Fast Talk: Perk Perkins
Published: June 2009
Perk Perkins loves what he does. As CEO of Orvis—the Manchester, Vermont-based outdoor sporting lifestyle company—he regularly mixes business with pleasure. Outfitting fly-fishers, bird-watchers, and backcountry skiers is his company's mission, so why should the customers have all the fun?T+L caught up with Perkins to ask him for his tips on how to plan the perfect fishing holiday, how environmental conservation became such a big part of Orvis, and how a gift meant for a pet goat can become a company's best-selling product.
1. Where are you now?Why are you there?Anyplace else you'd rather be?
I'm at home packing for my favorite trip of the year. First, I'm off to Montana for a board meeting with the state's chapter of the Nature Conservancy. Then I'm going to New Mexico to visit friends at one of my favorite ranches, do some quail hunting, and meet with the Ranching Conservation Cooperative. My last stop will be Washington, D.C., to plan a retreat and meeting for the worldwide board of the Nature Conservancy. After that I'm headed back to Vermont, where I hope this wonderful snow we've been having will still be around so I can enjoy some backcountry skiing.
2. How often do you travel?Is it usually for business or pleasure?
In my line of work, there is a fine line between business and pleasure, but I try to keep my travel down to one week a month. I rarely take a trip that doesn't include some fly fishing, bird hunting, or bird-watching.
For example, last Thursday I returned from a trip to Denver, where I attended a professional development workshop. While there, I visited a new business opportunity for Orvis near Winter Park, took part in a little morning duck hunting, and went up to Wyoming, where I made a deal on some land with a wonderful spring creek we will be restoring for trout fishing.
3. You circumnavigated the globe in a Jeep nearly 25 years ago. Why did you decide to do this and what did it teach you about travel?What were your favorite destinations?
I did it because I wanted to see the world through young eyes while I was still free to follow my nose rather than an itinerary. It taught me to be persistent (especially when trying to get my Jeep around the Darien Gap in Panama by boat); that it is easier to be a stranger in your hometown than it is in a foreign land; that there is more difference between the rural South and the urban North in the United States than there is between most cities in the world; that traveling is mostly borrowing and that you soon develop a craving to give or lend back. And it taught me to take pictures of people and always put their names on the back of the photo.
My favorite destinations were Colombia, Peru, eastern Turkey, and New Zealand.
4. You have been a part of Orvis for more than 25 years. How has the company
changed since you first started?
It has changed tremendously—except for certain core values including: The customer is always right; the need to invest in our future by supporting the work of great conservation organizations; the honoring and perpetuation of our country's sporting traditions and the distinctive country living that is associated with them.
5. Orvis is known for its sturdy fishing and hunting clothes and innovative equipment. What are some of the other things that your company does well but that most people may not know about?
We are a leader in critical conservation efforts. We perpetuate the sporting tradition by teaching the arts of fly-fishing and wing shooting to around 3,000 people a year. We are a nationally recognized direct marketing company that was named Web site of the year in 2001 and catalog of the year in 2000 by the Direct Marketing Association. We are the oldest mail-order company in the country, probably the world. We are the oldest fishing tackle company in the world. And one of the best-selling products in company history—the dog's nest—was developed from a present given to my pet goat in 1975.
6. What are some of your company's newest/most innovative products?What are your all-time favorite Orvis products?
We do not invent many products—we seek out inventors and bring their ideas to market with proven business skills and unmatched customer service. We do, however, put quite a bit of innovation and capital into the development of our fly rods, which are made at our factory right here in Manchester. My favorite product has not yet been developed, but I'll tell you, you cannot beat our signature twill shirts.
7. You are on the board of several nature conservancies. How did conservation become such an important part of what Orvis and you do?What are some of the most important items on the Orvis conservation agenda?
I feel that if you truly love the outdoors, you have a deep obligation to protect it. After college, I debated whether to enter environmental law or the family business. My father sagely advised me that I could do more for conservation by bringing my business skills and financial support to the boardrooms than as a conservation executive. One of the best causes we have sponsored in recent years is Trout Unlimited's Jefferson River project in Montana, which is restoring critical flows to a great river and helping ranchers develop more efficient ways to irrigate their ranchland.
8. Orvis runs several fishing schools. How are these schools distinctive from other fishing programs run by adventure or luxury travel companies?
They are similar in that you get world-class customer service from people who love to teach you what they love to do. You get great meals and stay in lovely accommodations in beautiful surroundings. You come away richer from the experience. It is different in that, in two days, you end up learning something that you can use the rest of your life—with friends of any age.
9. What is the biggest trend in fishing this year?What are the hot destinations for fishing trips?
The biggest trend seems to be toward the practical and lovely tradition of the sport rather than the technical end. The cutting-edge destinations seem to be the bonefishing frontiers in the Pacific, like Palmyra and French Polynesia.
10. What are your top five tips for planning a great fishing/hunting holiday?
1) Get references from a friend who has been there.
2) Research your guides and outfitters and reserve your space early.
3) Expand your party to include some friends (of any age)you'll come away with a better friendship. This will trump any fish story.
4) Round out your trip with some activities or some exploration beyond the sport (fly-fishing or bird hunting).
5) Take gifts for the guides—they love great gear.
Interviewed by Robert Maniaci