MEC CEO talks importance of corporate-social responsibility: CEO Series

Oct 09, 2013
David Labistour, CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op, being interviewed in front of a live audience at the Beedie School of Business by CKNW host Bill Good.

David Labistour, CEO of Mountain Equipment Co-op, being interviewed in front of a live audience at the Beedie School of Business by CKNW host Bill Good.

Companies and the CEO’s who helm them often follow similar paths, and that could well be said of Mountain Equipment Co-op (MEC) and its CEO-leader, David Labistour.

From a simple start – providing mountain climbing equipment via a $5 co-op membership with $65 in operating capital – MEC now has 3.9 million shareholders, 1,500 employees in 210 offices, and annual sales exceeding $260 million. Today, MEC’s products and logo are known around the world. How did MEC get from there to here?

CKNW’s Bill Good asked exactly that in SFU’s Beedie School of Business weekly “Chief Executive Series”, aired on the The Bill Good Show.

Raised in South Africa, David Labistour brought a unique mix of experience and talents to his current role. He was (and is) a self-described surfer dude, majored in theatre – and of course, has always been a passionate outdoorsman. His belief in the joy and value of outdoor activity is MEC’s mission, permeating the Co-op and its entire team, who encourage and equip its members for a variety of outdoor recreation.

Just as important to MEC: corporate-social responsibility. The Co-op has provided hundreds of thousands of dollars to create parks and preserve countless areas of wilderness. In 2007, MEC joined 1% For The Planet, a group of businesses donating 1% of gross sales to environmental causes.

Despite all of MEC’s success and brand equity, though, David says the Co-op doesn’t rest on its laurels in today’s competitive retail environment.

“We don’t assume our members are more engaged simply because they’re members; we know that many would buy from other companies offering better products at better prices. It keeps us sharp, ensuring that MEC always provides our best products at our best prices all the time.”

And like any other corporate retail giant, the company carefully examines and employs market research.

“We’re always looking at our customers, and the future of our customers. We look at Canadian demographic changes: increasingly “citified” Canadians, and the large metropolitan areas with populations of 40% who are visible minorities. We look at the increasing balance of female university graduates – and correspondingly know that MEC’s future will be more female-driven.”

“We keep ourselves relevant to our customers’ wants: their activities, the changing assortment of items we can offer them – and looking at all of the new, more niche activities that are gateways to the outdoors.”

David attributes MEC’s day-to-day success to the 1,500 people who are the Co-op’s touchpoints to the brand. “We want people who share our passion; who are curious; energetic; who want to learn and grow. And without a doubt, they have to be great communicators. Business is so complex today, and so collaborative, that great team members have to excel in communication at every level.

David’s personal life – the much-discussed work-life balance – contradicts the usual image of a hard-driving CEO. “I call myself ‘a disciplined hedonist’. My day starts at 7:00am; I get eight hours of sleep; I exercise at lunch. We wrap up pretty early in the evening – unless there’s a party going on.”

What’s in the future for MEC? “While we’re always looking to embrace new fringe outdoor activities, I often think of our growth and capabilities as a rope. If we stretch that rope too far, it’ll snap. We’ll always need to expand our offerings and our brand as far as we can, but we always need to do it well.”

David Labistour’s personal philosophy is as simple and pure as MEC’s mission. “You have one kick at life, and you have to make the best of who you are, because that’s all you have. I just love life – and love making the best of every minute of it.”

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