ORVIS: They Listen
Updated: Mar 22, 2022
“Here’s a funny story from my childhood,” Simon Perkins, the current COO of ORVIS recently shared. “I think it’s the only time I’ve ever had the police called on me! … I was about six or seven. And I called up my grandfather. It was about 3 or 3:30 in the afternoon. He was working at ORVIS and I said, ‘Hey, Grandpa, why don’t you come take me fishing?’ And, you know, he thought fishing with his grandson was more fun than the work he had in front of him. So he said, ‘Sure, I’ll be there in a couple minutes.’ So he picked me up. We went fishing. We stayed out till 10 o’clock; way past my bedtime. But it was the summer, so it was still light. Of course, I never told my mom about any of this. So she was running around all afternoon looking for her seven year old, whom she couldn’t find. She called the state police. She called the local police. No one could find us, until we showed up at dark, and she came outside. And I could tell she was not happy with either of us. And being an immature seven year old, I said, ‘Mom, what’s the problem? I thought Grandpa was The Boss?’”
While Simon’s reply understandably did not humor his mother, he wasn’t exactly wrong. “Grandpa” is Leigh Perkins, now Chairman Emeritus of The ORVIS Company. His son Perk (Simon’s father) is now Chairman. Dave (Simon’s uncle) is now Vice Chairman. Although first established by Charles Orvis, it is the Perkins family who have built The ORVIS Company into the recognized industry leader that it is today.
In 1856, Charles F. Orvis opened a tackle shop in Manchester.Charles was infatuated with fly fishing. He felt it not only connected him intimately with nature, but also made his life healthier, happier, and more enjoyable. He wanted to share his love of the sport - and wanted to inspire others - so he started manufacturing bamboo fly rods. Just over 100 years later (in 1965), Leigh H. Perkins bought ORVIS and grew the company by combining his own personal passion for fly fishing and wingshooting with his vision and business acumen.
One of Leigh’s most brilliant strategic business maneuvers was contacting ORVIS’ (then) competitor, Abercrombie & Fitch, and offering to exchange client mailing lists. It was a risk that paid off in spades. At that time, Abercrombie & Fitch wasn’t known for its 18 year old male models with washboard abs. It was an outdoors lifestyle, clothing brand – and its target audience overlapped ORVIS’. With access to A & F’s customers, Leigh was able to grow ORVIS exponentially. In fact, ORVIS remains the oldest mail-order company in the world; older than Sears & Roebuck. But ORVIS wasn’t just “a business” to Leigh. Fly fishing was his passion. As a young boy, Leigh had been schooled by his mother on how to fish – using an ORVIS rod. Leigh continued to grow ORVIS’ product lines and customer base, and within a year of owning the company – he also established a fly fishing school. Taking a page straight out of his mother’s playbook, by educating others on the beauty of the sport, he knew he could also grow the next generation of fly fishing enthusiasts. In addition, long before other companies were “giving back”, Leigh dedicated a certain amount of ORVIS profits to nature conservation, further proving his genuine love for (and commitment to) the outdoors. Leigh’s sons, Perk and Dave, expanded operations internationally, particularly in the United Kingdom, where there is still a large ORVIS customer-base. They engaged customers in their own way - to match the needs of their generation - but the heart of the company did not change.
Leigh’s grandson, Simon, said, “I call it ORVIS’ eternal truth. It has flowed throughout the course of the [company]. We are passionate about this lifestyle - [and we want to] engage people in ways that we think make life truly great.” When discussing Vermont, ORVIS, and family; Simon explained that they were really one and the same. “Growing up in Vermont, you’re living most of your life outside. Certainly, I got to do that with my mom, with my dad, with my grandfather, aunt, uncle, with my brother. [Now with my wife and kids]. I mean, that’s part of ORVIS. That’s inherently what we do. There’s just this pull outside. Every family vacation was a fly fishing or bird hunting adventure. And I just thought that was normal. I thought that’s what everybody did. I would come back to school after being on break, and I’d be exhausted because we’d be going on all these
adventures, where we’d wake up at four in the morning and be outside all day long. It wasn’t really a hobby. It was just a way of life.” ORVIS’ vision statement is “to inspire the world to love the
adventure and wonder in nature” – and they mean it. Their corporate headquarters in Sunderland, Vermont, is a dreamwork-environment for folks who love the outdoors. Employees are encouraged to bring their dogs to work. There is a pond outside – and employees skate on the ice in winter. The employees truly “live the brand”. Per Simon, “Right now one of the buzzwords going around is
'purpose-led’. I don’t even know if I know what that means - and I think it’s because… that’s what ORVIS has been doing since its beginning. And being a family business allows you to take that even further - as far as, what you believe in, what’s important, how you do things, why you do things . . . And it’s important to us (everyone at the company, and all the way up through the ownership, I mean) to be energized. Every day, we come to work and are doing stuff that’s meaningful, that’s important to us and to a lot of other people. And so this idea of not only what you say, but who you are, and what you do, and how you act, it all needs to line up - or else it kind of falls flat; it’s kind of hollow. So - having a dog business where you don’t allow dogs in the office doesn’t make a ton of sense to us. Dogs bring joy and happiness and health to people. And that’s what we’re promoting through our brand. And so - to use another cliché - kind of ‘walking the walk’ [matters]. It’s important to have that foundation; to have something that you believe in; how you behave; and how you act every single day.
It’s important to professionals today. You know, we’re in a world where millennials influence everything. Half of our associates based at the office in Sunderland are millennials. They say, ‘Millennials don’t buy stuff. They buy into stuff.’ And that not only goes for their purchases, but also their way of life. And you see it spreading throughout other age demographics, too. And that’s what we’ve been doing since the 1850s. We don’t really know any other way.”
That’s probably why ORVIS has kept the title of “industry leader” in fly fishing for over 160 years – a phenomenal feat. But, like any business, new challenges arise as the times (and customers) change. Like all long-lasting companies, without letting go of its initial mission and identity, ORVIS has had to evolve.
“It is really important for us to be relevant with our customers… and for us to be customer-centric.” But it is tough to simultaneously celebrate tradition and be innovative. “When I came to ORVIS eight years ago, I was really struggling with this idea of heritage and tradition because - if done a certain way - it made me feel like we were stuck … And you don’t want to feel stuck, especially if you’re supposed to be a leader in the space. And you also don’t want to feel like you’re resting on your laurels ... What really helped me come to terms with all that, was to go back to why ORVIS started in the first place 163 years ago: to inspire and to lead in connecting with the outdoors, specifically fly fishing. So celebrating “WHY we did” - not “WHAT we did” - allows us to celebrate history in a way that propels us forward. And that’s the way we look at our business. We’re at a growth stage where we’re acting like an emerging [company]… ORVIS feels like a startup right now, which is crazy to think about. A 160 year old company acting like a startup!? But, again, it’s that same mentality, approach, and style that Charles Orvis brought in the 1850s; that my grandfather brought in the 1960s; and that my dad and uncle brought in the 1990s. It’s still alive.”
When the folks at ORVIS state that they are “customer-centric,” they genuinely mean it.
For example, in the past, fly fishing was often perceived as a sport only available to wealthy, older, white men. Given that it was Leigh’s mother who taught him how to hunt and fish, it is not surprising that the ORVIS team disagrees. They believe that fly fishing is for everybody – and should be accessible to anybody. Simon shared, “We started an initiative a couple of years ago that we call
‘50-50 on the Water’. It really embraces and addresses the idea that we need better gender parity in the sport. If you look at whitewater rafting, for example, you’re going to see a better balance between men and women then you will in fly fishing. There have been amazing women throughout the history of the sport that have done incredible things, but when we stop and listen, there are a lot of women that say they just don’t feel invited into [the sport]. And so we’ve really committed to see what we can do to make it more inviting to all.” He continued, “How do we continue to make it more welcoming to other demographics? That’s what we’re focused on right now, which is exciting. It’s not easy, but it’s really exciting. And it’s really meaningful - and we’re committed to it, which feels great. …We listened to people, [and] they said, ‘There are certain barriers to entry’… For example, we sell a fly rod for $850. Well, that’s not going to be accessible to everybody. So, how do we make the best entry level rod, so you can buy everything you need for $160? We started designing ‘good’, ‘better’, ‘best’ options, as far as our product assortment. The other thing we did was create an [educational] experience that’s completely free’. In our retail stores and in participating dealers all over the country, you can come take a class for free for two hours. Learn what it’s all about. Learn that it’s not that intimidating.
Learn that it’s fun. Learn that you can do it. Learn that anybody can do it. And those have been incredibly successful. We introduce - for free - 15,000 to 17,000 people a year [ to fly fishing] in just our corporate-owned stores alone …It’s been a really successful program that we’re very proud of.”
With the advent of social media, the “tried-and-true” marketing that ORVIS had utilized for so many years needed adjusting. Perk was an early advocate for social media as a tool for ORVIS’ marketing. His sons, Simon and Charley (current Manager of Brand Marketing), also understand they must anticipate the needs of the next generation and communicate ORVIS’ message clearly.
Simon believes, “if we simplify and focus on things that we think we can truly be great at, that should kind-of be our North Star. That should help guide us, what we believe in as a brand, and what we stand for as a company… It [can] also help us understand where to expand or where to push the ball even further.’’
While still the go-to company for hardcore fly fishing and wingshooting clothing and gear, ORVIS today also makes clothing for people who enjoy the outdoors in a more casual manner. It is an outdoors lifestyle brand, offering not just products or sports education, but also destination experiences. In addition to the previously mentioned United Kingdom, ORVIS’ biggest markets are the Northeast, California, Texas, Florida and the Southeast, in general. One thing hasn’t changed over the years: Listening to customers remains Priority #1. Simon continues, “My grandfather said, ‘A good salesman is a good listener’. And he’s always told me, ‘you learn a lot more by listening than by talking’ - and I’ve watched him do it. I’ve watched the relationships he’s built, and the expertise he’s built, and the experiences he’s had, and it’s come from this passion for listening. I think about that a lot, and how that’s shaped me, and how that’s guided me in some extremely valuable ways.”