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Patagonia Keeps Betting on Parents


Last fall, Patagonia finalized the relocation of its Reno outlet store from the outskirts of the city, where it had stood for 20 years, downtown to the former headquarters of the Hudson Motor Car Company. The new digs are beautiful — the store showcases the showroom’s old brick walls and car elevators — and right in the middle of an increasingly trendy neighborhood. But Patagonia hadn’t moved its store 5.8 miles just to chase foot traffic. The relocation was made to make room for an expanded onsite childcare facility. The number of employees at the outlet store and, mainly, its neighboring national distribution warehouse had risen to nearly 400 and the existing facility was no longer deemed acceptable by company brass.

Think about that move. The planning. The expenses. The commitment. Now think about this: The bulk of the employees who leave their kids at Patagonia’s Truckee River Child Developmental Center in Reno are hourly factory workers. Even though on-site childcare is an almost unheard of perk for the almost 1 million warehouse workers in America, Patagonia was concerned about the size and quality of its nearly unprecedented facility.

For executives outside the company, that sort of thinking might sound borderline eccentric. For the many lifers within the company, it sounds about par for the course.

“That we provide the Reno warehouse workers the opportunity of daycare as well as all other benefits is something I’m really proud of,” says Dean Carter, Patagonia’s Vice President of Human Resources. “We could just operate as a corporate office and not worry about Reno and find talent there to pick and pack and drive forklifts. We’re just doing it because it’s the right thing to do.”

Since Yvon Chouinard and his wife started Patagonia in a shed in 1973, the company, which now employs nearly 2,000,  has provided paid leave moms and dads. A father himself, the now-iconic founder, mountain climber, and environmentalist wanted to create a company with values that lined up with its customers’ aspirations. He also wanted to create a company where talented people could spend happy careers. Family care, he knew, had to be an integral part of that effort.

And it has been. Today, Patagonia’s a global brand and an oft-cited model of family support. The company provides all part- and full-time employees in the U.S. with at least 12 weeks of paid parental leave. Fathers can use their paternity leave any time they want during their child’s first year and if business travel is required of new dads or moms child care professionals are available to come along for the trip. All expecting parents are given information from child development professionals and directed to benefits like dependent care FSA and child care stipends.

And then there are the childcare facilities, which are the lynchpin of the whole parental operation. The company has two — the Great Pacific Child Development Center at the company’s corporate headquarters in Ventura, California and the aforementioned Truckee River Child Developmental Center in Reno. While these facilities are not free, they are competitive with rates in each area; subsidies are offered at both. For that money, employees get access to teachers who are bilingual and trained in child development. Unsurprisingly given the context, the curriculum emphasizes unstructured play and outdoor learning.

The policy and perks, per Carter, are great because they represent a corporate commitment to work-life balance. He insists that if they weren’t true, they would represent nothing more than a very intricate form of lip service.

“You can have policies to support maternity leave and paternity leave, but if you don’t have a culture around it, then it doesn’t work,” he says. “It’s expected and encouraged here that you have a kid you’re going to take your full amount of time.”

In addition to providing kids with education and proper development, the onsite childcare facilities make it simple for parents to casually swing by during the day and grab some quick time with their kids. If that’s not enough, parents can also bring kids into the office. It’s not uncommon at Patagonia headquarters to see new dads typing out memos next to a napping infants or having meetings with a child in their lap. And since employee children become friends, so do employee parents. All of this leads to a diverse support network for new parents — and for a standard to be set.

“No one worries about what will happen when they have children,” says Carter, sounding not unlike a proud father. “They know, and they see a positive work-life balance every day.”

The proof is in the percentages: 100 percent of women who take maternity leave return and turnover for parents with kids in the on-site child care programs is 25 percent lower than turnover in the general employee population, which is already unusually low. Patagonia pays $1 million a year for its childcare facilities and Carter says tax credits and employee retention make up for the cost. And that sort of thinking has only expanded. Patagonia now has a generational workforce.

“Children who grew up in the daycare in the ’80s and ‘90s are now parents who work for Patagonia,” says Carter. “They’re managers and leaders. So, their parents worked here, and they went to school here, and now they’re working here and leading and making huge change.”

If the fact that it isn’t for executives is what makes the child care facility in Reno remarkable to those outside the organization, perhaps Patagonia’s executives are smart not to think of it in those terms. Maybe they understand that tomorrow’s executive are in today’s daycare centers. Maybe they have found a new way to invest.