Paul Porter on the Sierra Designs after the Mountain Hardwear Exodus

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...a little bit about the exodus from Sierra Designs and the beginning of Mountain Hardwear

[Moderater's note – we're just starting to figure out how Google Hangouts work as a way to capture stories. There are some complications. It's hard to pull video down after Hangouts send it to youTube and then audio and video go out of sync when the resulting download is edited. As a result the actual video is a bit more raw than the transcript. We'll get this figured out in time. For now, we ask a bit of forbearance.]


Doug: Let’s see, well should we shift gears and talk a little bit about the exodus from Sierra Designs and the beginning of Mountain Hardwear? I know that was a possible topic. Am I framing that the right way?

Paul: Yeah, you’re framing that the right way. It was a pretty interesting period. I think when I joined The North Face in ’89 I didn’t have any idea of some of the internal politics that had been going on and what the direction of leadership of the company was. And I found out that I’d be joining the company right when they were in this design and design engineering phase for Will Steger's Antarctica Expedition expedition. Mark Erickson was in charge of that project and he was doing some amazing stuff and I just thought, “Wow, I’m joining the company right at the right time when they’re doing all these really great stuff.”

I was there for about four and a half years and Odyssey had gone like, I don’t know, I guess they went bankrupt. And they were forced to sell off things and then I got laid off from The North Face and was out of work for a little while and then – I’m trying to remember the woman’s name who was a mutual friend of Al and I [Gail Ross] and I had never met Al despite the fact that he had worked pretty closely with IT at The North Face to get the data that he needed to do the number crunching that he was doing for forecasting and ordering, etc.

And Gail Ross told me that Al was hiring at Sierra Designs and I don’t know whether she gave it to me or whether Al sent it to me, because then email was almost non-existent and I think I had some sort of an account and some kind of a bulletin board surface, I can’t even remember what it was. And Al, are you hearing us yet? No, he’s not hearing us yet. And the position was and this is a quote, the position was “Computer Commando” and you know who else could that come from but Al Tabor, right? So I interviewed for the position and I guess Al had talked to a few people at The North Face and learn a little bit about me and after the interview he decide already to hire me.

Paul: I didn’t know when he hired me but I found out that I was filling in for Cate Wallenfels who was going out on maternity leave. And I’d be fulfilling the position while she was gone and that Al would look to find something to fill in when Cate came back. And I gradually started finding out more and more about the state of affairs with Sierra Designs and Odyssey and wasn't the leadership communication group so Al would just tell me things here and there that he felt were safe to tell me. And then I don’t remember whether there was some fore warning or if Al just came out and said it, that one day, that one fateful day when he said the leadership team, as it was, was going to leave and try and put together some sort of a deal with Odyssey to buy the company.

And it wasn’t until I think some time later when Al said that it’s either buy the company or start something on our own. And at the time of course I thought, “Well, the market is really impacted, that’s pretty ambitious.” And I kind of had a little bit of an idea what Al had been doing with his forecasting. He had coded all his customized forecasting and was forecasting and ordering systems and he said, “Well, you’re going to do this now.” He said, “We’ll be in touch and I want you to keep this going because if we buy the company we’re going to want to have all these systems intact when we come back.”

All of the code was saved on cassettes, was backed up to cassette tapes and I was the custodian of all these cassette tapes full of code up until a certain time when Mountain Hardwear became an entity, a force to be reckon with in the industry now Al said, “We don’t need that anymore.” Because I guess Bill Simon was kind of, “Over my dead body are you guys going to buy this company.”

So I was pretty freaked out. I didn’t really quite understand everything about what was going on, I’d been unemployed for 6 months having been laid off from The North Face and I thought, “Well, this is – isn’t this great? It’s like I’m here for 2 months and yet everybody is leaving.” How the company – how the Sierra Designs was run at that point is harder for me to put together but I think the reps kind of kept everything together and the customer service team, internal sales, the – I can’t remember the title of all the people, all the departments were sort of keeping everything together, but eventually they brought in this team of transition specialists. There was a couple of them.

I had the fortune of taking Al’s code and trying to translate it into these workloads that could be graphically represented and for some reason I thought, “Oh, this company is going to buy Sierra Designs, whoever is going to buy Sierra Designs is going to see the value that I bring and look at what I can do, I can take over this code and I can turn it into…” I had no idea really what was going on in the backend.

Meanwhile, during that period that the leadership team was trying to cut this deal with Bill Simon to buy the company, we had a sales meeting at Telluride which was a blast and I actually had the opportunity of putting together all the documentation for the meeting, something that Al would have done. And Al was this guy who was this – he was like my muse. He was in the background always walking me through how to do all this stuff that I needed to deliver to the reps and to do the forecasting and build this humongous spreadsheets to come up with what we were to order and I don’t know whether – I don’t think I had anything to do with ordering the raw materials, I don’t even remember who was doing that.

I had these secret conversations with Al for months to walk me through running this code that he developed because Sierra Designs wasn’t happy with the reports that North Face would generate for them, and actually do it in a way that although I’m not absolutely sure it was successful, but from my perspective the fact that I was able to do the documentation to have a successful sales meeting in Telluride and everybody was nervous; the reps were nervous, all the employees were really nervous, at least to be able to do that part of it made me feel pretty good. And it was fun, it was just like this secret thing that I was doing in the background to keep the Sierra Designs’ flame lit while they were trying to cut that deal.

So I just felt like I was getting this really great introduction into the core or the operations of the business, “Oh yeah, of course they’re going to want me.” And then when I think it was American Recreation cut the deal and bought Sierra Designs, they quickly said, “We don’t need you anymore.” And so I would say that was the last time that I did anything in the outdoor industry except for coming in and doing some volunteer work with the spreadsheets that I was developing to run reports for the sales reps. That was kind of cool. I learned how to do a bunch of stuff that I didn’t know how to do before.

And then eventually I got hired on somewhere doing IT work, specialized just IT work. And I really have to thank all the folks at North Face and Al for really helping me sort of develop those skills that I gained to do the IT side of things. And of course that led to what I ended up doing for the rest of my professional life, which I’m still doing now.

Doug: Amazing. So you were an essential part of the transition for Sierra Designs and for Mountain Hardwear. You were the keeper of the touch.

Paul: Yeah. It kind of boosted my ego a little bit when I was doing it and there was a sense that if the Mountain Hardwear thing got off the ground and they were able to get funding, et cetera, that I’d be able to start working over there but the funding wasn’t there to bring me on. So that was another motivator. It’s like, “Okay, it’s time to move on and maybe change my career again.” It was probably the third or fourth career change that I’d made. Because I don’t know, it’s okay. It didn’t matter that I had to change careers, it was just like this is an opportunity, I got to grab it and go for it.


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