Strategy

Q&A: Mountain Equipment Co-op's David Labistour

Mountain Equipment Co-op's new CEO on balancing reality and vision, and why doing good is good for business.

Mountain Equipment Co-op’s new CEO, and the former head of the recreation retailer’s buying and design team, has the distinction of being the co-op’s first top dog hired from within in its 37-year history. Labistour made his name working as an exec and consultant for such clothing companies as Adidas and Aritzia, and began his career with MEC in 2003, four years after emigrating to Canada from South Africa. While the co-operative may do things differently from the big brands, its 2.6 million members suggest it isn’t such a small fry. Labistour talked to Canadian Business reporter-researcher Lauren McKeon about the importance of finding the right balance between corporate reality and vision, and how being a do-gooder is just good business.

What’s the big difference between being a co-op retailer and a corporate-owned retailer?

That we are owned by our customers and not by our shareholders. Most businesses try to achieve a customer focus, but ultimately along the line decisions are made between delivery to the customer and the stock price. It’s a reality that most businesses face at some point, and it’s one that we never do.

How do you practice both social and corporate responsibility?

One of the key things to being a responsible business is transparency. There are a lot of things that we fail at, and while we have good intentions, we don’t necessarily deliver on all of them. That’s really important for industry to know. It’s not that you are necessarily a wonderful organization that does magic things, it’s the fact that you have goals and you work toward meeting them, and you are transparent as to where you are in regards to those things. I don’t think that is a challenge for any business.

How do you keep a balance between tough market realities and MEC’s values?

The reason our members shop with us is because we provide them with great quality gear at fair prices. If we falter at that, we lose business, because people ultimately vote with their dollars. However, we’ve chosen to do business in a different kind of way, and to have social and environmental goals worked into our business. It’s a matter of not losing the one, but introducing the other. I think a lot of people at other organizations feel it’s either one or the other, but it’s really just a matter of pacing and scale.

So then how do you keep products well-designed and affordable, while keeping in mind your philosophy of sustainability and ethical sourcing?

Running any business, any organization, is like flying a helicopter. If you don’t keep your hands on the controls at all times, it becomes very unstable. We’ve been so successful in the social and environmental realm because we don’t have a social and environmental team that sits as an adjunct to the mainstream business. Our social and environmental goals are embedded into all the mainstream functional jobs.

You look to find ethical factories to manufacture your products. How willing are factories to work with you to improve their standards?

If our factories don’t meet our requirements out of the gate, we don’t cut and run, we work with them to develop these things. We don’t go into factories that won’t open their door to that. The two biggest issues we face are around health and safety, and pay. Organizations that are buying the products need to plan and understand the impacts of their requirements on the factories.

How do you reduce your carbon footprint and maintain a healthy bottom line?

If you can run a business on less, it costs you less. By consuming less packaging, you’re shipping less weight and it saves you in shipping. By having your buildings use less energy, your energy bill is lower. If you can make your transportation more efficient, those costs are lower. So ultimately, in pushing for a more sustainable organization, financially, socially and environmentally, there are advantages and efficiencies to be gained. The real challenge is how you pace things. If you lose your balance on either of these issues along the way, it does have an impact.

Part of MEC’s “Futures Project” is devoted to keeping its market alive with promoting recreation. Why is that so important?

Some people look at the long-term goals and think that they’re totally altruistic. But if you look at the demographics of the Canadian market, the baby boomers are becoming less active, the face of Canada is changing significantly, it’s becoming more urbanized, kids are becoming more sedentary. Culturally, Canada is changing, and one has to look at these things and understand that in the long term they do have an impact on your business. We need to ensure that Canadians remain active. If we can get out ahead of that and other things, it will help us run a more sustainable organization in the long term.

Mountain Equipment Co-op’s new CEO, and the former head of the recreation retailer’s buying and design team, has the distinction of being the co-op’s first top dog hired from within in its 37-year history. Labistour made his name working as an exec and consultant for such clothing companies as Adidas and Aritzia, and began his career with MEC in 2003, four years after emigrating to Canada from South Africa. While the co-operative may do things differently from the big brands, its 2.6 million members suggest it isn’t such a small fry. Labistour talked to Canadian Business reporter-researcher Lauren McKeon about the importance of finding the right balance between corporate reality and vision, and how being a do-gooder is just good business.