Reaching the Summit
His friends say it makes perfect sense, this transition from the fashion world to saving the world. All the pieces were there for years, hiding in plain sight. Still, none of them—in some ways, not even Tompkins himself—saw it coming. The metamorphosis of the CEO of Esprit fits only in hindsight, as a journey that mirrors the changing priorities, assumptions, and points of view at the heart of many executives' and corporations' greener thinking in the twenty-first century—the principal difference being that Esprit's chief image maker got there twenty years ahead of the pack.
Douglas Tompkins grew up in the village of Millbrook, New York, a Hudson Valley enclave of tree-lined roads, rolling green pastures, and large homes with horse barns and plenty of land. His ancestors arrived on the Mayflower. In 1943, when Tompkins was born into a world at war, Millbrook was already known for its moneyed inhabitants, understated country elegance, and walled estates. Today it is one of the wealthiest towns in New York state, and such diverse figures as Jimmy Cagney, Mary Tyler Moore, Katie Couric, and Timothy Leary (the apostle of LSD) have called it home.
Tompkins's mother was a decorator and his father was in the antique business—high-end, appointment-only antique dealing, which involved combing the region for museum-quality pieces and works of art in a private plane and seeing clients in their homes and galleries. If Doug Tompkins's flashes of warmth and gentleness, as well as his deep attraction to forests and nature, come from his soft-spoken mom, his most obvious trait—stern certitude—comes from his dad. A tough, demanding, tasteful man with a sharp eye for quality and style, the elder Tompkins expected no less from his sometimes unruly son. He presented young Doug, age ten, with a book that explained how to distinguish between good and bad specimens of Chippendale and Hepplewhite furniture—and he expected the boy to read and discuss it.
The son may have inherited the father's eye for design and style, but the antique dealer's traditionalist views and sense of order were another matter. The respected boarding school his parents chose for his high school years—Connecticut's Pomfret School, whose students would include another future eco baron, Robert F. Kennedy Jr.—could not contain Tompkins. The headmaster expelled him in his senior year for rule-breaking and rebelliousness when he failed to come back after a weekend—for the tenth time. "I wasn't great on heeding authority," Tompkins says now, shrugging at the memory. "I'm still not too good at that."1
At age seventeen, at the dawn of the 1960s, he gave up on high school, taking off for Colorado to ski bum, mountain climb, and go "adventuring," as he calls it. The outdoors mattered to him most: He had started rock climbing when he was twelve in the Shawangunk Mountains, a favorite New York spot for climbers seeking a challenge, and by fifteen he was skiing and climbing mountains during family trips to Wyoming. In Aspen, he waited on tables and worked in ski shops, taking two jobs at a time during the seasonal holiday crunch, squirreling away all his money, saving for his next journey, passing himself off as older, relishing being on his own. The tips were good, but even better were the free staff lodgings, meals, and ski passes, which meant his expenses hovered near zero and the slopes were wide open to him.
After a year spent in Colorado hoarding cash, he took off for Europe, where he first climbed the Alps. Then he traipsed through the Andes in South America, making his first visit to Patagonia. Even then, eighteen and heedless, he recognized the rain forests of Chile and Argentina as special places, and he was in no hurry to leave. He stretched his money by hitchhiking, camping, and eating next to nothing while roaming the landscape. When his money finally gave out, forcing him back to the states to find more work, he did not settle back in Aspen. It was 1962, John Kennedy was the president of an America not yet tainted by assassination or Vietnam or Kent State or Watts. Where else would a young man from back East with no ties and no plans beyond making a run at the U.S. Olympic ski team go but California? He put out his thumb and headed west.
He landed on the outskirts of Tahoe City, where he found plenty of work at the ski resorts during the snowy season as a trail and mountain guide, leading to his first business venture, the California Mountaineering Service. During the summer he worked in construction or as a tree topper, taking down the big Douglas firs that were interfering with power lines and summer homes. Because the trees were so large and so close to houses, chopping them at the bottom was out of the question; tree toppers had to scale the trunks with cleats and harnesses and remove the tree piece by piece, working from the top down—difficult, dangerous, and time-consuming work, paying good money for a high school dropout.
Hitchhiking home from a job one summer day, Tompkins watched as a vivacious twenty-year-old with a blond ponytail pulled over and opened the door of her Volkswagen. Susie Russell peered out at the wiry, dark-haired Tompkins, discerning a certain rugged charm about him, though in those days, she would have offered a ride to just about any hitchhiker—everybody did back then. She was working that summer as a keno girl at the Nevada Lodge, just over the state line, where she had used a phony ID to get around the casino age restriction of twenty-one so that she could run bets and winnings back and forth from the keno tables.
Tompkins climbed in and, while introducing himself, boasted that he was a Harvard man. Russell was attractive and smart and Tompkins wanted to impress her, but he miscalculated. She had much more in common with Tompkins's real résumé than with his imagined one. Her dad had been a well-known real estate developer and San Francisco's betting commissioner back in the day of legal gambling parlors. Her mother, an artist, had complained about her headstrong daughter's embrace of the counterculture and her lack of interest in college. Susie went to several top private and public high schools in San Francisco but she, like Tompkins, left high school without her diploma: Her principal at Lowell High School said she would not be welcome at graduation because she had been "too wild" at the prom. So the lie about Harvard didn't gain Tompkins any traction—quite the opposite. Who needs a pretentious lumberjack? Susie asked, suggesting he could hop out of the car then and there. But he shook his head, and she dropped him where he wanted to go.