Rose Marcario was riding high at the outdoor apparel manufacturer. Her sudden departure was another abrupt turn for perhaps America’s most unconventional company.
By David Gelles
- Feb. 18, 2021
Patagonia has never been a typical company. Founded by a mercurial mountain climber named Yvon Chouinard, the privately held outdoor apparel and equipment maker has blazed its own trail for nearly 50 years. It was early to embrace organic materials, has a long history of political activism and once ran an ad telling people not to buy its products.
Still, when Rose Marcario, Patagonia’s chief executive, abruptly stepped down in June, it came as a surprise. Patagonia, like most companies, was reeling from the coronavirus pandemic. It was one of the first major retailers to close all of its stores, and it furloughed many of its employees.
Ms. Marcario, a highly regarded leader inside and outside the company, seemed well positioned to lead Patagonia through the crisis. During seven years as C.E.O., she had delivered strong sales growth, elevated the company’s profile and leaned into political activism, culminating in a lawsuit against President Donald J. Trump over his decision to shrink the size of two national monuments in Utah. And then, in a matter of days, she was gone.
Ms. Marcario’s departure was effective almost immediately, and no permanent successor was named at the time. It wasn’t clear whether something was amiss inside a company with a reputation for impeccable ethics, or if this was just another instance of Patagonia, which is still controlled by the Chouinard family, marching to the beat of its own drum.
Ms. Marcario, Patagonia and several people close to the company all say the same thing: The decision was mutual, and there is no scandal. Patagonia appointed a new chief executive, Ryan Gellert, in September; has reopened some stores; and leaned in to the get-out-the-vote effort in November.
Now, speaking from her home in British Columbia, Ms. Marcario is reflecting on her time at Patagonia and charting a new course forward. She believes that Patagonia is in good hands, but that democracy is in trouble. And she has joined the boards of two private companies: Meati, which makes plant-based meat, and Rivian, which makes electric cars.
It is all in keeping with Ms. Marcario’s ethos, a mix of serious business chops and ambitious idealism. Before joining Patagonia, she worked at a financial advisory firm and as chief financial officer of a software company. At the same time, she has practiced Buddhism, spent weeks meditating alone in India and served on the board of Naropa University, which is steeped in Buddhist thinking.
How are you doing?
My wife and I have been stuck inside because of Covid, so we’re watching all these movies that we never watched in our life. And what struck me about them is that they all have these apocalyptic visions of our future. We have to dream a different dream. We have to have an aspirational vision of the future. I believe that that’s possible.
You left Patagonia abruptly last year. What happened?
I had been having a conversation with the Chouinards in 2019 about transitioning out because, honestly, I felt like I had accomplished everything that I wanted to accomplish as a leader. I felt like I had learned everything that I wanted to from Yvon. A lot of C.E.O.s stay a little too long at the fair. I think it’s good for companies to have new leadership.
When the company made the announcement, it was essentially effective immediately, and there was no immediate successor named. That’s pretty unconventional corporate governance.
Yvon doesn’t do anything in a conventional manner. He’s not going to follow the optics of public companies. We had just gotten through the hump of everything that was going on with Covid. The business declined. We were going through a process of really looking at what the future would look like. And the reality is it made more sense to have the new leadership lead, and take forward that process. That was a mutual decision. At some point, the student has to leave the master.
When you left, did you consider other C.E.O. jobs?
Some amazing C.E.O. opportunities came to me, but they were in retail brands and other companies that I felt like were more contributing to our environmental problems and not solving them. When I think of what I want to devote myself to in the next decade, it comes to answering this question: How do we use business as a force for good, instead of evil and greed? To create jobs, to give people satisfaction that they’re helping the world, and not hurting it?
The reality is I feel like I’m just entering a different stage in my life. In the Vedic system, there are four stages of human life. The first is the student, the second is the householder and the third is retirement. The Sanskrit word for the third is actually vanaprastha,which means going into the forest. The idea is that during this stage of your life, you hand over your day-to-day responsibilities to the next generation and become an adviser and a teacher. I’m literally living in a rainforest, so it’s more than a metaphor in my case.
With the benefit of hindsight, is there anything you would have done differently at Patagonia during the early months of the pandemic?
I don’t feel like I would’ve done anything differently. We were dealing with something that was totally unknown. And I feel like we dealt with it the best way we possibly could. I think Covid taught the world we’re kind of all interconnected. Our businesses have to be resilient. Our supply chains have to be flexible and innovative and adaptable.
But the company was in an incredibly positive position to deal with it. We had no debt and an incredible balance sheet and a great reputation. We have a really strong digital business. So unlike retailers that are more wholesale driven, Patagonia was really prepared.
At this stage in your career, how do you think about the fundamental tension between consumerism and preserving the environment, especially as you join the board of an automotive company?
Everybody who’s in business understands that business does do environmental harm. The problem is when businesses don’t take responsibility for that harm that they do, and when they’re not curious about how to curb that harm. I think we’re seeing that change.
What citizens need is transparency to what those harms are, and innovation to try and curb the effect of those harms. In the case of Rivian and Meati, these are companies that are built from first principles. Both of these companies are taking on some of the biggest issues that our planet faces. They’re starting with a blank sheet of paper and saying: “How do I create nutritious protein forever at an affordable price? How do I tackle carbon neutrality throughout our transportation ecosystem?”
These are really big, intractable problems that our society faces. You can’t just say, “We’re not going to do anything, because everything we do does harm.” That’s like saying we’re never going to innovate, we’re never going to try. We have to act with a sense of urgency. Time is running out. And I still think that business can be the greatest agent for positive change in the world.
Patagonia already had a history of political activism, and that continued during your time as C.E.O. What’s the best way for companies to take on contentious social issues?
Investors and companies trying to influence government policy is nothing new. But it’s becoming more and more important for companies to actually stand for something, and to tell their customers what they stand for. Customers are voting with their dollars now, and many of them are voting for a better world. Dick’s Sporting Goods said it wasn’t going to sell automatic rifles anymore. CVS said, “If we’re a health company, we can’t sell cigarettes anymore.” Patagonia openly endorsed some senatorial candidates that we thought would protect public lands. We sued the president. Activism gives me hope. As long as it stays nonviolent, it helps to move things forward. It’s a sign of a healthy society, and it holds power to account.
Is there a risk of sort of creating a world of red and blue companies?
Conservation is a bipartisan issue. People generally want to protect and defend wild places. People will agree that having clean air and water is a good thing. I feel like you should let your views be known and let the customer make the choice.
How does your background in Buddhism affect your professional work?
It had everything to do with why I chose to stop what I was doing earlier in my career and find a company like Patagonia. I just couldn’t live with myself doing what was effectively financial transactions that weren’t really helping the world. Not to get too technical about Buddhism, but in the eightfold path to enlightenment, livelihood is in there. We’re not here to chase material wealth. We’re here to learn how to develop a compassionate heart and become better people, and that in turn makes the world better.
There’s that expression in Buddhism about a happy warrior. It doesn’t mean you let people walk all over you. Instead, you cultivate a fearless heart, you’re fierce and you call out wrongdoing. People do their best work when they’re joyful. They don’t do their best work when they’re intimidated or scared or shamed.
How do you find that balance between pessimism over the state of the world and the optimism needed to run a business?
You have to have a realistic view of what’s going on. In order to have a functioning society, there has to be some understanding of objective truth. I worry we’ve lost that. And I would say right now we don’t have a functioning society, partly because of Twitter and Facebook. They have no commitment to the objective truth, and no strategy on how to handle what they unleashed. They’re spineless in my view. They might be rich, but they’re not good leaders. Truth has to be defended, just like democracy.