ONE OF THE LAST THINGS Yvon Chouinard told me before we left," says Peter Metcalf, the CEO of Black Diamond Equipment Ltd., raising his voice over the factory's din, "was 'Keep it small, keep it simple, and sell it out of the back of your car. That way, the law can't get ya.' "
Metcalf, 53, is showing me around BD's 85,000-square-foot manufacturing center and office complex, retrofitted into a former Bavarian-style shopping mall in east Salt Lake City. The plant cranks out about a fifth of the company's 4,500 climbing and skiing products (the rest are made in Asia and Europe), and our tour is accompanied by a concerto of buzzes, clanks, and a thrumming bass note. Equipment in various stages of completion is strewn everywhere, glinting under the fluorescents ice axes, skis, bindings, backpacks, telescoping poles, headlamps. So this is where gear junkies go when they die, I think, as Metcalf points out a stamping press, a laser cutter, and a drop-bottom furnace that was salvaged from a Boeing plant in Washington State.
He pauses in front of a huge vat in which hundreds of oval carabiners churn like metallic cake batter.
"Obviously," Metcalf says, "we didn't stay very small."
I've come to Salt Lake to find out how, exactly, Black Diamond has morphed from Patagonia founder Chouinard's one-man blacksmithing operation into what's arguably the most successful mountain-sports-equipment maker on the planet: a $90-million-a-year, 400-employee brand with offices on three continents. More curious is how BD, an improbable congregation of diehards and iconoclasts, has built such a formidable empire on an arcane assortment of hard goods. If you believe the creation myth, Metcalf didn't take a bunch of climbing bums and make them conform to business; he took a business and made it conform to climbing.
"They do it all wrong," says Jonathan Blum, a business analyst who's written about the company. "They make decisions by committee. They don't optimize short-term profit. They centralize risk by designing, producing, and distributing their own products. And they specialize in a very strange niche with small margins and limited appeal."
Black Diamond's unorthodox culture has been called a "rope team," a "wolf pack," and a "hippie commune" all fair appraisals and all in accordance with Metcalf's grand plan. During his late teens and early twenties, he spent most of his time clawing up outrageously difficult routes in the Alps and Alaska, sleeping in cars and, at times, inside storm drains. When he relaunched Chouinard Equipment as Black Diamond in 1989, he surrounded himself with employees who'd also lived the dirtbag dream. Today, his staff includes so many unheralded but freakishly accomplished outdoor athletes that the Salt Lake headquarters is often referred to as the Mutant Factory.