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Selling adventure: How Backcountry.com's CEO leads through outdoor example

Published: Tuesday, May 29 2012 10:52 a.m. MDT

Jill Layfield, chief executive officer of Backcountry.com, explains their approaches to competition and employee relations during an interview with the Deseret News.

Joey Ferguson, Deseret News

It took a snow shovel for Jill Layfield to further know that she was at the right company. After traveling to London with her husband, she came home to a snow-packed Park City with a driveway cleared from a recent storm. The deed was courtesy of her manager, Dustin Robertson and a team from the office.

"That impression on me was massive," Layfield said in an interview with the Deseret News. "My boss thought about me and what I would come home to. That meant more to me than being paid $5,000 more a year because it felt like he cared and knew me as a person."

That hands-on nature permeates Backcountry.com, the online retailer that specializes in outdoor clothing and equipment and where Layfield is now chief executive officer. Robertson's kindness had a profound impact on how she treats employees, which affects how she leads, Layfield said. After all, Backcountry.com sells adventure or at least the gear to make it happen.

Forget the financial benefits. Backcountry has those. Rather, Layfield believes in emphasizing an emotional connection with individual employees and learning what motivates them while meeting basic benefits.

Just check out their call center employees. About 14 percent of them suffered serious injuries relating to outdoor sports last year.

"You cannot buy great employees," Layfield said. "I don't think you can 401k or compensate your way to excellence. The more emotional benefits and general recognition is where you find the best employees."

Companies should spend more time knowing their employees and what motivates them on an emotional level, said Layfield. The company still provides basic benefits, like a 401k and insurance, but it isn't the focus when helping out employees.

Back in 1996 Jim Holland and John Bresee founded BackcountryStore.com with $2,000 of their own money. The company eventually became Backcountry.com in 2004 and placed its product fulfillment center in Salt Lake in 2002.

Then in 2011 they turned the reign over to Layfield.

"It was breathtaking," Bresee said about working with Layfield. "You can just say go climb that mountain and she would just call 15 minutes later from the top and she would have built a perfect path to it."

As a company Backcountry aims to offer high-end outdoor equipment. The company maintains a series of full retail, closeout and one-deal-at-a-time websites, including Chainlove.com and SteepandCheap.com. They have another fulfillment center in Virginia and an international office in Costa Rica.

The company, which is owned by Englewood, Colo.-based Liberty Media, employs about 1,000 people.

The outdoor, bike and action sports sectors are the focus. The outdoor industry is the fastest followed by bike and action sports, she said.

Backcountry sold 5 million products in 2011, a 138 percent increase from 2007.

In the office employees enjoy breaks during the day for skiing, commuter vans to their offices in Park City and a discount on merchandise, which they refer to as their "bro code."

The discount is good that the company probably loses money on it, but it's worth it because they want their employees to be immersed in the products they sell, Layfield said.

These benefits are a broad way of trying to reach individual employees on an emotional level, Layfield said. One-on-one manager recognition is another important aspect of leading a good workforce.

Layfield says a work environment that has a flexible work schedules is also vital to finding a competitive team.

"People that are competitive and want to win will win," Layfield said. "You don't have to tell them to be in the building from nine to six. If you hire the right people, they will get the job done."

It's a manager's job to hire the right people and not to tell them when to be in the office, Layfield said.

Layfield now likes hiring athletes because she is looking for workers who want to win. She also is trying to develop ways to gauge a person's competitiveness during an interview.

The business is a "cooperative competition" with other specialty retailers. They compete against offline specialty retailers for customers, but work together to not be overwhelmed by the "everything to everyone" retailers, like Amazon.

Unlike other outdoor retailers, like REI, who appeal to more of a recreational customer base, Backcountry aims more for the extreme outdoor enthusiast, Layfield said. The company isn't trying to be condescending. Rather, they are positioning their brand differently than other outdoor retail chains.

"We respect REI immensely," Layfield said. "I shop REI. I think we all do."

One of the founders, Jim Holland, was a two-time Olympic Nordic ski jumper, and that athletic spirit led to the success of the company, Layfield said.

The company uses a gold points recognition system to award employees for hard work.

But points aren't simply dolled out by management. Rather, they are given from one employee to another. Employees can redeem the points for things like ski passes, chair massages and gift certificates.

Backcountry works to connect with its customers in a similar way it does with its employees.

Around 2008, the company invested in a website where customers are able to read reviews, comment and look at photos. With it, they are able build a community of like-minded outdoor enthusiast online.

"What we provide is authority, expertise and guidance," Layfield said. "The community helps us cement that in the consumers mind as to who we are and why we are different than our competitors."

A major overhaul of the Backcountry.com is scheduled to begin this year and will help improve the retail experience, enhance branding and emotional connections of products and expand the community conversation.

The company's focus on specializing in premium outdoor gear rather than "all things for all people" retailer will put Backcountry ahead of its competitors, she said.

"It's what we believe in as a company, and it's what we're passionate about," Layfield said. "We believe that premium gear makes people better, happier and it will allow our customers to continue to pursue the outdoors. Premium gear raises the participation of the market we're in."

Layfield says she expects growth to come organically and through international expansion over the next six years, but is starting to consider possible mergers and acquisitions.

"We are very opportunistic with our M&A strategy," Layfield said. "Eighteen months ago, I wasn't thinking as much about M&A as I am now. We definitely allow companies to come to us, but we prefer to find people."

Liberty, Backcountry's parent company, isn't interested in getting into bidding wars, Layfield said. They would rather find companies that fit the profile of Backcountry's characteristics.

email: jferguson@desnews.com; jburke@desnews.com

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