It’s par for the course these days for businesses worldwide to obsess about maximising profits, while at the same time saving the environment and giving consumers everything they ever asked for.
But when a company actually achieves this, or something exceedingly close, then you know it has a formula worth taking note of; step up Icebreaker.
The brainchild of Cantabrian Jeremy Moon, Icebreaker was formed out of the desire to build something purposeful.
As a leading design and manufacturer of high performance merino wool base layers and outdoor clothing, the company is serving the environment, meeting people’s needs and just happened to go some way to pulling New Zealand’s merino wool industry from the brink of bankruptcy.
Davina Richards talks to Jeremy Moon about his company and the desire to make a difference.
For Jeremy, building Icebreaker was never about self interest, it was about tapping into the potential of a quality New Zealand material, but doing so with green fingers so to speak.
“We’re committed to building an energetic, ethical company that puts our customers and environment first,” Jeremy says.
“Starting Icebreaker wasn’t a decision, it was a feeling based on my love for New Zealand, adventure and our merino wool. It felt totally intuitive and was more like a leap of faith to bring it all together. It was actually liberating taking responsibility for it – kind of like a sense of being in control of my own destiny.”
Established in 1994 and now headquartered in Auckland, Icebreaker supplies clothing to more than 5,000 stores in 50 countries and has a global network of “TouchLab” company-owned retail stores throughout New Zealand, Australia and in major international cities like New York City, San Francisco, Montreal, Chicago and Vancouver.
The company’s 24th location recently opened in Ponsonby, Auckland. Holding the fibres of the company together, so to speak, is a core team in New Zealand, Portland, Oregon, Vancouver B.C. Canada, and Starnberg, Germany, leading the business and 430 staff spread out across the globe.
“We have four values that define us – authentic, adventurers, achievers and we’re very passionate. We believe that merino is the ultimate technical fibre and we believe in the power of nature and the benefit to humanity when we connect with it. The types of people that share these beliefs are normally a hell of a lot of fun.”
Leading the flock
Icebreaker was formed on intuition and Jeremy tries his best to ensure that all decisions are shaped by his instinct and the influential people he surrounds himself with, such as Noel Todd and Peter Travers.
“I’ve been fortunate to have two amazing directors who were with me for the first 18 years of Icebreaker. They were formative in the creation of Icebreaker and have been wonderful mentors for me. They both retired last year as they weren’t getting any younger and encouraged me to find new directors,” Jeremy says.
Suffice to say, Jeremy appointed Rob Fyfe as the new CEO of Icebreaker in May, while he himself stepped into the executive chairman of the board and creative director position. Rob had already served as executive chairman for Icebreaker for nine months and has been on the board since 2012. A new office in Auckland opened in November and 30 new roles have been created under the inspiring leadership of Rob.
“Rob and I have a true partnership approach to Icebreaker, and work very closely together. He’s an amazing CEO and brings out the best in people. I’m a naturally curious and creative person and having Rob as CEO lets me focus at a higher level on the vision and purpose for the company, knowing Rob is using his strong CEO skills to bring out the real potential of our people and organisation.
“This new structure has also allowed me to follow my passion around design, branding and product creation, and I think we still have huge potential.”
He refers to his other passion, Better by Design, a business which brings design thinking into New Zealand export-focussed companies and to help them evolve and thrive on an international level. He has been the founding chairman since it started nine years ago. “This is my way of sharing the positive learning and experiences I’ve had within Icebreaker across other New Zealand businesses.”
In addition to chairing Better by Design, he also works with business schools such as Harvard Business School and the University of Otago, and occasionally mentors people whose passion inspires him.
Jumping back to when Jeremy’s love affair with merino wool first started, and when he instigated Icebreaker in 1994, he wanted to make merino wool thermal underwear for sports, but merino wool fabrics didn’t even exist.
So it was up to a 24 year old Jeremy to learn how to make them. With no experience in the apparel business, he admits he made plenty of mistakes.
“In our first production run we had sleeves that were four inches too short because the garments shrunk after the batch of fabric was cut, but because you’re living on a knife edge there is always a way and I got my money back when we sold those as a range of kids clothing,” he says.
“In the second batch the white garments turned yellow, so you can imagine it was just one disaster after another. Eventually I ran out of mistakes to make and that’s when things started getting fun.”
Every two to three years Icebreaker goes through a radical metamorphosis due to how it responds to internal or external forces, “we call this shedding our skin”.
In 1996 a bad batch of merino wool yarn resulted in Icebreaker garments falling apart. “That was a complete game changer for the company. We responded by offering contracts directly with the wool growers, paying a long term premium price in exchange for the highest quality and ethics. This was also a game changer for the merino wool industry in New Zealand and helped lift it from near bankruptcy,” Jeremy says.
In 2003, manufacturing capacity was exceeded and deliveries were falling six to eight weeks behind, so manufacturing was shifted from New Zealand to a global supply chain based in Shanghai. “This gave us access to new technology, higher quality, and world scale.”
In 2007 Icebreaker moved its overseas sales offices to fully owned companies within its key markets such as Germany, Canada, Switzerland and the U.S.
“For the past two years we’ve started opening our own retail stores and eCom business to complement the 5,000 outdoor and snow sports stores we supply globally. Each of these challenges requires a clear vision across the future of the company and the whole team working together aligned with that vision,” he adds.
All or nothing
When I imagine jumping on the business bandwagon it conjures up anxiety directly related to things such as administrative hurdles, financial decisions and legal activities. Business is filled with risk and processes we’d rather not deal with, but at the end of the day passion fuels the idea to build something with meaning and one we want to share with others.
So when you run out of mistakes, just like how Jeremy did, your hard work is measured by success; a success which along the way has been fun and creative, and completely outweighs the hardship you’ve spent months or years overcoming.
For Jeremy, a business plan was critical because it helped to break his thinking down into steps which helped him to “imagine a future of running Icebreaker as an international business from New Zealand. When you get into the swing of it, planning is actually fun and creative and doesn’t have to be complex or scary.”
Large sums of money in the bank will no doubt have a positive effect on anyone, but using money as an enabling force is a more satisfying value. “Entrepreneurialism is an approach to life that reflects a love of building something purposeful. It’s about training your mind to see opportunity and explore scenarios. You need the vision to be inspired by the future in your mind, and the courage to act and follow things through.”
To create a successful purpose-driven business there’s simply no room for insular thinking. “Don’t lock it inside your head and keep it all to yourself. Share it with others and allow them to contribute. Ask for help from people you admire.”
Jeremy says his best decisions are when he’s got the “right mix of analysis and intuition,” and listening to his gut not just his head; opening the first Icebreaker retail store and starting a new product category such as socks is evidence
“My worst decisions are normally when I didn’t make a decision in time or didn’t follow my intuition. For example I wish I appointed a strong chief information officer a few years ago – that would have helped us avoid a lot of expensive systems mistakes we have made.
“To be successful in business, it requires you to give it your all; every ounce of sweat, blood and tears – you’ll have more highs and lows in a month than most people have in a year and it requires a total passionate commitment and belief, and an unflinching focus on building the business you’re committed to.”