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How can a brand achieve its goals by making less product? Why is partnering with an eco-conscious bank so important? In his first U.S. interview since taking the helm as CEO, Patagonia’s Ryan Gellert shares his ambitious outlook on sustainability, along with his industry goals and his push for racial justice, with host Kristin Hostetter.
Watch the edited video interview here.
Read the transcript
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Kristin Hostetter: I’m Kristin Hostetter and you’re listening to the Straight Talk podcast by Outside Business Journal. My guest today is Ryan Gellert, CEO of Patagonia. He stepped into his new role at Patagonia in September, 2020 after serving as GM of Europe, Middle East, and Asia for five years. Before that he spent time at Black Diamond in various positions.
Gellert knows he has big shoes to fill this predecessor Rose Marcario quadrupled revenue at Patagonia during her 12 year tenure. Gellar assumes leadership of the billion plus dollar company in the middle of a global pandemic, in a profound period of awareness and activism around social justice. And none of this is lost on him.
We’re going to talk about all of that plus a whole lot more.
Hi Ryan, how are you today?
Ryan Gellert: Great, Kristin. Thanks for having me. . .
Kristin Hostetter: Thank you for joining us all the way from Amsterdam. Congratulations on your new role. It’s been about a month and a half since your first day at, as CEO at Patagonia. And you took the reins during a crazy time, right? Like in the middle of a pandemic in the middle of a contentious election, how have things been going, what’s your first month and a half been like?
Ryan Gellert: Yeah. You said it. It’s probably one of the most, certainly the most polarizing time in U.S history in my 48 years. And it’s in the middle of a once in a century pandemic and all of the economic turmoil and impact that comes with that.
And also, a really profound racial and social justice moment. And it’s been I think under any circumstances, that would be a lot to deal with doing it from nine time zones away from headquarters has made it a little bit more complex. It’s been a really interesting opportunity to learn.
Some really long days overall, it’s been really gratifying, but certainly not without its challenges.
Kristin Hostetter: Yeah, I can’t imagine nine times zones. That’s difficult to juggle. Let’s talk about the election a little bit because I think this is an appropriate thing for us to talk about.
Patagonia was very active in the get out the vote campaign. You must be pretty happy about the election results.
Ryan Gellert: I’m pleased with the outcome of the presidential election. If you just look at it as , which candidate did we actually land? So I think, it’s tough because I look at this moment and I think, given the overall health of the planet and all that we’re trying to wrestle with as humans and our role within that, I think the fact that, 70 something million people voted for a president that is rolled back about a hundred environmental protections in the last four years, amongst some of the other things that are of great concern, I wouldn’t call it a great outcome.
I think kick gives us a springboard to start moving forward on some things that we feel are incredibly important.
Kristin Hostetter: Yeah, that’s a good point. So if Joe Biden were to put together a round table of CEOs in the country and [00:03:00] if he were to ask your advice on what he should accomplish around climate in his first hundred days in office what would you tell him?
Ryan Gellert: I would say, first of all, it’s encouraging to see the areas that he has made commitments to focusing on. So I think there’s a lot there that we’re really encouraged by. I think he’s going to be, depending on the outcome of the Senate race in Georgia, it’s going to be really interesting to see how much of a kind of a mandate he does or doesn’t have to move forward on a lot of these things.
I think as far as the areas of biggest impact, particularly in the first a hundred days, I think reversing some of the rollbacks of the last administration as much as possible via executive order and otherwise I think is going to be critical. I think ultimately limiting pollution and really scaling the growth in renewables are two areas of great importance.
And then finally, and this again is an area that he is. He’s spoken to the commitment to protecting 30% of American land and water by 2030 is an initiative that we’re really supportive of.
Kristin Hostetter: Yeah. Okay. Good advice. Well hopefully he’ll take that advice. Patagonia is known for using its massive platform as a force for change. Can you give us a sneak peek maybe into any new initiatives that are close to your heart that may be in the works for Patagonia.
Ryan Gellert: Yeah, I think for us, it’s interesting. We’ve gotten ourselves involved in so many different areas of impact over the last on the five and 10 years. And I think we’ve done that because we’re really trying to support and scale anything that we think can have a positive impact on the health of the planet.
The challenge I believe is that we’ve got roughly a decade to stabilize our climate, if we’re going to avoid some of the worst impacts of the climate and ecological crisis. And I think with that amount of time and us being one company, one of the things I think we really need to focus on is what are the three or four things that we believe we can have a really outsized impact on.
And so I think whether that’s scaling regenerative, organic agricultural practices, certainly it includes our own footprint, work we can do when scaling renewables, and then the ongoing protection of wild places. Those are all areas that we’re really going to be focused on and figuring out as we do that, how we can engage a broader cross section of Americans and citizens around the world where we do business.
I think that’s a critical element. And I think that includes really trying to figure out and challenge ourselves and operate in ways that can be at times a little bit uncomfortable. And finding that intersection between racial justice and environmentalism.
Kristin Hostetter: I’m glad you brought up racial justice. Cause I want to flip to that for a second. Back in June, Patagonia joined the stop hate for profit campaign, which was a temporary boycott of Facebook because of its lax policies on policing the spread of hate speech and misinformation. My question is this: what did that one month boycott really accomplish?
Ryan Gellert: Yeah the boycott that you mentioned stop hate for profit was the month of July. Our participation in it has continued on interrupted. And we have actually not engaged in any paid Facebook or Instagram advertising starting in July, but up through the time that we’re doing this interview and candidly, we don’t have any plans to return.
And it’s for exactly the same reasons we decided to join in July, which as you mentioned, is the volume of hate speech and misinformation that exists on those platforms. And, despite the fact that there were a number of changes made in anticipation of this election, I read the paper every day and see just a consistent drumbeat of things that are huge concern for us that are continuing to show up on those platforms. I think that was a one month moment to really highlight what was going on in those platforms. But for us, it was really a pivotal change in our engagement with them.
Kristin Hostetter: Wow. Okay, great. So there are no plans to go back to advertising on those platforms at the moment?
Ryan Gellert: Yeah, you said it there at the moment? We are absolutely not in conversations about returning, but I also don’t want to paint ourselves into a corner and say, we’ll never be back, but I will tell you clearly we have no plans to go back and I’m not sure we ever will.
Kristin Hostetter: Gotcha. Good to know. All right. So let’s switch to a slightly different topic. We did a story in the summer issue of our magazine and the story was about how Patagonia is one of the rare companies that dares to be really vocal and transparent about endorsing specific candidates in elections.
One of the key refrains right now from American leaders is unify, right? We all realize we have this real need to unify as a country. What are your thoughts on how Patagonia can contribute to that much needed unification in our country on key issues without abandoning your your principles of speaking out and endorsing political candidates. What are your thoughts on that?
Ryan Gellert: Yeah, it’s a great question. And I’ll be honest with you. It’s one I wrestle with a lot, not just I, but a lot of us have Patagonia. Here’s the framework through which I think about that. Number one, as I said before, we’ve got roughly a decade to stabilize our climate and I believe that climate change is real.
I believe climate change is human caused. You look at the overall temperature of the planet. And we seem to be setting records almost every single year for the new hottest year on record. And we’re seeing impacts of the climate and ecological crisis that are becoming more accelerated with each passing year.
And unfortunately, I think that’s going to continue. So that’s the backdrop. I think that our commitment to using our business, to save our home planet is the focus of everything we do. And then I think one of the really harsh realities of this recent election cycle is a reminder that, Americans are almost equally split, thankfully, not entirely equally, but the gap is not as big as logic might dictate.
When we’ve got this existential threat that is bearing down on us and it’s one of our own creation. And so I think one of the takeaways and answer to your question, and I don’t know how we’re going to do this, but I know it’s gotta be something that we continue to wrestle into form is how do we, in addition to calling people out where we feel that’s necessary, how do we focus on more effectively calling people in?
And how do we find those places where we’re aligned on ambition? I believe that people in all parts of the country and in all parts of the world ultimately want, most of the same basic things, clean air, clean water, clean soil, a healthy environment for themselves, for their friends and for their families.
And somehow so much of that’s gotten politicized. And I would really like to figure out how we can have a positive impact in changing that narrative.
Kristin Hostetter: We have a story coming up in our winter issue of our magazine about banks in how certain banks are taking a very pro environmental position by not lending or accepting money from extraction companies in big oil.
And it’s also about how sustainably minded outdoor companies need to start thinking of where they bank as part of their supply chain. You have a lot of experience in supply chain going all the way back to your days at Black Diamond. What are your thoughts on the relationship between saving the home planet in the banking industry?
Ryan Gellert: I think you set that question up perfectly and I think often people don’t think about their financial partners or their insurance partners or are pension partners as part of their supply chain. And that’s exactly what it is.
So I think that’s the right frame to look at it. I think one of the things we’ve realized in recent years is what difference does it make if we give away money? And if we work deeply within our own supply chain for making product, if we turn around and we’re financing and investing or taking money from, and spending money with, insurance companies and pension funds who have a very different relationship with climate.
And so that’s an area that we’ve been deeply focused on for the last couple of years. And we’re in the process of really trying to thoughtfully get better partners within our broader supply chains. I will say this, and I believe as in the way you framed the question, talked about some banks that are really divesting.
I’d love to know which banks of scale are really committed to divesting. I think that there are divestment activities happening, but I would say that there are no green banks of scale. There are some fantastic small banks. Triodos here in, in Europe is a great example of that, but each time I’ve had conversations with them about handling our European business , much less our global one, they basically said, we’re a philosophy masquerading as a bank not necessarily a bank that can handle the complexity of your global business. So I think what we need are global banks to really embrace a different way of doing things. Good news is I think that conversation is progressing. The harsh reality is none of them are all that progressive in my opinion.
Kristin Hostetter: You make a good point about the scalability of it too for a brand like Patagonia. You can’t go down to your local bank and change everything over to a small local bank is doing everything right. It just doesn’t work. So again, I mean that perhaps is an opportunity for a company like Patagonia who does have such power in that business community to be a force for change in that way.
Ryan Gellert: Yeah. We’re deeply committed to doing that. We’re having conversations. I’m not going to mention banks by name, but we’re having conversations with quite a few banks.
Some that are just not where they need to be. And we’re really challenging them to think differently and challenging some of the processes and policies that they’ve got in place. But also trying to really encourage the ones that are making progress and are not yet all the way there. But I think ultimately it’s a place where there’s going to need to really be a convening of like-minded companies to change this space.
I think this is one of the biggest contributors to the former systems that we’ve operated in that just are not serving us well, not our people and not our planet. And so I think this is wholesale change. I don’t think too many of us hold out great hope for extractive industry, but the financial institution has got to change if we’re going to solve these problems. And yeah, we’re highly motivated to participate in that.
Kristin Hostetter: That’s great to hear. I’m gonna tell my writer on that story that you are a perfect source for this to have a discussion. All right, good. Let’s zoom back out and talk big picture. As we turn the calendar page to a new year, can you share with us some of your goals for the company, both in the short term and the longterm? We’ve touched on some of that in terms of climate but anything maybe specific to product or people or retail, something in those lines that have been front of mind for you as you get ready to launch into a new year.
Ryan Gellert: Yeah. I think there’s a few things that are certainly top of mind for me. I recognize that this is primarily a, an American audience, but I would say that we’re a brand that has done business around the world for a long time, but I think really scaling our impact and really scaling our mission statement to all of the places that we do business around the world and really understanding the cultures, the communities, and the issues that are top of mind and how does the broad topic of climate change or the way that we grow our food and our fibers, how does that impact local communities in different parts of the world?
And so I would really like to challenge us to become a more global business, but it’s not by the standard definition of selling more product around the world. And I’d make another parallel there. I think it’d be a more digitally led business. That’s obviously, on-trend certainly right now, and that can sound to a lot of people like e-commerce, but to me it doesn’t. I think these last eight months have really taught us that to be a resilient business and to be a resilient brand in addition to being a resilient group of people, you’ve got to be able to connect digitally. And so for us, that means communicating digitally to our communities. It means activating through tools like Patagonia action works, which is our digital platform that connects our grantees around the world with our community.
But it also includes the commercial aspects as well. So I think those are two really big areas. At the end of the day, we are an outdoor sport apparel and equipment brand, and we are deeply committed to that. And so I think continuing to build deep relationships with people that come to the brand through sport and product, just the same way that we do it for people that come to the brand because of our mission and values.
And I think ultimately we’re at our [00:15:00] best when those two things overlap. And so from a product point of view, I’m really excited about what we’re doing right now in fall with some backcountry skiing collections of product. And I’m really excited in general about what we’ve been able to do in the mountain bike space. Just to name a couple of my favorites. We’re newer in that space. We’ve got really focused product collections and I think it’s just fantastic, the product that we’re making and, it’s really resonated with our customers as well. So I’m excited to see where that can go.
Kristin Hostetter: But you just mentioned something that’s interesting to me. You talked about really focused product collections and one of the things that I’ve been thinking of and talking with people about lately relates to sustainability . And I see this all the time in media and we’re part of the problem because we always want to know, what’s new, tell us the new products. What’s the newest, latest, greatest. We don’t want to keep revisiting the same stuff over and over again. And I think that feeds into this. This idea of stuffication, producing too much stuff. And Patagonia obviously has a lot of a lot of products and, I think there’s just this really interesting notion of of scaling back the number of products that you produce, making products that need to be produced that are begging to be produced and not just producing them for the sake of having something new to talk about. How does that play into how you look forward into the future of Patagonia and balancing that– wanting to be fresh and offer your customers new things, but at the same time, you’re very committed to encouraging your customers, to take care of what they have.
You remember the ad. It was that famous ad a few years back: “don’t buy this jacket.” So I’m just wondering, how do you justify both of those things as a leader of a company like Patagonia, the need to keep things fresh, but also the real desire to not just produce petroleum based products often for the sake of newness.
Ryan Gellert: Yeah there’s two big parts to that. One is how do we justify it? And then the other is how we think about it going forward. So let me try and break it into those two pieces cause I think there’s something adventurous maybe in both places.
First of all, I’ve worked in the outdoor industry for my whole professional career. I’ve been around it for a couple of decades. And so while I’ve been at Patagonia about six years, I feel like I’ve known Patagonia perhaps from a distance for well over two decades. And I think that one of the things that I always found interesting about Patagonia and looking at it from a distance from outside was God, is this brand that’s got this incredibly deep set of commitments. How much of the world really knows that it exists? And in that small segment of the world that knows of its existence, how much influence does it really have? And I think Rose Marcario, who was our former CEO, I think she had a good idea backed up by a really good ability to execute on that idea.
So I think the idea was with all due respect, probably the easier part than really bringing it to life. And that was if we can scale this to a certain size and kind of weaponize the influence of that, we may be able to have a really outsized influence as an outdoor apparel company. And I think that’s the narrative of Patagonia for the last five or six years.
I think that was a good insight. I think she, under her leadership was really effective at scaling that. And I think that she and the organization were very disciplined in doing a lot to ensure that we actually did live up to the responsibilities we felt we had. So that I think is how we find ourselves at this point today.
When we came into this COVID period, we went through this exercise globally that we called “re-imagined.” And we asked all of the employees everywhere in the world to answer four questions and I don’t have the questions in front of me, but in essence, they were: what are the things you’re learning through this period? What would you like to see us change? How can you become more effective in doing what you do on the other side of this? And COVID really hit. In March, that was probably when we kicked off that activity. And I think one of the things that came back with incredible consistency from our employees was we should make less product.
We just make too much product. And I think it’s embedded in your question. It’s spot on. When I look ahead, there’s probably three different things I’d like to see us do. [00:19:00] We’re already starting to really focus on these number one, make less product, just really get more done with less.
Number two, continue to challenge ourselves to really push the envelope in the footprint of the product that we make and the footprint of everything that we do. So make our product more responsibly. And then number three, and you referenced a little bit about this relationship that we’ve long since had with our customers around keeping their product and useful anger. Our umbrella term for all of that is Worn Wear, and today Worn Wear is built on for Rs in the future. There’s probably going to be additional components to that. But to the point of “don’t buy this jacket,” which was a full-page ad in the New York times and on Black Friday in 2011, that’s really Reduce.
Don’t buy things that you don’t need. Number two is repair. We run North America’s largest outdoor apparel repair facility. We’ve got over a hundred people that do product repair full time. And so if you’ve got a broken zipper or something else on your products, send it back to us, we’ll repair it. Number three, we will buy back product from customers that is still usable and we’ll launder it and then resell it at a more approachable price point.
So let’s keep that product and use as long as we can. And then number four, we’ll recycle everything we’ve ever made at the end of life, using the best existing technology. And so everything I just said we’ve been doing for some time. But what Ireally want to take all that and embed it right in the center of our business.
And so I’d like to see us running a business that’s got a very different sort of set of revenue streams a couple of years out into the future. And if you look back a couple of years, and that really is where we’re trying to orient.
Kristin Hostetter: Awesome. That’s exciting. Can’t wait to see how that unfolds. And, thank you for that. Very detailed answer to a multi-pronged question. Here’s another “R” for you. Maybe we can talk a little bit about retail. You have so many, important retail partners around the country, specialty, independent outdoor shops, surf shops all different kinds of verticals.
And, this COVID period has been undeniably hard for retail shops. Some of them have actually done quite well. We’ve all seen the data and people are wanting to get outside during this crazy quarantine time and they’re seeking solace in the outdoors and it’s one of the safest places to be.
There have been some bright spots and retail. But these are small, independently run businesses. These owners have found themselves in a position where they just have to be constantly pivoting to keep the doors open and to find ways to bring customers in. I have a story coming out this week about a legacy shop in North Carolina that’s closing its stores after. 38 years and it’s heartbreaking. What have some of your conversations been like with some of your independent retail partners? Because you are such an important brand that brings customers in the door for these partners. And I guess I’d just like to know what some of those conversations have been like, and if there have been challenges getting product to all the stores that you want you’ve wanted to get product to. And if you can shed any light on that retail aspect of things.
Ryan Gellert: Yeah. So a couple of things. Number one, I’m still based in Europe. So I’ve stepped into this role as we talked about at the beginning about seven weeks ago, but I’m still based in Europe, and spent the last six years here.
I would tell you that in the first two thirds of this COVID period I’ve had lots of conversations with small specialty retailers here in Europe in the last six, seven weeks, a little bit more on the other side of the ocean. I’ve also been plugged into conversations about the same in Australia and Japan and elsewhere.
It’s been a brutally difficult period, thankfully some have actually done reasonably well and in a few even very well, but it has been an incredibly difficult period. And I think that some of the things that we’ve tried to do are just really work with our partners on dating and forgiveness, and just trying to extend credit to them and make sure that they’re in a position where they can manage their cash flow. Particularly in the early part of this COVID period, when things came on very quickly, completely unexpected for everybody. And, I think a lot of specialty shops were really questioning whether they would make it another 60 or 90 days. And so that was absolutely an area of focus for us at that time in particular.
I think, as it relates to inventory, Yeah, it’s been a challenge. I think overall I’m proud of the job we’ve been able to do, but we’ve been impacted in how we’ve thought about buying inventory. Because the last thing on earth we wanted to do was build a bunch of product that doesn’t have a home and ended up having to deal with it some other way on the back end.
And so we had slowed down our purchasing as quickly as we could ethically. And, that has led to us not being able to fulfill everything, particularly as the summer ended up being pretty strong, not just in the U.S., but around the world and the other’s decisions that we’ve made. In spring 21, that’s not too far in front of us and then as we look out into next fall, Is, we’re just becoming more conservative in how much inventory we’re going to buy, and we’re willing to leave some opportunities to the upside on the table, just so that we are sure that we’re being as responsible as we can, and also doing everything that we can to ensure a consistent level of support to our supplier partners what we don’t want to do [00:24:00] is end up in a world where we can’t make commitments and then we have to chase inventory, then we have to walk away from commitments. That’s not fair to anybody. And so as a way of managing through that, we’re really just trying to think about where do we see the opportunity and then maybe build something like five or 10 or even lower percentage of that total so that we can ensure that there truly is a market for that product.
Kristin Hostetter: Awesome. Good. That’s interesting. Here’s another question for you. Obviously it’s been a very tumultuous period in our country’s history and really the world’s history around racial justice and the black lives matter movement. And Patagonia in so many ways is so focused on climate initiatives.
But that’s not to say that you’re not very involved in trying to navigate the area of racial justice as well. What have been some of the guiding principles or some of the tactics or that you’ve been trying to stand up for racial justice during this time?
Ryan Gellert: I think it’s been a really profound , and if I’m honest, and I say this individually, but I think I can say it on behalf of Patagonia as well. It’s been a pretty humbling period. I’m not going to pretend for a second that I haven’t understood some of the shortcomings on race in America over, really my entire life.
I will say that I thought we were in a better place than the last handful of years have exposed. And I don’t, it’s not an excuse. It’s just a reality. When I look at, outdoor space and I’m responsible for Patagonia today, but, I spent the better part of 15 years with Black Diamond and what I felt like I learned during that time with Black Diamond was there was no greater goal as a brand that was really focused on a community and being an authentic reflection of that community.
And I felt like I really tried to live and breathe that at my time at BD. And that’s really informed my thinking as I’ve arrived and been with Patagonia. And I think what this moment has really taught me is that’s not leadership. That’s just reflecting something. It’s almost the role of a mirror.
And I think leadership is seeing something and knowing it can be something else and working to create that something else. And I think for us, that’s a more inclusive and equitable Patagonia internally, but it’s also the same within the outdoor space and in the environmental movement. And I think when you look at the racial injustices related to pollution and Black and Latino communities, that’s an area of huge concern.
And I think that, one of the things I’m a big believer in is not just what problems can we solve, but what do we uniquely qualified to solve as Patagonia, because I think that’s when we’re at our best. And this is an area where I think we’ve got something to offer. So I say that with humility because we’ve been focused too narrowly, and we’ve got to expand that to include people as we work to, to use our business, to save our home planet.
Kristin Hostetter: Yes. Those are big and challenging goals, but that intersectionality between racial justice and climate I think is so important. And I’m glad to know that you’ve got your sights set on that for sure. So I want to end with a question I’ve been asking everybody for selfish reasons because I’m trying to figure out what my “next” is going to be. What are you watching on Netflix these days?
Ryan Gellert: I mentioned I’m here in Amsterdam and I’m working on a Pacific coast time. So, my evenings are pretty much tied up sitting here behind a computer screen most of the time. So yeah. Netflix. Actually I’ll give you one. I just started watching this series on the Challenger explosion.
It’s a documentary series and I’ve watched the first couple of parts, but it’s particularly relevant for me. Because when I was a 14 year old school kid growing up in Coco Beach, Florida, I remember sitting at lunch in Roosevelt elementary school and the ground started shaking and I knew that there was a space shuttle launch because that’s what they did when anything launched. And I remember talking to a friend and saying, do you want to walk outside and watch it? We saw so many launches. And so we ended up walking outside and I looked up on a clear blue cold January day and there went the shuttle Challenger up into the sky.
And then all of a sudden just blew apart into pieces and rained down on the ocean, just off of Coco Beach in that area. So to see that piece now, after all those years brings a lot back, but it’s a really well done documentary. I’ve only watched about half of it.
Kristin Hostetter: Oh, my gosh, I got goosebumps. That’s crazy that you actually watched it in the sky. That was my birthday. And I remember that day too, watching that on TV, but, wow. Okay. I’ll give you one, that’s a little bit lighter. One that I’ve been watching that is such a great distraction whenever you just kinda need to go somewhere else is a series called Money Heist. Have you heard about this? It’s a Spanish series and I think it’s a Netflix original, about this elaborate heist of a bank in Spain and it’s so well done.
Amazing characters. Those people that are complex, and you can’t tell whether they’re good or bad. It’s wonderful escapism.
Ryan Gellert: I’ll check it out. It’s funny. I heard one time something to the effect of Netflix doesn’t really compete with cable TV or HBO, it competes with sleep. And I think that’s a pretty good statement.
Kristin Hostetter: That is so true. It’s been so great to get to know you. Thank you so much for talking to us and answering all those questions with such thoughtfulness and candor. I really appreciate your time.
Ryan Gellert: Thanks very much. Really appreciate the opportunity. Very nice to do this next.
Kristin Hostetter: And thank you everybody for listening to this episode of the Straight Talk podcast by Outside Business Journal. The outdoor industry is full of fascinating people doing bold things, whether it’s in sustainability, diversity, equity, and inclusion, specialty retail, activism, marketing, or brand building.
And here at Straight Talk, we dive straight in this episode was produced by me, Kristin Hostetter. Our executive producer is Jeff Moore. Our executive audio engineer is John Barcklay. Our associate [00:30:00] producer is Aashish Shrestha. Our production assistant is Louisa Albanese. Please subscribe today to the Straight Talk podcast, write us a review, and, of course stay up on the latest outdoor industry news at OutsideBusinessJournal.com.