The origins of Vancouver-based Mountain Equipment Co-op trace back to 1971 – and for most of its existence, the core mission remained the same: provide equipment for rugged outdoorsmen (yes, men), while fiercely guarding the co-operative ethos of its hippie founders.
“We had come from a very Anglo-Saxon/Judeo-Christian ethic about how we approached the outdoors,” says David Labistour, CEO of the company now known simply as MEC. “We had been very masculine in our orientation. Very wilderness. Our purpose had been to help people realize the benefits of self-propelled wilderness recreation.”
Labistour, who moved to Vancouver from his native South Africa in 1999, joined MEC as head of product in 2003. When he rose to the position of CEO five years later, the business environment for MEC had fundamentally changed from the early ’70s. “Canada was rapidly urbanizing. The cultural makeup was changing very quickly. Women in the workplace was completely different from when we were founded,” he says. “We had to realize things were moving very much into the ‘front country’ – people didn’t have the time to do those long, slow, two-week backcountry trips. Nor did they want to.”
“Applying things to your business – yes, it has value. But to me it’s those cross-industry connections and those cross-industry paradigms that create the real value.”
When Labistour participated in the QuantumShift™ program in 2014, the company was midstream in its strategic shift to becoming a broad-based, diverse, consumer-focused outdoor retailer. He says he found tremendous benefit in the cross-industry and cross-business learnings at QuantumShift™: “Applying things to your business – yes, it has value. But to me it’s those cross-industry connections and those cross-industry paradigms that create the real value. Today, the world is a very complex and interconnected place. The more we understand these connections, the better we are.”
Labistour notes that MEC has gone through almost constant change since QuantumShift™. The first step was taking the organization from what he calls a very “internally focused family” to a more customer-focused team. Next step was more “lean process” and learning to move faster. Today, MEC is in the middle of a big technology integration to give the co-op the systems and tools for the future. “With that, we’re shifting the organization to an ‘agile’ model – focused on making standard operating procedures as effective and efficient as possible, to release people to add value to the organization.” He credits QuantumShift™ with being instrumental in helping him drive these entrepreneurial changes.
While “selling stuff” remains core to what MEC does – including the 20 percent of business now conducted online – a growing and important part of the MEC business is now what he calls “experiential.” “All these events we have in our stores, the activities we do, our service shops – whether it’s the bike shop, ski tech shop, the value-add within the store – that’s where the physical presence is very important,” he notes. “On the flip side, you have people buying in-store on their mobile devices, or coming into the store, looking at products and buying at home. It’s one big seamless system: We need to meet the customer where they are.”
A rigorous five-day executive development experience offered through The Ivey Academy, QuantumShift™ annually challenges forty of Canada's most promising entrepreneurs to improve their leadership style, inspire their business partners and maximize their growth opportunities. QuantumShift™ is for CEOs whose businesses are past start-up. They're innovative, insightful business leaders. And they're ready to shift a thriving enterprise to a whole new level of success. Candidates are nominated through KPMG Enterprise and participants are selected by Ivey Business School's Pierre L. Morrissette Institute for Entrepreneurship.
As QuantumShift™ turns 15, we check in with some of the more than 550 Canadian entrepreneurs who have graduated from the program to see what the experience meant to them and their business.