Solving puzzles is something that Jason McCaffrey ’94 likes to do.
Not only does he like it, but he is good at it, too.
It’s what drew him to the political science and environmental studies program as a student—back when environmental studies was a new and virtually unheard of academic discipline—and it is what distinguishes him as the Global Business Unit Director, Surf Division, for Patagonia today.
“I remember one project in particular,” McCaffrey recalls from his days as an undergrad. “We had to pick a problem like fossil fuels, examine the cause and effect this problem had on the environment, and determine a more eco-friendly, sustainable solution.
“For me, it was all about researching alternatives and seeing a different way of getting to the same place. It was a new wave back then—it wasn’t something that a whole lot of people were paying attention to, but it really caught my attention because of how it combined my interests.”
Professional problem solver
His skill as a problem solver came in handy shortly after he was hired as the director of the newly developed surf division within Patagonia almost ten years ago. He wanted to create products for the surf community that lived up to Patagonia’s values of environmental consciousness and decided to start this mission with the most essential product for surfers: the wet suit.
“Ten years ago, wet suits were made from non-renewable resources and the quality wasn’t all that great,” McCaffrey said. “People didn’t have the environmental consciousness that they have now. Add to that we were a company from Southern California that didn’t have any roots in surf, and we left quite a few people scratching their heads. But we wanted to create the highest quality product from renewable resources that we could, and we knew we could create a market for this.”
So McCaffrey, a long-time surfer who was well in-tune with the surf community, set to work identifying challenges and researching alternatives. He knew the product would have to be flexible, durable, and warm—in every way more so than the currently available products.
He and his team spent years researching and testing various renewable and environmentally-friendly materials, eventually settling on Yulex, a bio-rubber made from the Guayule plant, as the greatest possible solution.
Jason McCaffrey ’94 (middle) presents the research he and his team have done on responsibly-sourced wetsuit materials.
The only drawback?
The cost of the material meant that there would be virtually little profit off of the product if they wanted to keep their wetsuits competitive with the cost of wetsuits made by other surf companies.
“We knew if there was a long-term profit gain, we could keep moving along with these types of products,” McCaffrey explained. “So we kept creating and kept testing these products, but realized that what it came down to at the end of the day was a need to change the market and to educate consumers on what they were supporting when they bought products using these materials.”
This strategy saw a shift, not only in consumer trends within the surf community, but within the surf industry as a whole as more companies began to look towards environmentally-friendly solutions for creating high-quality products. United Kingdom-based brands like Seea and Finisterre are now using the material in their products, and Patagonia will be launching their second generation of yulex suits this fall.
“Build the best product, cause no unnecessary harm—that’s exactly what our mission is here at Patagonia, and it is why we got into the surf industry, too,” McCaffrey said. “Obviously, we saw that there was financial opportunity to be gained by causing positive change, but changing people’s mind is not an easy thing to do. The fact that this is becoming widely accepted feels pretty cool. It’s an accomplishment for all of us who were working on this project for the past several years.”
In addition to their work with yulex wet suits, his team has also led the launch of fair trade swimwear for men and women, expanded the distribution of personal surf inflation vests, and helped start a global safety course for big wave surfing.
Pursuing a passion, not a paycheck
Of course, McCaffrey was confident in his ability to change the mindset of the surf community when he took on the position. It was one of the reasons why he lobbied for—and was ultimately offered—the position in the first place.
Yet after his graduation, the New Jersey-native wasn’t quite sure where his professional path would take him.
“I knew I didn’t want to spend two to five hours in traffic every day, going to a job where I had to spend 40 hours a week in a suit and tie,” McCaffrey said. “I know it sounds silly, but I knew that wasn’t for me, and it really wiped out a lot of job opportunities at that time.”
Instead, the Phi Gamma Delta brother spent a year after his graduation travelling around the United States—inspired to immerse himself in the landscape and culture of his own country after realizing how little he knew of it while studying abroad in London and Lancaster.
It was a short while later that he noticed a Patagonia catalogue while staying with some friends. After recognizing the landscape of the pictures in the catalogue as a place he had hiked during his cross-country road trip, he decided—on a whim—to give the company a call.
A few days later, he found himself being interviewed by their regional director for retail on the East coast, and accepted a position based in Atlanta, working on the opening of their new store to coincide with the 1996 Summer Olympics.
It was a year later that he moved to California, working in a Patagonia-run surf shop and building surfboards by hand while living in the back of a friend’s van.
“The pay was terrible, but I was never happier,” McCaffrey said. “I could set my own hours doing work that I loved. I could travel. I could surf. I didn’t have much, but I was happy.”
Taking calculated risks
Ultimately, it was his relationship with the former CEO of Patagonia that inspired him to take on a more active leadership role within the company.
“I was at a point in my life where I wanted to look at more long-term career options, and he really encouraged me to go back to school,” McCaffrey said. “I had already been at Patagonia for ten years when I was finishing up my MBA and heard that they were looking for someone who could lead the surf division. I told them that I could start tomorrow. If in six months they didn’t like what I was doing, they could fire me, but it will still be less expensive than hiring an industry executive who doesn’t know anything about the people or the products.
“Of course, they were skeptical, but I liked the challenge.”
It wasn’t the only challenge he would face. Yet as he worked to create surf products that lived up to the mission of Patagonia while simultaneously changing the mindset of the surf community, he turned out to be a risk that paid off for the company.
“In everything I’ve done in my life, making money has never been as important to me as how I make that money,” McCaffrey said. “Figuring out new ways to do the same thing, exceeding current expectations, and leaving a smaller footprint—it’s the puzzle that I will always find interesting,”