At 41, Jon Hoerauf is young to be an executive at a major international brand. But he got into the industry young, while he was in college. He later became the global product director of The North Face’s Summit Series. There were only a few brands he’d consider leaving TNF for, he says, and Arc’teryx was at the top of the list. They lured him away in 2012, then promoted him to general manager this spring.He lives on a small island off the coast of Vancouver, and recently gave his first interview as GM on his way to work—via ferry.
1. How did you get into the outdoor industry, after aiming for medical school in college?
I went to university in Michigan, and I thought I wanted to go into medicine. I was pretty interested in human physiology. About halfway through my university career, I started working for a little store called Playmakers. It’s a running specialty shop that also sells outdoor gear. There, I really got into the gear, apparel and footwear you need to have a great outdoor experience. I could take my interest in human physiology and apply that, as well. When I finished up my university career, I had a choice to make—did I want to go to medical school, or into the outdoor industry? I accepted an assistant buyer’s position at Playmakers and never looked back.
2. What do you like best about working for Arc’teryx?
Our consumer loyalty is super-high. We’re always trying to do things better, and differently. We’re based in beautiful Vancouver, with the coastal mountains in our backyard, and the ocean at our feet. What’s great is that a designer can come up with an idea for a jacket or a backpack and take a couple of days to make a production-quality sample, and then they can go test it locally and push it to the extreme. They can come back the next day and make tweaks, then go back out. In the span of five days in the workweek, you can have several iterations of a product.
Our designers also collaborate with production engineers in one of our factories, which is about 20 minutes down the road. It’s one thing to build a prototype and tweak it and refine it, and it’s another thing to figure out how to build 3,000 of them.
3. Retailers are concerned that there’s too much stuff out there, now that several chains have declared bankruptcy and closed stores. What’s your take on the overload of product?
There are a lot of brands that are making very similar types of gear, and there’s not much difference between those products and brands. When brands try to follow each other and build similar product using similar technologies and similar price points, you get what I call “the sea of sameness.” I think we’re at a point right now where there’s a lot of that same product staring the consumer in the face. When brands have many different types of products like we do, you’re able to weather the storm. Brands that don’t have that sharp difference are affected more.
4. Why launch into footwear?
We thought we could build a better mousetrap. We took some of what we learned from apparel and equipment, and made that into a footwear solution. We’re young at footwear, but we’re already building every other part of the kit for the consumer to get outside. As for expanding into more products: You talk about all the product that’s out there, and I don’t ever want ours to become just a bunch of stuff. The answer to “Why are you making that?” has to be clear, and we have to make sure we continue to answer it.
5. Speaking of young, you’re a baby compared to others in the industry with your job. What’s it like to be a 41-year-old GM?
I’ve actually never gotten that question. I think any leader needs to have a mind-set where they surround themselves with really smart and capable people. It doesn’t matter if you’re 25 or 55—you need to be confident in your own abilities and know where your blind spots are. I think some leaders have it, and some don’t. I don’t have an issue with taking cues from someone who’s been in the industry for 40 years, or someone who’s been in the industry for 10. It’s having an open mind-set, more so than it is age or experience.