REI’s pioneering co-founder Mary Anderson recently passed away at 107.
In 1938, Mary and her husband Lloyd started the outdoor equipment company, then called Recreational Equipment Cooperative. The business, which began as a way for the Seattle couple — who loved being outside and climbing mountains — get better gear for their excursions.
Seventy-nine years later, REI is still going strong, selling supplies for all sorts of athletic and outdoorsy pursuits such as biking, yoga, kayaking and snowboarding. But at first, REI only sold one item: ice axes.
The pair wanted better, less expensive ice axes for their mountaineering, and found that they could get the best deals by cutting out the middleman altogether and importing them from Austria directly. Mary spoke and read German, which made it possible for the couple to order their first stock. Early on, she made the tents the couple and their friends used on their mountaineering adventures. She was also responsible for handling orders and deliveries and ultimately launching the company’s mail order business.
Twenty-one of their friends got on board, and for $1 they purchased lifelong memberships for part ownership in the cooperative and lower prices for gear.
For the first few decades in business, the Andersons ran the company out of their attic and had one retail partner in a local grocery store. In 2016, the company brought in more than $2.56 billion in sales and has 147 locations across the country. The cooperative model is still in effect with more than 16 million members.
The company reported in March that the members received $193.7 million in annual dividends and credit card rebates and that $9.3 million was donated to more than 300 nonprofit organizations.
Before the couple started the company, Mary was a teacher who often took her students on hiking field trips around the region. Her story is a lesson that passion and ingenuity can lead to lifelong business success.