“Fixer” John Walbrecht makes a bold move to take on new challenges.
JUST SIX MONTHS AFTER SIGNING ON AS PRESIDENT of Mountain Hardwear, John Walbrecht is making another big move to a company that has seen its share of struggles recently: Black Diamond.
Walbrecht, who announced his resignation yesterday, is known in the industry as a brand-builder, and a fixer. When he joined Mountain Hardwear in March, his goal was “to shake things up and bring the company back to its alpine roots,” he told SNEWS.
“It was a very hard decision to make, and I never expected to be leaving Mountain Hardwear after such a short period,” said Walbrecht. “But it’s been a fast and furious and exciting six months. We had a very aggressive strategy to reinvent the brand in 365 days and we made lots of progress down that path from changes in reps and products, to strategies, to a new [trade show] booth.”
"John is a dynamic leader and he assembled a great team," said Columbia Sportswear President Bryan Timm, who will pick up many of Walbrecht’s responsibilities as the company searches for a replacement. "We appreciate this chapter and I want to make sure that vision continues on with the Mountain Hardwear leadership team."
Walbrecht had made no secret that he wanted to move the company headquarters from the Bay Area to the Mountain West, where he felt he would find a larger pool of talent with outdoor experience. “It also wasn’t sustainable for me from a family perspective,” he said. “I was living in the Bay Area five days a week, my wife was in San Luis Obispo and my kids were in Salt Lake.”
Mountain Hardwear is committed to maintaining its corporate headquarters in Richmond, California.
“The outdoor industry is in flux today more than it has ever been,” Walbrecht said. “It’s in total chaos. The North Face is having lots of issues, Patagonia is not a traditional outdoor brand anymore, there are quite a few companies competing to be in that No. 3 spot and many of them have question marks about them because of management or brand strategy or product or distribution or whatever.”
Walbrecht says that it’s no news to the industry that he was brought into Mountain Hardwear because things were not going well. “Typically, my career has been such that I’m not brought into a brand when the season is 12-0,” he said, referring to his “fixer” roles at Spyder, Fjallraven, Mountain Hardwear, and now Black Diamond.
Walbrecht says the main challenge for Mountain Hardwear was getting back to its core ethos and that with Black Diamond, the struggle is different. “BD has a clear brand strategy, but the trouble has been aligning and executing at the level that retailers would like to see. Whenever you do your own manufacturing, there’s potential to not execute at the level you want. When you can’t fulfill the demand you’ve created, you go from hero to zero with the retailers. Black Diamond has the potential to become the perfect trifecta of all things to specialty retail. We just have to align the execution with the brand strategy.”
“Repetition creates reputation.”
When Peter Metcalf stepped down as president last December, Mark Ritchie was promoted from Chief Operating Officer to fill his shoes. Ritchie’s role was always intended as interim, Warren Kanders, executive chairman of Black Diamond, Inc., told SNEWS. “His job was to bring stability back to the brand, to get back to what they do well,” Walbrecht confirmed.
“John has substantial international experience running both small and large businesses," Warren Kanders, executive chairman of Black Diamond, Inc. told SNEWS. "He understands product development and evolution, sales and marketing, e-commerce and retail. He has endless energy and was the perfect fit at the right time for us." Kanders said that in 1989 the business was worth well under $10 million. "When I bought it [in 2010] it was $90 million, and now it’s at $160 million. We require a different type of person to bring it forward to the next level. John is that person and he’ll bring everyone forward with him.”
“Repetition creates reputation,” is one of Walbrecht’s favorite sayings. “If you continually meet or exceed expectation, your reputation grows. Repetition for Black Diamond is critical. We have to make the best [climbing gear]...My roll coming in as president is to align what they do well and find opportunities for the brand to provide the same innovation, technical precision and badass attitude to other categories. If you’re on a Black Diamond Portaledge and you’re using Black Diamond carabiners and protection and wearing a Black Diamond helmet, you’ve bought into it. But you can’t use a Black Diamond sleeping bag because it doesn’t exist.”
That won't be the case for very long.
Walbrecht wants to see Black Diamond become a brand that will “provide the climber with every single item he/she needs to go up, come down, and be on the mountain.”
Under his leadership, we can expect to see, specifically, Black Diamond sleeping bags and a brand new line of tents, perhaps as early as spring 2018.
Walbrecht says that climbers measure themselves by either being fastest or first. “And that is the ethos of Black Diamond brand,” he said. “In our world, fastest means lightest. So as we move into new product categories, either we’ll be the first to make something or we’ll make something that’s the lightest.”
“Great teams build great brands.”
Walbrecht believes that the most important resource at Black Diamond is the culture, which he likens to a cult. “My first goal is to become well-rooted in the nuances of the company culture and figure out how we can we use that to build a great team,” he said. He plans to partake in dawn patrol missions with employees this winter.
“From what I understand, it’s a badass club that’s about how hard you can push,” said Walbrecht. “I push myself in endurance sports as hard as I push the people in the organizations I work with, because I think it’s when people have their best moments. BD is successful because the people there are both the brand and the consumer. Great teams build great brands.”
Walbrecht says his biggest challenge is to usher Black Diamond into a growth period. “I want to transition the company into complementary products so that it becomes more than a climbing brand, without losing its core cult following," he said.
Walbrecht's first day at Black Diamond will be Oct. 3.