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SNEWS Exclusive: Q and A with Black Diamond's Peter Metcalf

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After 26 years at the helm of Black Diamond, founder Peter Metcalf will step down as president and CEO at the end of 2015. Metcalf is widely considered the heart and soul of the brand he built since buying it from Yvon Chouinard in 1989. Decades of steady growth and success have put the company at the top of the climbing and backcountry skiing markets, but recent years have been turbulent.

In 2010, the company merged with Gregory Mountain Products and went public (Nasdaq: BDE). In 2012, it acquired helmet/goggle maker POC and PIEPS, a winter snow safety brand. The following year, BD launched a full apparel line. Then, in 2014, they sold off Gregory and POC in quick succession. All of these big moves have legions of fans, retailers, and investors asking questions about the future direction of Black Diamond.

In an exclusive two-part interview, we sat down first with Metcalf and then with Mark Ritchie, the incoming president, to talk about the company’s dirtbag beginnings, its wild ride over the past two and a half decades, and their vision for it under the new leadership.

10 takeaways from Outdoor Retailer
Peter Metcalf. Photo courtesy of Black Diamond

SNEWS: Black Diamond has succeeded in building a brand that clearly resonates with passionate climbers, alpinists, and skiers and a corporate culture that evolves around those passions. How did you achieve that and what are you most proud of?

PM: In 1989, when Yvon Chouinard decided to put his hard goods company, Chouinard Equipment, into bankruptcy to shield it from failure-to-warn litigation, I had been working there for seven years. We were under assault due to the revolution in Tort Law that gave plaintiffs the right to sue a manufacturer if they misused the product. I determined that we needed to create a new, American-based, employee and community owned climbing/off-piste ski company to champion the issues of great importance.

We came close to launching the new company by the name of “Diamond C,” which was inspired by Chouinard’s original logo. For a while we even called ourselves “Newco.” But at the 11th hour, in a late night blitz of work and beer, the name Black Diamond materialized. We liked that the words signify a expert ski run, but even more than that, we liked the bad boy connotation, and the fact that black diamonds are exceedingly rare, and forged from a piece of coal made good under pressure, which was something we could relate to as we tried to transform the bankruptcy of Chouinard Equipment into something beautiful and meaningful for the community.

We committed ourselves to creating a company with a culture that mirrored the ethos and values of our sports. Now, over 26 years later, this consistent, nearly monomaniacal focus and passion remains. It is why Black Diamond has such visceral and cerebral resonance with our community.

What I am most proud of is what Black Diamond represents. We have been forthright and accomplished our goals of stewardship on behalf of the community. We have built product that matters and advanced the sports we serve. Our roster of colleagues is a who’s who of climbers, skiers and adventurers that have worked here over the decades. Black Diamond is one with the sports we serve, absolutely indistinguishable from them.

Back to the beginning: Chouinard Equipment Company, Ventura, California, 1969. Chouinard, is 3rd from the right. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons
Back to the beginning: Chouinard Equipment Company, Ventura, California, 1969. Chouinard, is 3rd from the right. Photo credit: Wikimedia Commons

SNEWS: What advice would you give yourself if you could go back to the early days?

PM: Creating Black Diamond and getting it to a sustainable situation was one of the two greatest challenges of my life. The other being the first, alpine-style ascent of the South Rib of the south face of Mount Hunter in Alaska. I would trade nothing in my life for either experience, and I would trade nothing in my life to repeat either. My naiveté at the onset of both projects were essential to success. Otherwise, I would have never begun.

Both required me to do what most thought was impossible. Success required us to be tenacious and indefatigable; to have a committed, capable, and courageous team, and to be brutally honest and transparent with one another. There is nothing I have learned since that would have made it any easier. If anything, what I have learned since might have made both psychologically impossible to commit to. As Goethe once said “Boldness has genius, power, and magic in it. Begin it now.” And so I did for Hunter and then again for Black Diamond.

SNEWS: What’s the biggest risk you’ve taken at the helm of BD and what did you learn from it?

PM: Taking on the mantle of leadership for a big, audacious climb or a bold, quixotic, entrepreneurial business adventure requires total commitment. Alpine climbing means partners literally put their lives on the line for the shared dream. For Black Diamond, which was initially an employee-owned company, we collectively staked our jobs, savings, trust, reputations, and families’ well being. It was both incredibly energizing and empowering, as well as incredibly intimidating and maturing.

The act of transforming dreams into reality is by nature incredibly risky. The really big climbs and material accomplishments in life are all about putting yourself into situations of tremendous consequence. I learned a few simple lessons from these two experiences: One, that the team that you chose is critical and you must have utmost confidence in their competence. And two, you must have an open, honest, powerful working relationship with them.

You must be considerate of their well-being and vice versa. When one is feeling weak, they must say so, because it’s likely that someone else is strong at that moment. It’s critical that everyone understands and commits to the goal. And it’s important to keep in mind the big picture goal but not dwell on or become overwhelmed by it.

Instead break the goal down into one-day components that are manageable and achievable. And realize that if you got through a brutal today, you can surely get through an equally brutal tomorrow. Find moments during the journey to properly celebrate progress and milestones. Last but not least: Follow your gut. Listen to it and don’t cross it with facts, data, or the need to avoid conflict.

SNEWS: Do you have any regrets about the strategy you pursued?

PM: The nature of being innovative, bold, and dynamic means not every climb you undertake nor initiative you commit to will pan out as you had envisioned and hoped for. What matters most is: Are you succeeding more than you are failing? Are you getting the big strategic issues right? Are you learning, evolving and remaining true to your mission and the ethos of your culture? Are you making a difference for the community you were founded to serve? From a holistic assessment, I answer those questions with great pride and a resounding “yes.”

I have no regrets. There is no parallel Black Diamond universe where we can compare the outcomes of different strategies. Clearly, what we set out to do with apparel was bold from a scale and timeline perspective. Though we failed to achieve the lofty goals that we established at the outset, what we have learned has helped us become much stronger and create a solid foundation for a technical apparel program for our core consumer.

The irony of our apparel launch was not that we had a problem with fit, price points, technicality nor clean aesthetic beauty. All the consumer feedback we received was 90+ percent positive. Instead it was the more basic hurdle that we didn’t foresee. Outdoor apparel is a mature and competitive space. It’s a market that does not allow for overnight success. To succeed and to be accepted as a new player in a mature category, you need to build your businesses the old fashion way, with a few compelling, innovative, resonant products at a time that the grassroots adopts slowly but steadily. Our biggest mistake was that we were overly ambitious.

Black Diamond showcases its Fall 2013 apparel launch. Photo courtesy of Black Diamond.
Black Diamond showcases its Fall 2013 apparel launch. Photo courtesy of Black Diamond.

But encountering adversity makes you stronger. Seasoned climbers and alpinists rarely take the easiest path. So, yes, BD has faced some challenges related to our ambitious plans. But the brand is as strong as ever.

I am immensely proud of the substantial contributions we made to the success of the brands we owned and own; of the leadership that BD has consistently demonstrated on behalf of our community over the past 26 years, and the very strong place we currently reside. At the end of the day, that is what really matters.

SNEWS: What kind of condition are you leaving leaving the company in?

PM: Black Diamond has a strong, committed, well-tenured senior management team and a highly respected position in the global market place. BD’s resonance and respect within the global communities of climbers, alpinists, mountaineers and off-piste skiers has never been stronger, nor has the brand ever been as widely known as it is today. We have come a long way from the tin sheds of Ventura with $900K in declining piton and nut sales.

Black Diamond and Pieps both have dominant market position in most of the categories in which we compete. Our products are best in class and our marketing has never done a better job of “celebrating and affirming” the decision to be a climber, mountaineer or skier. Our product pipeline of future innovations is full, our climbing manufacturing, which we recently repatriated from China and consolidated into our SLC factory, is humming. Our advocacy work on behalf of the community has never been more strident, engaged and impactful.

The staff of Black Diamond, posed in front of the building's headquarters.
The people of Black Diamond. Photo courtesy of Black Diamond.Courtesy

That said, one concept Mark Ritchie (incoming president) and I have discussed at length is the idea that you never arrive at a summit when you are building, growing and running a company. It’s a lifelong enchainment. The golden years, the best years for both Black Diamond and our user communities, lie ahead through the windshield and not in the rear view mirror.

SNEWS: What has the litany of corporate and brand changes over the last 3 to 4 years meant for BD retailers?

PM: There are two stories here. There is the street and trade level story of aspiring to build Black Diamond Equipment along with Gregory, POC and Pieps into a global platform: Black Diamond, Inc. And there is the brand-facing story of innovation and consumer benefit as each of these brands has matured and risen in stature.

I’m sure some of the internal changes caused some concern and raised a few eyebrows. But all BD Inc. brands were well managed, heavily invested in, and improved under our ownership. The two that were sold (Gregory and POC) were substantially stronger and larger because of our investment of money, time, organization, and people. The two that remain, Black Diamond and Pieps (operating very closely together) are well positioned for future growth. Corporate level activity has not impacted the strength of our companies, retailers, or users.

SNEWS: Moving forward, what will your role with the company be?

PM: Once we have had children we never stop being parents, and so it is with creating a company that has been in the focal point of my climbing and mountaineering passions for a majority of my adult life. Black Diamond has been an extension of my passion for climbing and my extended tribe of friends whose lives have been forged by this way of life. As founder or parent, I can never be disconnected from my child and I will always be available to help as requested and perhaps even when not.

Specifically, I will be BD’s advocate and representative on a select number of Boards focused on advocacy as well as conservation/planet sustainability non-profits. Additionally, I will continue to serve as a Director of the Federal Reserve. I will most likely do select and discrete brand advocacy work, as well as related social media and BD employee communication work.

After many decades of focus on leading BD, life runs full circle. I want to return to a much more active, dirtbag climbing life, this time with a bit more change in my pocket and a little less ramen in the cupboard. Though that is a personal commitment, I am confident the insights gleaned, the people met, the experiences had will all still benefit Black Diamond in a myriad of ways, as will my continued work as an advocate.

I will leave you with a quote from a favorite Victorian era British climber and writer, Geoffrey Winthrop Young, that captures my current optimism and beliefs: “I have not lost the magic of the long days, I live them, breathe them. Still, I am the master of the starry ways and freeman of the hills.”

Next week’s exclusive interview with Mark Ritchie is for subscribers only. If you liked this story, subscribe to SNEWS to stay up to date on the latest industry news.