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Reinvigorating the “quintessential badass brand”

Black Diamond’s president, John Walbrecht, shares his signature disruptive strategy and insights on the pressures of running a publicly traded company.

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Self-described “brand turnaround guy” John Walbrecht has spent his career pushing innovation at companies like Timberland, Spyder Active Sports, Fenix Outdoor, and Mountain Hardwear. So when he took the helm at Black Diamond in fall 2016, it’s no surprise that his goal was to reinvigorate the “quintessential badass brand.” Here, Walbrecht shares how new product launches, a lightning-quick market strategy, and a sharper focus on inventing new gear is doing just that—plus how high-profile access issues in his backyard affect the brand.

President of Black Diamond Equipment, John Walbrecht Black Diamond

How is working for Black Diamond different from your previous roles at places like Mountain Hardwear or Fenix Outdoors?

John Walbrecht: The most different thing about it is that BD is a category killer. We do 33 categories of product. I don’t know of any other brand that does that. From trekking poles to apparel to ropes to skis to snow safety to beacons to packs, the breadth of product we do is unique. It’s an easy formula: The first question we ask is, why? Why would you get it from BD? We’d better be bringing something new to the category. If it’s not faster, lighter, or stronger, why would I want it? That’s the way we think about every product.

What pressures do you face as the head of a publicly traded company?

JW: What most people see is potentially you’re under more microscopes and more scrutiny. A lot of times people think that businesses that are publicly traded are making short-term, quarterly decisions, rather than long-term, what’s-best-for-the-brand decisions. I think that’s true if the president of that company is solely motivated by share price. Our belief is if you do what’s right with the brand—maybe not quarter to quarter—the share value and the equity you create will align. I have to think about the long-term success and sustainability of the brand.

And in an odd way, that microscope helps us as a company to be a leader in the way in which we approach things like access to the outdoors or sustainability, because we have a forum that, every quarter, pays attention to what we say.

Speaking of access: Public land access has been a huge issue this year, with national attention trained on your backyard with the rollback of protection for Bears Ears and Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monuments. How is BD reacting?

JW: We’ve always been a supporter of the outdoors. Frankly, Utah just happens to be in the limelight now, and lots of brands are using it as a forum to connect with their consumers. We’ve been engaged in Indian Creek, and the whole area of Bears Ears, for quite some time. It began with [former BD President] Peter Metcalf and the team becoming advocates with the Access Fund. We raised funds, sold T-shirts, and advertised around the issue. We’ve been engaged in access to many climbing regions, Bears Ears being one of them, and we recently played a major role in helping open up Little Cottonwood Canyon to climbing. Our stand hasn’t changed any more this week than it was last week or a year ago. We’ll continue to be a brand that advocates on behalf of our employees and consumers for access to the outdoors.

And recently, we’ve spent the last three or four months being a driver in backcountry snow safety. We lost an athlete, Hayden Kennedy, [related to] a Montana avalanche last October. We work with the Utah Avalanche Center, and we sponsor about 30 different avalanche centers around the globe.

You introduced your new rock shoe and shipped it to retailers in the same month (July 2017) in what you’ve described as BD’s “disruptive strategy.” What’s that all about?

JW: When I was at Spyder or Fenix, we could reference parts of our product development by how close or how far behind BD we were. I’ve spent the last 20 years walking trade shows, and I’d always stop by the BD booth. [If I could say], “We’re only six months behind BD,” I could be proud. So when I got here, I said, “Just so we’re clear, our competition walks our booth and they check out what we’re doing.” So we’d better be a lot more disruptive.

When we show product, let’s ship very soon after so we’re not giving our competition six, 12 months of lead time to figure out what we’ve shown them and close the gap. Things that we showed in the July show have already shipped to retail three to six months before the season kicked off. With quite a few products that we call “black box,” we launch direct to the market and our best retailers at the same time. The philosophy was, if we invented the cure for cancer in a  pill tomorrow, would we wait ‘til January 1 to announce it? We’d announce it tomorrow!

What are you most excited about in BD’s near future?

JW: We’ve made an internal strategic decision that we are 33 brands in one. In 2019, you’ll see new product innovations in every single category. We’ve hired more and more engineers and product team to go after every category as if that was all we did. We literally have more than 112 new products in the line for spring ‘19.

This article originally appeared in The Daily, Day 3 (winter 2018).