"Dreaming Big & Being Bold": How Doing Things Differently Helped REI Succeed

Girl hiking on a trail with a dog.

If you work in retail, most of the time you can only dream of a day off on Black Friday to spend with friends and family exploring the outdoors. But at REI, unique perks like this are par for the course -- just one of the ways that REI does things differently.

In fact, it's in its organizational DNA. As a consumer co-operative, or co-op, REI is owned by its members. Additionally, it gives back a large portion of its profits every year back to employees, members and nonprofits advancing causes like sustainability and access to public lands -- nearly 70 percent in 2016. And as a group of nature lovers and outdoor adventurers, it's not rare to find employees conducting meetings while hiking or kayaking.

So far, taking the path less traveled seems to be working out for REI. It has been in business for nearly 80 years, and been able to grow at a time when many retailers are struggling. Last year, it brought in $2.56 billion in revenue and most recently, the co-op was honored as a 2018 Best Place to Work through Glassdoor's Employees' Choice Awards (with a rating of 4.3).

Glassdoor's Emily Moore caught up with REI CEO and President, Jerry Stritzke, to talk about the outdoor company's big win, their commitment to corporate social responsibility and how taking risks has paid off in spades for the co-op. Here's what he had to say.

Glassdoor: One thing that's unique about REI is all of the perks you offer your staff -- profit-sharing, retirement plans, Yay Days, the #OptOutside movement... that's pretty rare for a retail company. How did you decide to develop perks like that?

Jerry Stritzke: A lot of it was born out of focusing on what our shared values are and what's most important to us. [With Yay Days in particular], the idea was that we wanted our employees to go out and spend that perfect day on the ski slope or at the beach with pay so they don't have to worry about missing work.

Glassdoor: Beyond Yay Days, how do you make REI a great place to work on a day-to-day basis?

Jerry Stritzke: We like to think of the retail staff as "inspired guides." We expect them to love what they do, know about the gear, be passionate about it. And then when people come into the store, find out what they're interested in and help them be successful at that. That idea of sharing and helping people live a life outside is really compelling.

Glassdoor: Another way that REI stands out is in its commitment to conscious capitalism. I'm curious to hear what that means to you at REI.

Jerry Stritzke: We talk a lot about the co-op being a different kind of company. And it really is, from the day that it was founded in 1938 by a group of 23 mountaineer friends. Being a part of something that is important, that you believe in, that represents your values and that is literally a different sort of company is a real game-changer.

There are a hundred examples of where we live our values as a company, whether it's stepping up for our own when there's a hurricane in Houston, or advocating for public lands. We had an amazing campaign this spring called Force of Nature to talk about and celebrate women in the outdoors. We live our values in a way that I think becomes a matter of pride for our staff.

Glassdoor: And do you view your commitment to employee experience as an extension of that conscious capitalism?

Jerry Stritzke: Yes, it's an all-encompassing idea. You could call it a quadruple-bottom line, this idea of: "What role do we play in our community? What role do we play with our employees? What role do we play with our members? And are we good citizens?" The relationship with our employees is one of the best ways to build relationships with our members, so we hold ourselves accountable to living up to those values.

Glassdoor: How exactly would you describe your company culture?

Jerry Stritzke: We believe a life lived outside is a life well-lived, and we have a shared passion around that. It underpins everything we do -- here's just one example. I'll go to southern California for meetings with stores, and we'll put 15 or 20 people in kayaks and we'll paddle out on the ocean, get in a circle and have a chat. I recently visited another store and we rode mountain bikes together for a couple hours. Then we had 200 employees in Joshua Tree this summer for experiential training. We spent three days and two nights there using gear that we sell alongside experts from the companies that produce it. We were camping in tents and eating meals around a campfire. We got up in the morning to do classes and evaluate next year's gear, then we spent all afternoon climbing, running and hiking. We do these paid experiential training programs regularly so that our retail staff can take that knowledge back and use it in their daily jobs.

Glassdoor: What's a challenging moment REI has faced, and how has the team rallied together to overcome it?

Jerry Stritzke: A lot of retailers that have been around for a long time are struggling. You're not immune from looking around and seeing that environment, so it's about creating a dialogue with your staff to see what's working and what's not. As we saw some store traffic soften a little bit earlier this year, we started challenging our teams with questions like, "How do we operate more effectively and efficiently?" Different regions took on efficiency projects and shared their thoughts about how to do more effective truck-unloads or stocking, and we just saw incredible work from the ground up. Our teams galvanized our momentum.

Glassdoor: What are a few things you want informed candidates to know before they apply to REI?

Jerry Stritzke: As important as what they know, is who they are. For us, that means: Do they have a love for the outdoors? Do they care about introducing other people to it? And do they want to be a part of something bigger than themselves and make a difference? When we find those kinds of people, they immediately become part of a community that REI represents.

On a side note, in 2015, when we announced we were going to be closed on Black Friday for #OptOutside, we saw the number of applications double. I think that example of living our values, being authentic and making big decisions draws people in. So I feel like who we are attracts, almost by definition, the kind of people that are passionate about what we do.

Glassdoor: Let's talk a little more about #OptOutside . When you first announced it, I'm sure there were plenty of people outside of the company who thought it was crazy. How did you respond to that?

Jerry Stritzke: It was something we were scared to death about, or at least I was -- I thought that I was going to be [called] the dumbest CEO in retail. Interestingly enough, we first announced it to our own store managers. We had a leadership conference in Bend, Oregon with 148 store managers about a month before we went public with it, and I was really curious to see how they would react. When we announced it, it just became deathly quiet and people stood up and started applauding. Probably half the room was in tears.

I knew then, that regardless of what other people would say, that it was the right thing to do for our people. And to be honest, I'm proud of it. [This past Black Friday], my associates were outside playing with their families. And I look at the behavior of the companies that are still open on Thanksgiving and I'm distressed by it.

Glassdoor: Usually the experience for corporate versus retail employees is very different, but it seems that REI retail employees still feel really connected to your culture. Would you agree?

Jerry Stritzke: We look at our retail community with an enormous amount of admiration -- they're the group that really touches our membership every day, and they're all phenomenally authentic. If we want to have a conversation about what doing better looks like, that's where we start. So I would almost say we have a bit of an upside-down culture. We just recognize the incredible value that our retail staff brings to the co-op.

Glassdoor: What's your number one piece of career advice for everyone reading this?

Jerry Stritzke: I've worked at a lot of amazing companies, but REI is the first time I've been able to take my vocation and marry it to my passion. And I can't tell you how rewarding that is. To have the opportunity to work with a group of people that share that passion is really inspiring as well -- it just takes your commitment and the value you get from work to a completely different place. So I guess my one piece of career advice would be, "Know what your passion is and find a vocation that lets you leverage the two together." It's so profoundly rewarding.

Glassdoor: Last question -- is there anything we didn't quite get to that you'd like to add?

Jerry Stritzke: I think the fact that we've had strong scores [on Glassdoor] and a group of people who cared enough to go and write something positive is a little humbling and mind-boggling. I'm appreciative of those people, and what REI has meant and continues to mean to them.

The other thing I would share is that one thing that's different about REI is we really look at a long-term picture. The co-op's been around for close to 80 years, and we all want to see it be here for another 80 years. It means so much to us and our loved ones to be a part of advocating and doing good for the outdoors. We talk a lot about this idea of dreaming big, being bold and being really deliberate about what we want to accomplish, and we've got the kind of organization where that behavior is encouraged. It's a great place to work.

This transcript has been edited for clarity and concision.This article originally appeared on Glassdoor.com.

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