With so many people chained to their desks for long hours, stuck inside working on presentations or hosting board meetings, it’s common to daydream about what might have been if we had chosen a different path. Perhaps a path that gave access to the big world outside, sunshine replacing the office fluorescents, the forest your new corner office, KPIs centred around how fast you reach a mountain peak or traverse the length of a river, nothing but the elements as roadblocks. For Franco Fogliato, this dream is a reality.
The lure of the great outdoors
Growing up in Northeast Italy, with the Dolomites as his playground, today Franco is senior vice-president and general manager EMEA for Columbia Sportswear – a premier sports apparel and equipment retailer.
Twenty years ago, as an Italian business school graduate who had just completed his mandatory year-long military training with the Scuola di Artiglieria, Franco was given 2 opportunities: to take his place beside his classmates working in a bank, or work with a popular outdoor lifestyle company.
“It was a very quick decision; it probably only took me one second. I just went and signed up for the outdoors company,” says Franco. “It was my passion: getting out there, enjoying the outdoors, having fun skiing, running and mountaineering. It was the perfect opportunity to merge my passion with my work.”
Franco feels very fortunate that this opportunity came so early on in his career, claiming to know many people who wish they could change their careers to enjoy the outdoors more, but feel they can’t because it’s too late in life.
“I was really so lucky,” he says. “Some of my best mates spend 10 hours a day in a bank. There’s nothing wrong with that – it’s a good job and they are well paid – but it’s not what I’d choose.”
An attractive global brand
The opportunity was also a big attraction because of its global reach, as, after growing up around his family’s small business, Franco longed for something more far reaching.
“I was keen to be with a global brand. I wanted to engage with many other cultures, and that desire has allowed me to travel all around the world, leading teams full of different cultures and nationalities,” says Franco.
“I sit down with my management team today and there are 7 or 8 nationalities involved, and you’ve got to be adaptable; you’ve got to evolve; you’ve got to convince and engage people who have a different way of looking at things.”
Two decades on, Franco has built an extensive management skill set ranging from brand management and forecasting, omnichannel distribution, sales and marketing, and his favourite: product testing. “I work in my spare time. When I go out on a trail, on a slope, or for a free ride, I’ll have one of our jackets on, and I will come back and give feedback about the product – plus I’m having fun,” says Franco.
“I work in my spare time. When I go out on a trail, on a slope, or for a free ride, I’ll have one of our jackets on, and I will come back and give feedback about the product – plus I’m having fun.”
“I probably test between 50 and 60% of the product range, whether I’m training for an ultra-distance race, going skiing, or just going for a morning run with my dogs. I keep asking the product team, ‘What’s next? Can I test it?’ They like it, though; it’s nice to see leaders of the company use the product and provide feedback.”
A happier, healthier lifestyle
The ultimate goal of Columbia Sportswear is to allow people to enjoy the outdoors longer, in a world where it’s now normal to spend the majority of our days inside, in front of screens.
Let your people enjoy a healthier, happier lifestyle. The world is changing. The way we work is changing. We’ve got to constantly evolve.
“Being outdoors makes people better. It doesn’t matter whether it is going for a run a few times a week, a hike in the forest, or if it’s an ultra-marathon on the south face of the Alps,” says Franco. “This has been our motivation since the founding family, the Boyles, created the company almost 80 years ago.”
The same drive still exists, with products constantly being improved or introduced. Even the much-loved chairman, 93-year-old Gert Boyle, still comes into the office 4 days a week. “She is an icon of the industry,” says Franco.
Columbia also sponsors substantial sporting events like the Ultra-Trail du Mont-Blanc (UTMB®), one of the iconic ultra-marathon trail events of the world, attracting upwards of 10,000 participants. “We constantly invest in outdoor adventure; it’s in our DNA,” says Franco.
“Fifteen years ago, someone would say, ‘Running in the mountains; are you mad?’ but now there are races like this all around the world. The UTMB involves running 100 miles with 10,000 metres of positive climb. That’s considered cool today. That’s the modern human being.”
“We constantly invest in outdoor adventure; it’s in our DNA.”
If Franco had one piece of advice for other leaders, it would be to get outdoors more; but equally important, he says, is to let your staff go outdoors more too.
“Let your people enjoy a healthier, happier lifestyle. The world is changing. The way we work is changing. We’ve got to evolve and make sure we do the best thing for our people. Let your staff go outside and enjoy themselves, because when they come back, they will be more productive and efficient. No doubt about that.”