9 December 2015

Obituary for an entrepreneur


For a sense of how negatively capitalism is regarded in the popular culture, consider the eulogizing for Doug Tomkins, 72, who died following a kayaking accident in Chile.

“We are all deeply saddened at the news of Doug’s passing. Doug was a passionate advocate for the environment, and his legacy of conservation will help ensure that there are outdoor spaces to be explored for generations to come,” read a statement from The North Face, which was founded but no longer owned by Tomkins.

“Remembering Doug Tompkins, the Founder of North Face and Esprit Who Chucked It All to Save the Earth,” read the Bloomberg headline.

In that same piece there’s a quote from Tompkins’ friend Tom Brokaw.

Doug was the complete man—original thinker, world-class climber and kayaker, pilot, hugely successful businessman, designer, ecological visionary, and ornery S.O.B.,” his friend Tom Brokaw said. The former NBC News anchor recalls that Tompkins pursued his hobbies and ideas with equal ardor. “We kayaked through the Russian Far East together and climbed a glacier route on Mt Rainier—and through it all, he never stopped lecturing me on deep ecology.”

And this, “In all, the Tompkins have conserved nearly 2.2 million acres across the Patagonia region and won national park status for three parks that didn’t exist before they got involved.”

And then finally, in paragraph 15, this:

With a $5,000 loan, he and a friend founded North Face in 1966, selling sleeping bags, camping gear, and clothes from a shop …. Tompkins sold his shares well before it became a global brand (some reports say for as little as $10,000), but he went on to make his real fortune with Esprit. In the late 1980s, Esprit reached $1 billion in sales, although, contrary to rumor, Tompkins himself was not a billionaire.

The New York Times obituary, which is equally heavy on Tompkins’ contributions as a conservationist, makes a clarifying point about how to understand the man’s activism. “Esprit’s success in the 1980s fueled much of the conservation work that occupied Mr. Tompkins for much of the rest of his life.” Now why should it be the case that a man who founded two hugely successful companies, one of which – The North Face — fostered a whole outdoors industry that has grown into a nearly $300 billion industry, a man of capitalist accomplishments gets eulogized for something else?

It is true that Tompkins’ efforts to preserve wilderness in Argentina and Chile are noteworthy and especially given that he and his wife relocated there to concentrate on their mission as well as the fact that he died in Chile doing something he obviously loved – being outdoors. But where is the appreciation for how the free-market and the American way of life offered Tompkins the path to accomplish his philanthropic mission?

Before he was a spectacularly wealthy conservationist, Tompkins was a high school dropout, who never went to college and didn’t come from a wealthy family, who made it big in business selling retail as a lifestyle choice. He was an American, capitalist success story and he should also be remembered as such.

Abby W. Schachter is editor of CapX America