High-climbing executive offers down-to-earth advice

Phil Castle, The Business Times

Hap Klopp

For an entrepreneur who’s scaled the heights of success, Kenneth “Hap” Klopp offers down-to-earth advice to others who aspire to climb as far.

Develop and communicate a vision. Imbrue operations with passion. Take risks and learn from failures. But above all, act with a sense or urgency.

Quoting the German philosopher Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, Klopp issues a call to action: “Whatever you can do, or dream you can do, begin it. Boldness has genius, power and magic in it.”

Klopp, the founder and for more than 20 years chief executive officer of the North Face, delivered the keynote address at Entrepreneurship Day at Colorado Mesa University in Grand Junction. In his address and in an interview with the Business Times, Klopp recounted his experiences developing an iconic brand of outdoor products and creating a market for those products. He also shared what he considers crucial attributes for leaders and needed tools for success.

The timing couldn’t be better, Klopp says. As the economy recovers, the next decade offers unprecedented opportunities. But entrepreneurs must act quickly to keep pace with a business environment that’s changing faster than ever before. “This speed is changing everything that exists out there.”

Klopp helped launch the North Face in the late 1960s in the San Francisco Bay area with what started out as a small retailer of high-performance climbing and backpacking equipment.

After graduating from Stanford University, Klopp says he interviewed for positions with a number of large corporations, but soon realized he’d rather work for himself. He says he experienced what it was like to run a company in briefly overseeing his family’s company following his father’s death. “I wanted to do something I knew, which was the outdoors.”

The North Face soon began designing and manufacturing its own brand of equipment and apparel that enjoyed a growing following among outdoor enthusiasts. Over the following decades, the company developed what’s now an extensive line of technically advanced equipment, apparel and footwear and in the process became one of the largest companies in the industry. By the time Klopp sold the North Face in 1990, the company had grown to 1,400 employees.

Klopp said the North Face became a “pie enlarger” in fostering a larger market for its products and those of other companies rather than a “pie slicer” in carving out a portion of a smaller existing market.

Klopp subsequently launched HK Consulting, an international management consulting firm focusing on strategy, marketing and promotions. He also participated in a number of other entrepreneurial ventures, including the takeover of Canterbury of New Zealand, a company that manufactures sports apparel and rugby equipment.

Klopp serves on the boards of several companies, including Cocona. The Boulder-based venture manufactures products that improve the performance of outerwear, footwear and workwear.

Klopp literally wrote the book on leadership titled “The Adventure of Leadership: An Unorthodox Business Guide From the Man Who Conquered the North Face.” He’s in the process of writing a second book titled “Almost — The Story of a Silicon Valley Startup.”

Klopp recounts a number of lessons about entrepreneurism from his days running the North Face, including the important of applying technology to reinvigorate an industry. Such Vietnam War-era technology used to make parachutes and aircraft were used to construct sturdy tents and lightweight tent poles and backpacks. Klopp also enlisted the assistance of Buckminster Fuller, the inventor and visionary, to help create the first geodesic tents developed for the camping and outdoor industry.

The North Face encountered problems with one of its early models of tents when the tent poles started breaking under stress.  The company recalled every tent it sold to offer customers different poles, but in the process enhanced its reputation for standing behind its warranty, Klopp says.

Klopp says he was motivated from the very beginning of his entrepreneurial career to change the world and make a difference, although it took him longer than he initially estimated. “I thought I was going to do in three (years). I think it took me 50,” he joked.

Nonetheless, that aspiration continues to motivate Klopp. “My vision to change the world is still the same.”