Corporate exec puts the planet’s needs on par with the bottom line

by Ulara Nakagawa

The church that Bill Werlin attended as a child had no walls. “I grew up in the mountains. People would ask me where my church was and I would point out the window and say, ‘right there,’ ” he says.

Werlin grew up in the tiny U.S. town of Georgetown, Colo., where, he recalls, “on a good Saturday night there would be 600 people in town.”

The area sits at an elevation of 2,500 meters, and Werlin’s family ran a ski area where he and his three siblings helped with everything from hauling garbage, chopping ice and patrolling the slopes to other various daily chores. It was a childhood he “wouldn’t trade for the world.”

This idyllic backdrop of snow-covered mountains and expansive skies that Werlin once referred to as his place of worship continues to shape his life today. Although his home for the past nine-plus years has been the ultraurban landscape of Tokyo, Werlin’s proactive efforts and ideas on environmental preservation have set him apart from many of his executive counterparts.

At the first-ever Tokyo convention of the independently organized Technology, Entertainment and Design event known as TED talks, held earlier this year, Werlin was one of 23 speakers. He had the title, “Executive, Environmental Preservationist, and International Education Proponent.”

Werlin’s executive experience includes being a former president of The North Face, former general manager of Patagonia Japan, and his current post as Japan general manager of snowboard maker Burton Corp. He has also served as president of the Outdoor Industry Conservation Alliance, an industry group that supports grassroots environmental organizations.

At another recent event, for the American Chamber of Commerce in Japan Kansai, he spoke on how the corporate world and NGOs can coexist and create relationships that result in bettering both the planet and companies’ bottom lines.

Asked about his inspirational stance in the corporate community, Werlin gives credit to the professional environments he has worked in. “I’ve had the extremely good fortune of working with the best companies. These are the top dogs of their individual industries, and I find it rewarding both intellectually and emotionally to be working for the best. . . . In none of these industries are you going to be a billionaire. It’s not the nature of the game.

“The companies with real passion, such as the Body Shops and the Ben and Jerry’s (U.S. ice-cream maker), are the ones where it emanates from the top management and owners. They say ‘This is how we want it. This is something we believe in and whether we change the world or we become a beacon or a flashlight . . . We have to do this. We want to do this.’ And that infuses itself down a corporation. It’s an amazing thing to watch.”

Werlin includes the companies that he has worked and continues to work for as some of those leading the way into a future that includes a wider perspective on business success.

“Burton has a mantra — ‘rider driven’ — and that includes not just the team riders, not just the top of the pyramid. We go and talk to the kids on the streets, the average kid up on the hill (for feedback). A privately held company (like Burton) also lets you make decisions that can be a little more flexible and have a longer-term effect, as opposed to having to wake up in the morning and check a stock price.”

As for the company that brought him to Japan almost a decade ago, he says, “Patagonia has an alternative reason to be in business, which is to protect, inspire and implement solutions to the environmental crisis, and the message they are trying to put out is getting out there.”

Apparently, Werlin is one of a lucky few who have managed to find a balance between his corporate existence and a long-term adherence to his ethics and beliefs. This likely has something to do with a past that developed as organically as the natural world he now advocates protecting.

Werlin explains that when growing up, he didn’t feel the common pressures to have a master plan drawn out for his future. “I never wanted to be a fireman or an air pilot or a lawyer. I thoroughly enjoyed my life — experiences, friends, contacts in the outdoor world. Climbers, skiers, fishermen, paddlers — those were the people I associated with on a daily basis. So I suppose if I had one thought it was that someday, I would want to run a ski area because it was so great.”

Thus, Werlin’s laid-back yet spontaneous attitude opened doors to a unique set of experiences. Werlin went with the flow after graduating from Colorado State University with a major in industrial administration. He started out his career selling ski equipment as an independent sales rep in the Rocky Mountains.

He recalls having “10 states that I covered (driving) a Ford Econoline Van. I had samples, toys, skis, bicycles and a little bed in the back. Debauchery is everybody’s fantasy of such a lifestyle, but I basically got to see a lot of wonderful places on Earth.”

It was during this time that he met the people at The North Face, then an outdoor apparel company just starting out, through a connection on the road. He went to work for them, leading to a nearly 20-year engagement with the company and its later subsidiary, Sierra Designs.

However, Werlin, true to his exploratory nature, also took a three-year break to seek an unusual new pursuit “following the curiosity factor” in 1983. Werlin met a man who “said he wanted to do some contract sewing. He was a designer and a pattern maker and he wanted somebody to work with him and to build clothing . . . in the Four Corners area — the only place in the U.S. where four states touch.”

The experience was “unbelievable. I lived in a trailer and drove a van,” he recalls. Among the people he met were “tribal chiefs, the matriarchs of the (American Indian) reservations, gas station attendants, state patrolmen. . . . It was a wonderful couple of years. I was in my mid-30s.”

Werlin eventually went back to California in 1986 where he resumed working for The North Face in marketing and sales. There he met his wife, Claudia, who worked in commercial printing and was making Werlin’s product catalog. A fateful meeting, as he now recalls. “Our first date was Jan. 15; we got married on March 12.”

Luckily, Claudia was no less adventurous. Thirteen years into their marriage, in December 1999, just as they were looking to give their two kids “something other than a suburban American experience — to get more of an international perspective,” Werlin happened to call a friend to wish him a merry Christmas.

He recalls what was “an absolutely serendipitous occurrence” to follow. “As I hung up the phone I made a very flippant comment, ‘If you ever have anything come up outside the United States, give me a call.’ He called up three days later and asked, ‘would that include Japan?’ “

Werlin’s friend had recently become the president of Patagonia. With less than a week to make the decision, the family dove into what they thought was a two-year adventure, which has now continued for nearly 10 years.

Werlin makes sure to visit the hometown several times a year, where his mother is “still there riding horses at 80 years old.” His late father will be elected to the Ski Hall of Fame this year. He will be certain to be there for the event, possibly getting in a motorcycle ride on his Harley-Davidson through the familiar rocky terrain.

Asked about his adolescent aspirations of one day opening his own ski resort there, Werlin acknowledges the possible environmental hurdles due to climate change. “In Europe some of the snow areas have gone up the mountains and that has made it difficult for some years. Colorado is still OK, but you see weather pattern changes. Things are changing — there is no question.”

He admits to seeing the problem from “a slightly mercenary side of it,” or from his corporate experience. “If the outdoors all dies or if it is cemented over, the people who buy my product aren’t going to have any place to go. So at some point, if there are no rivers to run or no fish to catch, no mountains to slide on, my business is done.”

Yet, as he continues the scale of his argument inevitably shifts, and the full Werlin emerges. “At some point, and I don’t know if it’ll be my great-great-great-great grandchildren, I do know that there will be people, hopefully, on this Earth and that they should witness some of the grandeur, the beauty and the wonderfulness of sitting alone on a mountaintop and witnessing a hawk.

“It sounds a little melodramatic, but if we’re not really critical to the long-term health and welfare of this place, if we continue to abuse our tenancy, our renter status here, pretty soon she, Mother Nature, will throw us out.”