Outside the Cubicle: EMS CEO Will Manzer dedicates professional, private life to protecting environment

For Will Manzer, CEO of EMS, being an advocate for the outdoors is not only a job responsibility, it’s also a personal passion that began during his youth. SNEWS brings you an inside look at Manzer, outside the walls of EMS.
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To further a long-standing goal at SNEWS® to build our community through communication, in Feb. 2010 we launched a column called Outside the Cubicle to highlight the extraordinary, awe-inspiring or just plain wonderful things those in the industry do outside of the work environment (click here to read about its launch). The column gives us a chance to write about all the “oh wow” things we hear people did, do or have accomplished that have utterly nothing to do with work and otherwise go unnoticed. The stories may inspire or entertain, or make you laugh, look at somebody differently or prompt you to wonder how they found the time. From the warehouse and sales floor to executive lounge or road-warrior sales rep, we are looking for great stories and great people to profile. Is it you? Your boss? Your colleague? Tell us who should be next. Email us at OutsidetheCubicle@snewsnet.com or call 530-268-8295. To read other Outside the Cubicle stories, click here.

With oil washing ashore on the Gulf Coast, the ozone layer thinning and landfills filling, we’ve heard a growing chorus of people demanding greater safeguards for the environment. But some people have been sounding the call and working diligently behind the scenes all their lives to protect our planet.

People like Will Manzer, CEO of Eastern Mountain Sports, an outdoor specialty chain with store locations from Virginia to Maine. For more than three decades, Manzer has jumped into the fray of local and national politics to protect natural resources and secure land for recreation. His passion for being an outdoors advocate flourished in his college years, and it continues today as he represents EMS and the broader outdoor industry to press Congress for support of the outdoors. But he also devotes a great deal of energy -- and personal time -- to assist non-profit organizations in conserving wild lands in the Northeast.

Few CEOs dedicate the time that Manzer does to rally support for the outdoors. For him, outdoor advocacy not only plays a critical role in his vision for his company, but it is also his personal passion. He believes that if a business leader -- or any person for that matter -- wants to truly support the environment, he or she should take an active role in protecting oceans, rivers and forests.

“I’m a rabid conservationist,” Manzer told SNEWS®. “I believe that conservation is the ultimate test on being green -- protecting private and public lands available to us is as green as you can get.”

Mr. Manzer goes to Washington

In 2004, Manzer acquired Eastern Mountain Sports, and began the long, uphill challenge of turning around the struggling company. (In 2005, he told Fast Company, “EMS had become a Gap with climbing ropes.”) Though reviving a business is more than a full-time job, Manzer still found time to champion outdoor causes.

After taking the helm at EMS, he soon joined the board of the Outdoor Industry Association and became very involved with OIA’s government affairs work. For the past six years, he has participated regularly in the OIA Capitol Summit, visiting Washington D.C., each spring to meet with congressional leaders to press for support on public lands initiatives.

Peter Metcalf, CEO of Black Diamond, also participates in the Capitol Summit, and he said it’s not easy to run a company and still find time to lobby Congress. Metcalf said he has been impressed with the job Manzer has done in reviving EMS while also working diligently to promote OIA’s government affairs agenda. 

“There are many people who won’t engage in it because they think it’s ancillary to their primary mission, and I think that’s really flawed logic,” Metcalf told SNEWS. “At the end of the day, customers want to support the entities that really stand for something and walk the walk. Will understands that, and does it, even though it’s so difficult to carve out the time and do those things.”

In recent years, OIA has made politicians more aware of the outdoor industry’s legislative goals, and Manzer has been in the thick of that effort. In June 2008, he joined an OIA group that met with then-Sen. Barack Obama’s campaign advisors, and he said, “That was a big moment. There was a lot of talk about the Land and Water Conservation Fund and the obesity issue and how the outdoors could play a role in addressing it.”

As SNEWS reported in April 2010, Manzer joined a select group of outdoor industry leaders to participate in the White House Conference on America’s Great Outdoors, during which President Obama became the first president to address a delegation that included members of the outdoor industry.

Commenting on the conference, Manzer told SNEWS in April, “The initiative to integrate on an interagency level is unusual and precedence setting. (Obama) has challenged both public and private sectors at the state and private and the industry level to come up with solutions.”

Though Obama appears to support conservation and recreation initiatives more than the previous administration, Manzer said the outdoor industry still faces tough years ahead in pushing its agenda.

“It is a difficult time right now, and it’s a very divisive time to be involved in politics,” said Manzer. But he emphasized that he still has faith in politicians and the legislative process. “If you really want to get something done or have your voice heard, you can.”

An advocate is born

Manzer said his devotion to the outdoors really began in his youth. He grew up in Colorado Spring, Colo., and learned to ski at Alta (when lift tickets were $13). He also lived in California where he enjoyed surfing, and his family eventually moved to Arizona where he participated in a wide variety of other outdoor pursuits.

His transition from outdoor enthusiast to environmental advocate came during his years as a student at Arizona State University. He joined the group Arizonans for Safe Energy to fight an effort to build more nuclear power plants in the state. While construction of the plants went forward, Manzer said his opposition group made a difference. “I know we had an impact on the safety considerations, which were a major concern at the time,” he said.

Also during this time, Manzer was alarmed by the Central Arizona Project, which was enacted in 1968 to divert water from the Colorado River to irrigate agricultural land and provide municipal water for many Arizona communities, including Phoenix and Tucson. While Manzer was concerned with how the project could harm wildlife in the Colorado River Basin, he also saw that a number of other development projects in the state were impacting areas where he and his friends ran and trained doing multisport activities.

As he investigated ways to protect the areas he loved, he became aware of a program that he is most passionate about today: the Land and Water Conservation Fund. In 1964, Congress established the LWCF to provide money which federal, state and local governments could use to acquire land to not only protect it, but to also provide places for recreation. Manzer realized how Arizona could benefit from the LWCF, but not until many years later, when he acquired EMS, was he really in a position to lobby for the program, which is typically not funded, or woefully under-funded.

“It has only been funded once since its inception, and to me that is a massive injustice,” said Manzer.

Through his Capitol Summit trips to Washington, D.C., he has made it his mission to secure funding for LWCF, which he sees as a program that’s not only beneficial, but also logical.

“The reason I am so passionate about LWCF is that it’s very simple and fundamental. First, it’s paid for by oil and gas exploration leases, including drilling off shore. If you’re gonna go ahead and take crap out of the outdoors, you should find a way to give back.” Those words surely ring true today more than ever, considering the potential harm to wildlife from the recent Gulf oil spill.

Manzer said the LWCF not only protects forests and streams in the backcountry, but the program also allots money to create places for people to recreate close to home. Manzer said that a key to solving the childhood obesity problem is creating parks that can serve kids who don’t have access to more remote outdoor areas.

“The country spends $250 billion to $280 billion on obesity-related health issues, and we’re not going to fund venues for recreation close to home? It boggles the mind,” he said.

Closer to home

By drumming up support for the LWCF, Manzer is doing work that benefits the entire outdoor industry, but he also devotes his time to supporting non-profits that conserve land in the Northeast, where EMS is based.

He has been working with Sen. Jud Gregg, R-N.H., and Sen. Jeanne Shaheen, D-N.H., to get LWCF funds for the Androscoggin Headwaters Conservation Project, which would protect 31,300 acres in one of the largest undeveloped tracts of private forest in New England.

“I’ve spent a lot of time lobbying Senator Gregg personally,” said Manzer, “and he’s been a friend of LWCF.”

Manzer has also nominated the Adirondack Mountain Club (www.adk.org) and the Adirondack Council (www.adirondackcouncil.org) to receive Conservation Alliance grants to maintain and protect land in Adirondack Park, which covers 6 million acres in New York and is three times the size of Yellowstone National Park. The park is a mix of state-owned land and private land, and a number of groups including The Conservation Alliance and The Nature Conservancy are working to conserve hundreds of thousands of acres.

Deb Zack, development director of the Adirondack Mountain Club, which has 30,00 members and serves as the steward for Adirondack Park, said Manzer has been influential in raising awareness of Adirondack Park and other areas in the Eastern U.S. that don’t usually draw as much attention as places in the West.

“He understands the Eastern wilderness areas, and he’s looking out for some of the areas that might be overlooked,” said Zack. “He made us more visible through the Conservation Alliance.” She said Manzer has not only brought recognition to her group’s efforts, but he also shares the passion of its members. “That’s what Will Manzer is about -- maintaining open space available with public access, so people understand and appreciate wilderness,” she said.

Certainly, it makes sense for a man who owns outdoor specialty stores to champion recreation areas (his customers need places to play), but Manzer also understands the idea of saving wilderness for the good of the planet, said Diane Fish, director of fund development for the Adirondack Council, a non-profit environmental group that has been working since 1975 to protect Adirondack Park.

“The great thing about Will is he understands that there are some lands that are great for recreation, but there is also just the value of protecting the environment,” said Fish.

Anyone who has spent time with Manzer knows he is not shy in expressing his feelings about protecting the environment. Metcalf of Black Diamond recalled a meeting of the OIA board when the members discussed whether OIA should take a position on the proposed drilling in the Alaska National Wildlife Reserve.

“I was really pushing for OIA to take a position on it, but the silent majority was like, eh, this isn’t that important,” said Metcalf. “I made my pitch, there was a lot of silence, and then Will spoke up and said, ‘Damn right. This is what this industry is about, and we have to take a stand.’ There was no waffling in Will’s mind.”

Metcalf said that when he has become involved in public land issues in Utah, Manzer has offered to support him. “I know that every time I have come up on an issue related to wild places, he is right there,” said Metcalf. “He called me once about a Utah issue, and he said, ‘If you want to attack this one, I’m right there with you.’”

Core principles

For Manzer, there really is no clear distinction between his personal passions and his work as the leader of EMS. “EMS is an extension of what he stands for,” said Metcalf, who is just one of many people in the industry who have noted that Manzer has, indeed, turned EMS around and raised its stature. They say the company has a stronger footing because Manzer insists that EMS be a leader in supporting outdoor recreation in local communities.

“Our relationship with EMS has become stronger because Will has a vision for the outdoor retail industry that includes partnerships with organizations that do on-the-ground work,” said Zack of the Adirondack Mountain Club.

Fish of the Adirondack Council said her organization and EMS have also strengthened their ties, and Manzer has helped the Council connect with the public. “He’s opened up EMS to allow us to put brochures in their shopping bags so we could educate the public about opportunities to protect land in the Adirondack Park and give people contact information for policy makers,” she said. As a result, EMS is gradually becoming known as more than a chain of stores, but a real friend of those dedicated to the outdoors. 

“Customers are picking up on it,” said Metcalf, adding that EMS is gaining the loyalty of passionate enthusiasts and their concerns are important to the business. “Will has created in EMS, through his leadership and passion and absolute commitment to these issues, an entity where this is really core,” said Metcalf.

These days, the term “CEO” doesn’t always conjure up positive images. When you pile up the misdeeds of bank leaders, Wall Street execs and BP mis-managers, it’s almost startling to hear about a CEO such as Manzer, who is driven by principles rather than just the almighty dollar.

“Will is such a welcome to the leadership of the outdoor industry,” said Metcalf. “He is one of the strongest proponents for making sure that this industry stands for more than just a buck.”

--Marcus Woolf



Can we profile you or something you have done? Do you think your boss does amazing things outside of work? Do you know a colleague who deserves to be featured? We want to know! Your stories are important. Email us at OutsidetheCubicle@snewsnet.com or call 530-268-8295.

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