Business and Ethics

An Evening with Eric Artz, CEO of REI

Written by Dean Forbes

October 15, 2021

Eric Artz

Image credit: Yosef Kalinko

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The Albers Executive Speaker Series returned in-person for the first time since February 2020 with a discussion featuring Eric Artz, CEO of REI. Artz emphasized career and work with a purpose, saying his work is "very much a calling."

This year’s series launched on October 13 with an hour-long session with Artz in Pigott Auditorium.

Artz emphasized career and work with a purpose, which was influenced by his upbringing in a home and community (he grew up in a small rural Pennsylvania town) where values and having an impact were paramount.

“How do I feel about working at REI? I find my time here at REI very much a calling,” says Artz. “It’s not a job for me. It begins with having the privilege of working with an organization that is purpose-driven and values oriented.”

Artz spoke of his “circle of life” that encompasses what he does professionally and “to the impact that I hope to have on the world and setting things up for future generations,” as well living it personally in the outdoors. “I can achieve that with an organization like REI,” an outdoor retail consumer cooperative that has 20 million members and 15,000 employees.

Noting that REI is 83 years old, Artz asked, “What must we do now to ensure the next 80 years? I see two existential threats: climate change and racial equity and the intersection of the two. What we do at REI and what we think about very much begins and ends with this idea of purpose. We are here to inspire, enable a life outside for everyone and when we think about that in a long-term perspective, there are clearly challenges.”

Questions were put to Artz by a panel of two Albers student athletes and an alumnus who is an REI vice president.

On the pandemic and its impacts

Artz says the health and safety of employees and customers is the most important. “The hardest moments were about how to keep people safe and the decision to shut down the stores in service to the community and our people,” he said. It was a “gut wrenching moment without knowing the outcome.”

“We’ve kept our people safe and about the time we shut down our stores we realized just how much the consumer was going to embrace the outdoors and so we’ve been chasing our business ever since. The newsflash for 2021 will be we’ll most likely have a record year in terms of performance for the business.”

On supply chain issues

“Don’t plan on a car-top box, a bike or a boat anytime soon,” says Artz. “We have significant challenges in almost every step of the supply chain.” On the other hand, he says the times call for the desire to change, innovate and be much more agile than we were in the past.

On REI’s goal to reach 50 million members by 2030

“Our aspiration is to grow to a community that is engaged and fighting for some of these pressing societal issues that we face, climate change and racial equity. That’s a pretty daunting assignment and it has to occur at all levels.”

The company will need to attract new, younger and more diverse customers than it has today, says Artz. “We have to get DEI right. We have to come from what’s been a predominantly white industry to one that is approachable and relevant that has a bigger welcome mat for more customers that can meet them where they are and partner with them in terms of what solutions they need from a company with an outdoor perspective.”

On how his leadership approach changed since arriving at a co-op company like REI

REI has a quadruple bottom line, says Artz: Business, members, society and employees. “By definition it causes you to think very differently about your enterprise. Almost by force of what we are, my leadership has to adapt to one that is much more servant and empowering for the organization, to figure out how to balance those choices that we have in our business.”

On how REI reconciles the consumer’s desire to buy more stuff with limited natural resources and waste management

“The big challenge we face is how do we decouple our growth from the carbon emissions and our footprint on this planet?” says Artz. An example is the resale/used marketplace. “I believe sitting here today if we could unlock all of the supply that sits in people’s closets and boxes in garages that’s not being used . . . We could supply all of the need that is out there.” 

“The consumer model we have today is not sustainable and we have to change. And we want to be a leader in that conversation.”

On his best piece of advice for students who want a successful career

“Go do, go try, go challenge,” says Artz. “Think about values as an individual and where you want to be and the legacy you want to leave.” This was an exercise he employed early in his career and it led to six words that became life affirming for Artz: family, integrity, respect, challenge, growth and fun. “When I was doing my best work and life was best, I was living those values.”

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