Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond Inc., didn’t launch his climbing and outdoor-gear company to make money. He did it, Metcalf said, “to make a difference.”
Now a $200-million-a-year publicly traded business, Black Diamond Inc.’s conservation advocacy is as highly regarded as its specialized gear. Promoting conservation, access, stewardship and education, Black Diamond has wrestled in the public arena for conservation policies governing public lands, particularly those in Utah.
Metcalf founded Black Diamond in 1989 after running Chouinard Equipment for Patagonia and buying that branch of the business from founder Yvon Chouinard. Black Diamond went public in 2010. In addition to making innovative products, the company champions access, stewardship, education and conservation. It seeks to celebrate those who commit time to life-defining activities of climbing, mountaineering and backcountry skiing.
WyoFile caught up with Metcalf, 60, at the SHIFT festival in Jackson last week after he had addressed the 50th anniversary gathering of NOLS alumni in Lander.
- What were your early childhood experiences that got you engaged in, then committed to outdoor recreation?
Exploring empty lots on the border of Queens and Nassau and the greenbelts along thruways and freeways. Because of that I joined Boy Scouts and Boy Scouts took me off of Long Island to the Catskills where I learned real camping, real backpacking and rock climbing and skiing.
- When you were growing up, what books inspired your dreams and adventures?
One was “On the Loose” by Terry and Renny Russell, “The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn” and, kind of bizarrely, “The Whole Earth Catalog” by Stewart Brand. [Among climbing literature?] Maybe Tom Patey’s “One Man’s Mountain.”
- As a youthful climber, you hung around with a clan of renegades and rebels. How did you come to marry business with outdoor recreation and where did you get your business skills?
Certainly I had incredible mentors in Yvon Chouinard and Kris McDivitt [former CEO of Patagonia] and the small band of non-business business people running Patagonia. I spent a couple of hours [with them] every day as they made decisions. From [Kris] … and from Yvon … I learned how to run Chouinard Equipment. What I had to learn was customer service, marketing, sales, product development and manufacturing and how that all played together.
The way I was raised, [as a kid] with my lawn business, I was a sales entrepreneur at a very low level. In starting Black Diamond I really had the benefit of a cadre of climbing friends, who had been down a myriad of legal, financial, business roads who I could call upon for unlimited advice and counsel. That’s the beauty of relationships you have in climbing.
- What was a key Black Diamond business strategy?
To make a difference. To champion the issues of great importance.
[Not to make the best carabiner?]
No, it was far bigger than that. When we started, there was no Access Fund no Winter Wildlands. There was no organization out there trying to galvanize, trying to advocate for the off-piste [backcountry skiing] and climbing community.
- Give us an example of a mistake Black Diamond made.
The decision to expand our ski business into big-mountain skiing. We launched with real innovation. Initially it was a great success.
We misjudged what we were doing. Big-mountain skiing was the only growth area [in the sport.] The big guys, they were not going to let us have this turn for ourselves. They could retool, leverage their manufacturing, copy what we did and crush us in that category.
- Where have you done most of your outdoor recreation?
The last 25 years has been in Utah and Wyoming from Canyonlands to Indian Creek up to the Tetons. Probably number-one is national forests. The Wasatch is where I recreate more than any place. Of national parks — Canyonlands. And BLM land in Southern Utah. All the climbing I do in southern Utah is on BLM land.
- What’s at stake with public lands and the new sagebrush mutiny?
I think what’s at stake is one of America’s best ideas as a country. The public lands you and I get to recreate on, camp at, picnic at, reap the benefits of — clean water, clean air, stare at the magnificence of flowers and fauna. This is America’s best idea. We derive immense satisfaction as a society and individuals from that, and that’s at risk. I thought it was a right, but I realize it’s a privilege that could be taken away from us.
It is the competitive advantage Western towns next to public lands have over cities. People who make up the booming part of the economy really have a penchant for outdoor recreation, which is done almost exclusively on public lands.
- Can’t people dismiss this sagebrush mutiny as an improbable effort by the states to take over federal lands? Why are people worried about it?
Because nearly every new idea that becomes mainstream starts at one of the radical fringes. This wacky, right-wing, absurd idea has already become a component of the Republican public policy agenda for 2016.
- Why did Black Diamond and you risk business and profit by getting into public policy debates? Weren’t you afraid some interest group might boycott Black Diamond in retaliation for its activism?
Yes, it was clear some groups would retaliate and boycott us and make that a high-profile campaign. And they did. Conversely, the amount of kudos and accolades we have received and continue to receive for our sustained activity is exponentially greater than any short-term boycott by a group of people who really are not our customers, regardless of what they claim. The debates we are involved with represent an existential threat to the long-term vibrancy of our community and our business. So it’s incumbent on us to accept our responsibility and advocate for these issues.
- What happens after Black-Diamond life?
Climbing, more climbing, more high-energy time in the mountains, canyons and crags while I still have my health and vibrancy. More time and energy and intellectual bandwith fighting for the issues of great importance — toward the preservation of wild places and their stewardship. These wild places, magnificent public lands are this country’s greatest assets, our Mona Lisas, our Sistine Chapels. If we are to lose these, we will lose a meaningful part of our humanity and what makes us a people.