Bill McLaughlin

President, Orvis

What I always enjoyed about Tuck was the team element—being forced to work with individuals who were different from you and together figuring out how to achieve things that as individuals we probably couldn’t have.

Bill McLaughlin D'78, T’81 had already drawn the curtain on the second act of a successful management career when he took over as president of Orvis, the venerable fly-fishing and lifestyle brand based in Manchester, Vermont. “I was retired and just wasn’t being fulfilled by board work,” explains McLaughlin, 60. “I realized I was a better player than coach.”

That’s a good sound bite, but too modest by half. McLaughlin rose through the ranks to lead Frito Lay divisions in Latin America and Europe before joining Select Comfort Corporation as CEO, where his team coined the catchphrase, “What’s your sleep number?” The rebranding transformed the way Americans think about sleep, and the company’s sales more than tripled. So it’s true that McLaughlin has a strong record as a business player. Just don’t buy the line about being a lousy coach. His success at Select Comfort owes much to his ability to empower his team, and at Frito Lay he took great satisfaction in the fact that his business units routinely exported talent to the rest of the organization.

“My career has really been about bringing teams around specific challenges or opportunities,” says McLaughlin, who joined Orvis in July 2015. His mandate is not only to help the nation’s oldest mail-order business realize the full potential of its iconic brand, but also to groom a new generation to lead the family-owned company.

The move brings him close to his Tuck roots, both geographically and philosophically. “What I always enjoyed about Tuck was the team element—being forced to work with individuals who were different from you and together figuring out how to achieve things that as individuals we probably couldn’t have.”

Tuck is also where friends introduced him to fly fishing and wing shooting, passions that are now central to his role at Orvis. “I went out fly fishing and bird hunting with my classmates and just loved it,” says McLaughlin, who while at Hanover also met his wife, Martha (Symmes) McLaughlin T’81. When we spoke, McLaughlin was planning a fishing trip with Tuck friends who first wet a line with him 37 years ago. All of them are still learning to fish, he says.

“In fly fishing, there’s that whole depth of learning and curiosity that I think translates into being curious about other people—what your customer wants, what your associates need.”

Case in point: When he joined Select Comfort in 2000, McLaughlin was the fifth CEO in two years. One Saturday not long after he started, a young marketing executive asked if he too planned to leave. When McLaughlin answered that he was in for the long haul, the kid dropped the $64,000 question: Well then, what do you think we should do?

“I told him we’ve got to stop calling ourselves something generic like an air bed company and get people into our stores where all of our assets are,” McLaughlin recalls. “And he said, ‘If that’s what you want to do you should look at this campaign we developed two years ago.’ So we went to the closet and dug out tapes of focus groups, and they had the concept. They had Sleep Number identified and it was just sitting in a closet.”

McLaughlin had never worked in retail before he came to Select Comfort and inherited more than 200 stores. But he trusted his team and he knew how to listen—skills he credits to his time at Tuck—making him open to other people’s ideas and giving him a clear-eyed vision of his company’s customers and unique competitive advantages. Select Comfort thrived. Sales surged from $250 million to $800 million (with over 400 stores) by the time McLaughlin retired after 12 years on the job.

That was in 2012, and McLaughlin soon realized he didn’t like life on the sidelines. He wanted back in the game. The position at Orvis fit his sporting passions and also presented an interesting branding challenge, the opportunity to learn, and a chance to share his knowledge.

Charles Orvis opened his tackle shop in Manchester, Vermont, in 1856 and soon built a mail-order business on the legendary quality of his split-cane bamboo fly rods. The company still sells those hand-crafted rods, but over the years it diversified into men’s and women’s apparel, home furnishings, even dog beds. “We had really operated in product category silos and there was not a lot of coordination between them,” McLaughlin says. “So we’ve been working on the ‘power of one Orvis.’”

This past Father’s Day, Orvis put a full-court press through all its distribution channels—catalog, online, in-store—around the message “Great Gifts for Great Dads.” Incredibly, the iconic retailer had never done anything like it. “That was our first integrated Orvis-wide event,” McLaughlin says. More are on tap.

Orvis is also continuing to adapt its traditional heritage to new, more modern consumer interests. Conservation is a good example. Orvis was an early leader in corporate responsibility, “protecting what we love”, donating 5 percent of earnings annually to protect the outdoors. As important as the funding has been the personal leadership in conservation organizations demonstrated by the Perkins family. That’s something that Orvis CEO Perk Perkins and his brother, vice chairman Dave Perkins, have embraced wholeheartedly.

There’s also the matter of family tradition. On his 65th birthday in 1992, company patriarch Leigh Perkins turned over day-to-day operation of the company to his sons, and began logging upwards of 300 days a year fishing and hunting and continued dedication to conservation. His boys would like to follow suit.

A third generation is coming up through the ranks, gaining experience under the eye of McLaughlin. It’s clear he relishes the role of the wily player-coach. “One of the things that attracted me to this opportunity was the chance to work with these great young men,” he says.

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