Eastern Mountain Sports CEO shares advice on leadership, future of industry at OIA talk

EMS CEO Will Manzer kicked off the Outdoor Industry Association's Business of Outdoor Recreation Lecture Series in Boulder, Colo., with leadership advice for the next generation. SNEWS was on hand to hear how Manzer twice turned around the outdoor retail chain and brand.
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For Will Manzer, CEO of outdoor retailer and brand Eastern Mountain Sports, “there’s nothing about business that should be a democracy.”

From the start of his leadership in 2004 at Peterborough, N.H.-based EMS, which now has 67 stores and 1,300 employees, Manzer (photo, right) claims his success through turbulent corporate and economic times involves creating a company aligned with a simple vision and clear path toward success, up a “Stairway to Heaven.”

The Led Zeppelin song influences his leadership strategy as much as books by Michael Porter of Harvard Business School, Manzer told an audience of outdoor business people and MBA students at the University of Colorado Leeds School of Business in Boulder, Colo., on Oct. 20, 2011. The talk was the first in the Outdoor Industry Association’s Business of Outdoor Recreation Lecture Series.

“Business is also not an autocracy or a dictatorship,” he added. There needs to be an empowerment of leadership among employees aligned within the leading vision for the company, he said. But there are rules. “We call it strategy on the page,” Manzer said. “If you can’t show someone the stairway, the clear path to success, then it’s not a strategy.”

When Manzer was appointed CEO of EMS by its former ownership in 2004, he said he quickly let them know that their vision for the company didn’t match his. Back then, EMS was moving more toward the higher profit margin business of apparel, opening stores in malls and slowly eroding its outdoor customer, Manzer said.

“The world didn’t need another Eddie Bauer,” he said. Nor could EMS compete with REI, which was growing with larger stores, particularly in the West. Manzer’s vision was to refocus EMS back toward its outdoor roots, pull back its national store footprint to the Northeast and place the highest importance on knowledgeable employees and genuine customer service. Unable to see eye-to-eye with the people who had just hired him, Manzer partnered with private equity firm J.H. Whitney & Co., and secured additional financing to lead a successful management buyout of EMS.

Flash forward to 2008 when the economic recession began to erupt and, as Manzer put it, “winter didn’t show up” in the Northeast, the company was struggling again. There was plenty of talk in the industry that EMS wasn’t going to make it, Manzer said.

In those instances, “you are either quick or dead,” he said. “We were quick, but the vision didn’t change.” Manzer said EMS hired a cost-savings consultant to find ways to reduce costs but retain focus on customer service. And from his leadership position he instilled the mantra of outdoor survival as a metaphor for the brand’s survival through tough times. Support from the outdoor community and vendors like Black Diamond was also crucial, he said.

The result: “2009 was the most profitable year in the company’s history,” Manzer said.

OIA president Frank Hugelmeyer conducted the talk with Manzer, and asked the EMS CEO, who is also the current OIA chairman, why he thought the outdoor industry had been able to ride out the recession better than other sectors of the economy.

“I know the staycation thing is overplayed, but that’s really what we we’re hearing from our customers,” Manzer said. “We sell fresh air, we sell an escape.” Manzer relayed the story of customer who came into EMS with his two sons, buying quite a bit of outdoor gear in one fell swoop. The customer told Manzer that he didn’t want his once-a-year outdoor vacations to be just a memory anymore. He wanted that active outdoor experience to be his family’s lifestyle on most weekends. And it was more affordable to buy all the gear and go someplace local, than to travel, pay for lodging and rent all the equipment every year.

But the outdoor industry can’t rely on that sentiment forever, Manzer said, pointing out data that shows a leveling off of outdoor participation by younger generations. Part of that is diminishing venues for outdoor activities, which is why conservation efforts for outdoor recreation areas are so key, he said. The outdoors must also find ways to compete with electronics for kids’ time, he added.

Manzer told the audience that volunteerism is the best way they can help. “Your time is the price,” he said. “Getting kids outside is absolutely critical. People can stop trying to solve the world’s problems in one big bite. Get one kid outside.”

Sticking to the younger generations, Hugelmeyer asked Manzer’s opinion of the so-called Millennial Generation – the children of the baby boomers and 25 million more strong than their parents, he said.

“A lot is being said about the millennials,” Manzer replied. "They’ve gone through a gut check in this recession and many are unemployed, but I think that’s a healthy gut check. And they already come in with a strong sense of social responsibility – what’s good for the community is good for the company.”

As customers, some outdoor retailers may find the generation as a tough one to pinpoint, Manzer said. “It’s no longer about just doing a backpack trip in the wilderness … it’s an active lifestyle … it’s done in a day,” and there’s also a fitness component he said.

“The concept of the outdoors with millennials is totally without borders.”

-- David Clucas

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