The Kubota tractor parked out front is the first tip-off that Michael Crooke is not your typical executive. While other startup founders might sport a Tesla, Crooke’s home office in Ojai is a far cry from Silicon Valley. Step over the welcome mat with the Pearl Izumi mark, look up at the Patagonia surfboard in the rafters, and you realize this little converted garden shed is like a history lesson in Crooke’s path from Navy SEAL to being a leading figure in sustainable business.
Today, Crooke is the chairman of WAYB, a company he co-founded with manufacturing partners I.S. and Tio Jung. He began working with I.S. Jung while at Kelty, and saw how the South Korean manufacturer was able to combine aluminum and technical fabrics to make products that were stronger and lighter than the competition. Decades later, when I.S. and his son, Tio, wanted to bring their expertise in outdoor gear to the U.S. baby industry, Crooke joined them, on one condition: The company had to commit to sustainability as a core value.
“The current baby products are not very good for the environment; they have a lot of plastic that ends up in the landfill,” explains CEO and co-founder Tio Jung, who grew up knowing Crooke as a kind of uncle. “Michael pushed us to think differently about how we make them, what materials we use. As it turns out, all the plastic and chemicals in typical baby gear is also really bad for kids. So, by making it more sustainable, we also make it healthier for families, and it gives us a big advantage.”
Crooke thinks the state of car seats is especially alarming: “The problem is you have these children sitting in these toxic seats; they’re off-gassing. It’s tragic, really. We do all these things for our children, they mean so much to us. And we have all these new materials and all these new ways to construct things; why aren’t we putting them into children’s seats? They sit for hours a day in those seats, soaking up all those toxins.”
From SEAL training to sustainability
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Crooke’s unlikely journey started as a teenage Navy SEAL, where he learned the power of teamwork, a common theme in his companies and academic teachings. Crooke’s first private-sector job was in forestry, working for a 120-year-old company that practiced sustainable logging. When they sold out, he watched the new owners destroy the land, and then quickly go out of business themselves. They took a whole town down with them when they went bankrupt.
“I went and got my MBA to try to figure out how this had happened,” Crooke says. “The answer was simply greed.”
He gravitated towards companies that had strong values, and found himself in various leadership roles across the outdoor industry at companies such as Yakima, Moonstone and Kelty. And in 1999, Patagonia brought him on as only the second CEO of both Patagonia and its parent company, Lost Arrow Corporation. Patagonia’s founder, legendary adventurer Yvon Chouinard, was disrupting the business world by considering people and the planet, not just profit. Chouinard became Crooke’s friend and mentor, and his lessons still guide Crooke today.
While Patagonia was admired, it wasn’t in the best spot financially when Crooke came onboard. With Chouinard’s support, Crooke doubled down on the two pillars that set Patagonia apart: quality and environmental activism. Quality was articulated through its Ironclad Guarantee, and Patagonia’s commitment to the environment was clear in its early use of organic cotton and revitalization of 1% for the Planet. The focus turned Patagonia’s customers into fanatics and buoyed the business. Instead of having to compromise company values to turn a profit, Patagonia’s values were actually the secret sauce that lowered customer acquisition cost.
After CEO stints at Patagonia and prAna, Crooke began teaching sustainable business at MBA programs such as Pepperdine University and University of Oregon, trying to help the next generation of leaders think about more than just the bottom line.
“I learned this from Yvon and Malinda Chouinard at Patagonia,” he says. “You do what you can to make this world a better place. And you put your values out there. And you live your values. And if you do that, you can sleep at night.”
“Our relationship is the most important thing,” Jung explains. “Over the years, we would send letters and visit. I sent my sons to his home. I think of him as family.”
Back when I.S. was beginning his manufacturing company, Crooke was at Kelty and wanted to make a kid’s carrier. He called Jung — could they do it? Jung badly needed the job to keep his nascent factory afloat, but he’d never made one before. He gave it a shot, and the product seemed to be a huge success, until one day Crooke called. A carrier’s support arm had broken; as it turned out, parents were sitting on the carrier while their kids walked around. The weight was too much for the carrier’s frame. Jung knew it wasn’t his fault — the carrier was designed for a kid’s body weight, not parents’, and Crooke had signed off on the design. But he decided to eat the cost of retrofitting every frame. It paid off — the carrier took off, and propelled both Crooke and Jung’s careers with it. Crooke rose the ranks at Kelty and was brought in at Patagonia, while Jung’s reputation for quality spread in the outdoor gear industry.
For years, the two stayed in touch. One day Jung called Crooke: He had a new product he wanted to show him.
A greener future for family gear
When Jung and his son, Tio, wanted to create their own brand of products, Tio saw an opportunity with baby gear.
“My father and I, we were in the airport on a business trip, and we see parents struggling with these huge car seats,” Tio says. “It looks so uncomfortable. We thought, there must be a better way.”
As a dad of three, Tio knew that baby gear was often bulky and heavy, and aesthetically lacking. He dreamed of a line of sleek family products that leveraged his family’s aluminum expertise.
The Jungs began developing the WAYB Pico, a foldable car seat that passes U.S. safety standards for cars and planes. Experimenting with 7000-series aluminum, they were able to create an ultralight frame that absorbs energy in a crash and is rugged enough for families on the go.
They shared the product with Crooke, who immediately agreed to help them bring Pico and future products to the U.S. market, with that one condition to make sustainability a key lens for all business decisions. Just don’t call WAYB sustainable — yet.
“We’re not sustainable. We probably shouldn’t even use that word,” Crooke explains. “We’re on a path to sustainability. The bottom line is we have to stay transparent. And transparency means that we have to say what we aren’t, as well as what we are. And there’s a lot of things that we aren’t. We still drive cars to work every day. There’s waste in every single aspect of what we do. But we’re trying to get better, every single day. And that journey is something we want to share with our customers.”
This post first appeared on the WAYB blog on August 21, 2018.