When in Doubt, Go Higher

Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond, on climbing, keeping your composure, and the nature of pain

Sep 18, 2013
Outside Magazine
peter metcalf ceo black diamond advice business model history black diamond skis

Metcalf at Black Diamond headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah.    Photo: Michael Friberg

In 1989, Peter Metcalf, a former climbing bum and elite alpinist, led the charge to buy out Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard’s struggling climbing-equipment company. He renamed it Black Diamond and has transformed it into one of the fastest-growing outdoor-gear and apparel makers in the world, a $205-million-a-year conglomerate that includes four brands and shows no signs of slowing down. Here are some things the 58-year-old learned along the way.

One thing I picked up from Chouinard is that you have to keep moving, keep evolving. Not look at what is and ask why but envision what’s not and ask why not? You have to be willing to blow up what you have in order to get to the future.

I am totally amped up and enthused about the state of global climbing. There’s a new generation of climbers out there who inspire me to no end. I think, Holy shit, those guys have got big nuts.

You are not doing the right thing for your customers, employees, or shareholders if you don’t consider the environment in which they recreate. If you can’t run your business in a way that makes a positive difference in society, you aren’t fulfilling a big part of your obligation.

Everything goes back to climbing and mountaineering. I’m still very passionate about climbing but not nearly as bold. When you’re 58, and you have less than half your life in front of you, you’re much less willing to put it on the line for a climb. Youthfulness can be bliss.

For a short while, I held the unofficial pull-up world record. At the time, the record was something like 140. This was in 1982 or ’83. I did 150 or 160. Then, a week or two later, I was getting ready to do an interview with the local paper, and I found out that the record had gone up to 200. A Chinese gymnast who weighed like 100 pounds did it.

One quote I have above my desk, ripped out of a magazine, says, “Pain is temporary. Suck is forever.”

When the Great Recession hit in 2008, we didn’t freak out, unlike a lot of companies. In climbing, the worst thing you can do when you get in a tough situation is freak out, because you will fall and you will kill yourself. The thing to do is regain your composure and think things through.

I’m not looking for mercy or sympathy, but I average at least six and a half workdays, 70 hours a week. It’s really Herculean still.

I’m a much nicer guy and at peace with myself when I get out and get my heart rate up and my muscles moving.

We recently lost a good design guy to Apple. The headhunter told him that Black Diamond was one
of the companies that Apple admired, that they have a whole collection of our gear and they think it’s incredibly well engineered. I was really touched by that.

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