REI Boss Shows How to Be a CEO in the Age of Trump

September 12, 2017, 1:00 PM UTC
GRE09.15_ REI
Mary Grace McKernan—REI

In late October 2016, REI opened its fifth flagship location in Washington, D.C. Displayed prominently on the back wall of the 51,000-square-foot outdoor-equipment store in the nation’s capital is a neon sign that reads, “For All.”

That message would take on new meaning less than three weeks later when the presidential election cleaved the nation in two. CEO Jerry Stritzke says the words, rather than being just a piece of store decor, have become something of a battle cry—one that’s recently prompted the company to wade into the political fracas.

A love of the outdoors appeals to “both Democrats and Republicans,” Stritzke says, and it’s ingrained in the DNA of REI, founded in 1938 by a couple—Lloyd and Mary Anderson—in search of quality climbing gear. The company actively encourages employees to spend time outside with “Yay Days”—paid time off to spend outside—­sizable worker discounts on its gear (50%), adventure trips (30%), and its Opt Outside campaign that closes all 151 stores on Black Friday and pays employees to pass the day in nature. Those perks are one factor in REI’s 20-year streak as one of Fortune’s Best Companies to Work For.

That commitment to the environment also galvanized Stritzke to speak out against the Trump administration’s actions on public lands. In April he wrote that the plan to review the status of more than 11 million acres of public land was a “cause for concern,” and REI later urged people to file comments with Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke, asking him to keep the protections in place.

In an era when businesses run the risk of getting a mean tweet from the Commander-in-Chief, Stritzke acknowledges he carefully considers what issues to take up. “If we don’t see a direct impact [on our employees], then we’re a lot more reluctant,” he says.

But that hasn’t kept REI from pursuing causes beyond the environment. Stritzke says less obvious issues—like immigration—merit the company’s attention too. Inclusiveness and the notion that everyone is welcome—“we actually think that’s consistent with an outdoor experience as well,” he says. (REI came out against the President’s travel ban, for example.) “That’s one of the amazing things about [the outdoors],” Stritzke says. “It doesn’t care how you present, what color you are, what accent you have; it’s really there for everyone.” 

A version of this article appears in the Sept. 15, 2017 issue of Fortune with the headline “A Retailer Finds Its Voice.”

This story has been updated to clarify REI employee discounts and correct the number of acres included in the Trump administration’s public land review.

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