By Mary L. Grady
Dennis Madsen joined Recreational Equipment Inc., as a stockboy when he was 17 years old. Last month, 39 years after taking that first job, Madsen retired as CEO from the outdoor gear giant..
Madsen shakes his head about the serendipity of that first job that changed his life.
It was his love and growing appreciation for the outdoors that began as a teenager that had him choose the low-paying REI job over another one that would have paid more. He credits that appreciation to a kind and dedicated church scoutmaster who took him and his fellow scouts out of the city when he was a boy.
But now Madsen is beginning a new phase of his life continuing the work of that scoutmaster.
“When I thought about retiring, I started to think about what to do next with my life,” he said. “I thought back on all the people I had met through REI, the non-profits and volunteers whose commitment to the environment came from a love of being in the outdoors.”
Madsen said it was a man named Walt Prevost, a Boeing engineer, and other scout leaders at the West Seattle Christian Church that took him out camping with his scout troop. They floated down the rivers of Western Washington past cow pastures and farms, then moved on and up to white rapids.
“This gentleman gave a lot of himself. He developed my appreciation for the outdoors,” Madsen said.
When it came to look for a job when he was 17, Madsen answered an ad in the newspaper. It was working as a stock person for $1.25 an hour at REI. His other choice was to work at a factory making paper bags for $2.50 an hour.
His parents were a little concerned about his choice, he remembered.
He began at the first and only REI store up on Capitol Hill. It was 1966. REI is a retail cooperative where members serve on the board and participate in the direction of the company and share in the profits.
He kept the bins filled with climbing gear; carbingers, pitons and packets of freeze-dried food and reported to the only buyer for the store at the time.
“I was definitely the lowest man on the totem pole,” he smiled.
As Madsen moved up in the company, the leather and metal of climbing gear changed, too, giving way to Gortex and micro-fibers, fashion as well as function.
From that first store with 33 employees on Capitol Hill and revenue of $1.8 million annually, the cooperative has grown to 77 stores nationwide with 8,000 employees and sales of over $1 billion a year.
Local outdoor legend Ira Spring, author of many books on hiking in Western Washington was a long time board member of the co-op. He viewed REI’s role as getting as many people as possible in the mountains, Madsen explained.
He felt strongly that a way to protect those areas is to get people out to appreciate them, he continued.
Over the years, Madsen met people from Earthcore, Outward Bound and other organizations who, through their programs, instill the values of recreation and ecology in young people.
“These passionate volunteers reminded me of my scout leaders four decades ago,” he said. “They play an important role in the sustainability of the outdoors.”
Starting the Youth Outdoors Legacy Fund is a way Madsen said he can keep a hand in what he has worked toward all these years.
Madsen coaxed seed money from REI, added some of his own and is looking for other like-minded individuals to join in.
“We want to get the money out there where it will touch the most kids. Sometimes it is just a little bit of money that can make a huge difference; camp tuition fees, bus tickets or rental fees for canoes or packs,” he explained.
It may help kids stay in shape as well. It is OK to eat at McDonalds as long as we all stay active, he said.
Madsen has two grown daughters and a treasured granddaughter, Taylor, 9.
Grandfather and granddaughter get together often to experience the outdoors.
He has climbed Mount Rainier seven or eight times, he said. He has been all over the world on other mountains with famed climbers, such as Ed Viesturs and the Whittakers. He has explored rivers and hiked trails. But Madsen said he is actually less intense now about his own adventures.
He has sold his Island house and is paring down his possessions. He is planning to live on his boat for a time.
It is the journey not the destination, he said, explaining how much satisfaction he gets out of seeing Taylor enjoy the outdoors.
For more information, check the foundation’s Web site at www.youthoutdoors