees are eventually expected with growth — there will be some shifting, Moon and Fyfe said.

“Rob’s really good at simplifying the business process, making the tough decisions, but also empowering employees to make those decisions as well,” Moon said. “He’s there to support the employees.”

“As I’ve moved from industry to industry, I’ve learned that having a new set of eyes can uncover blind spots in an organization that has layered a lot of processes atop of one another as it grows,” Fyfe said. “For Icebreaker, here’s a business that went from $60 million in sales five years ago, to more than $200 million in sales today.”

One of the biggest challenges ahead, somewhat unique to Icebreaker, Fyfe said, is building a brand where nearly 90 percent of its sales come from outside its home country — 80 percent in North America and Europe.

“Most outdoor companies have the advantage of being at home in their main markets,” he said. “The majority of the markets we sell in are foreign to us.”

But in a growing global economy, perhaps that hurdle is becoming a benefit with experience.

Fyfe said the goal is to grow the familiarity and establishment of the brand worldwide, whether it be through its increasing number of brand stores, working with specialty retailers or communicating with its customers through its online and mobile channels.

The biggest advantage he has at Icebreaker to achieve those goals, Fyfe said, is a privately held brand with the full support of its majority owner, Moon.

“At an industry level, I see the increasing amount of private equity, outside money and public shareholders as the biggest challenge for many others, he said. “Then it all becomes about product diversification and it’s harder to maintain integrity through every point of the chain.”

Icebreaker will remain focused on spreading its merino wool and responsible, raw-material-tracking and transparency mantras, Fyfe said.

“The decisions we’ve made in the in the last couple of months and the commitment to take the company to the next level have all been driven by re-investing much of the profits back into the business.”

–David Clucas