In 1989, Peter Metcalf convinced a few fellow employees to scrape together enough cash to buy bankrupt Chouinard Equipment assets from Yvon Chouinard and start Black Diamond Equipment. He had no designs on becoming a global force in the outdoor industry, he just knew he was committed to make better, safer climbing gear.
“It was sort of a Don Quixote vision,” Metcalf says. “My goal was not about creating a big company. I remember thinking ‘We just need to lead. We need to innovate. We need to be the heart and soul of the community.’ ”
Nearly a quarter century later, the 58-year-old former climbing bum and elite alpinist is the CEO of Black Diamond Equipment, Inc, one of the most innovative and fastest-growing outdoor gear and apparel makers. The operation is now a $205 million global corporation that encompasses four brands—Black Diamond Equipment, POC Sports, Gregory Packs, and Pieps Austria—with headquarters in Salt Lake City, Utah, and offices in Reinach, Switzerland, and Zhuahi, China.
Metcalf’s success may be a little quixotic, but he’s also drawn from his own deep well of climbing experience, which has led to a practical, hands-on approach to producing a steady stream of innovative products. As a teen, Metcalf drove nonstop from New York to Alaska to successfully notch the first ascent of the technically challenging Southwest Ridge of 15,300-foot Mount Fairweather, a peak notorious for its remote location and horrible weather. In 1980 Metcalf, Pete Athans, and Glenn Randall climbed the central buttress of the south face of Alaska’s 14,573-foot Mount Hunter in 13 days, 132 days fewer than it took John Waterman, the only other person to summit, in 1978. Despite the quick ascent—the team climbed up to 18 hours a day—it nearly cost them their lives.
“Those situations in life, where you have to dig far deeper than you ever thought possible and those euphoric experiences that can follow, give you a much higher level of awareness of who you are and what you’re doing,” says Metcalf. They also gave him the skill to, as he says, “accept seemingly overwhelming obstacles by breaking them down into a set of non-overwhelming components."
That skill is essential at Black Diamond, where an office full of elite mountain athletes who double as designers and engineers, plus sponsored athletes like Alex Honnold, Tommy Caldwell, Will Gadd, and Angel Collinson, beat up prototype ski and climbing gear in their daily Wasatch outings to perfect every product before it reaches the consumer.
The company’s list of pioneering and, in some cases, life-saving products includes the first-ever plastic telemark ski boots; the HotWire carabiner, which resembles a large paper clip and is now an industry standard; and the AvaLung, a backpack with respiratory tubes that allows avalanche victims to redirect exhaled oxygen away from their faces, preventing suffocation and prolonging the amount of time someone can survive when buried in avalanche debris. In September 2013, Black Diamond is executing its largest launch in history with an apparel line that focuses on a curated collection of soft shells and technical insulation for backcountry skiing and alpinism. And, in October, they unveiled the Jet Force, an innovative avalanche airbag-equipped backpack that runs on a motor and, unlike other such bags, can be deployed multiple times and, because it doesn't use compressed air, is much more travel-friendly. The company hopes to make the pack available for Fall 2014.
But gear and apparel are only part of Metcalf’s formula. “Great product is but one component of what you do for the community,” says Metcalf. “The role of business is far greater than to make a buck or sell something.”
In 2003, Metcalf took a tremendous professional risk when he penned a strongly-worded op-ed piece in the Salt Lake Tribune, accusing then-Governor Michael Leavitt of orchestrating a back-door deal that would strip six million acres of federal lands of its wilderness protection. In the letter, he threatened to move the Outdoor Retailer show, which has an estimated annual economic impact of more than $40 million, out of Utah. Metcalf got results: Leavitt backed down. The seminal move also galvanized the outdoor recreation industry into a political force and became the catalyst for the “Recreation Economy Report,” a tool the industry uses in Washington, D.C., to advocate and lobby for providing access to public lands.
Metcalf’s outspoken leadership has most recently resulted in Congress stalling on the controversial SkiLink gondola between The Canyons and Solitude Ski Resorts, which would have required selling Forest Service land and, thus, removed federal-approval requirements. He was also instrumental in Utah governor Gary Herbert’s recent decision to hire a Director of Outdoor Recreation, a state ombudsmen who will, the outdoor industry hopes, advocate for human-powered recreation.
“In our public lands we have a finite pie,” says Metcalf. “It’s already been cut and it’s not going to grow. You can’t keep whittling away at pristine, high-quality public lands and expect to have a clean watershed and a kind of community that people want to come to.”
Metcalf’s basic MO on conservation issues is to “get people engaged.” It seems to aptly sum up his overall life philosophy as well.