Mountain Equipment Co-op is a venerable iconic Canadian brand that’s now called Mountain Equipment Company. Started in 1971 in Vancouver by university friends who would sell hiking gear they purchased in Washington, the co-operative became the country’s largest retailer of outdoor gear. Long a home for runners, MEC famously put on inexpensive races in 2012, but the company received flack when it was announced they were purchased by an American holding company in 2020. Still headquartered in Vancouver and gearing up for a huge summer camping season, Adam Ketcheson, trail runner and MEC’s Chief Commercial Officer, opened up to iRun editor Ben Kaplan on the company’s plans for this summer, next year and, hopefully, forever.
Ben Kaplan: Your LinkedIn profile reads like a compendium of dream jobs, but I think our readers will be happy to know that MEC’s Chief Commercial Officer is a runner.
Adam Ketcheson: I’m a longtime active outdoor person and as a Canadian, I get that weird emotional attachment people feel for MEC. I’ve been a member since the early 90s.
BK: It’s reassuring that the brand remains in good hands.
AK: When I was in high school, all the kids I climbed with worked at MEC. It’s such a place with powerful brand values that the last few years were hard to watch and there’s a lot to unlock, but there’s also a lot of opportunity to make it great, make it what it was designed to be 50 years ago—that’s what pulled me in.
BK: Right. And in the meantime, you were learning the ropes, literally and figuratively, at the world’s best outdoor brands.
AK: I did a great stint at Salomon, and then ten years at The North Face, and Arc’teryx for six years, and so I had plenty of time working in a world that was aligned with my lifestyle, biking, skiing and running by the time this opportunity at MEC came up.
BK: What’s the current opportunity for MEC?
AK: When you’re Canadian, a company like MEC with deep roots is something worth fighting for, worth protecting. I walked in the door right as MEC was about to go through massive transformation—my sweet spot. I came running when this opportunity came up.
BK: What is it exactly that you do?
AK: I oversee the product, marketing and digital organization. My lane is the brand concept and how it comes to life through product.
BK: What’s today’s value prop at MEC?
AK: MEC is about people, product, and community. It’s what I felt in high school—having a personal connection with the company and the people who work there.
BK: How do you stay connected?
AK: Every year around the holidays I go into the stores and work, and I see people are excited to come shopping because these products enable people to do things. MEC’s an unlock for living an outdoor life.
BK: When MEC started, literally no one else in Canada was selling climbing ropes and these types of things—sleeping bags and canteens. But now the field is much more competitive and perhaps your company grew too fast, too soon.
AK: It’s definitely not the same as it was in the 70s in terms of the availability of good outdoor gear in Canada, but it’s just as important today as it was then for us to make sure we offer the person who walks in the door the best, most premium outdoor gear. But we also have to have something for someone who doesn’t have a lot of money to spend. We need to make sure we have value and quality outdoor gear for them, too.
BK: I actually didn’t even realize that you were still headquartered in Vancouver.
AK: We absolutely are and we’re careful not to lose sight of what the store was founded upon—buddies in a van driving down to the States to buy gear at the REI and selling it at their university as a Co-op to their mountain community. We are very much shaped by being a West Coast Vancouver company right at the base of the Coast Mountains
BK: That story resonates so much with a certain type of Canadian. It’s almost like the myth of this country, which is why the receivership stuff was so hard.
AK: I totally get it. MEC filled a void for product and community you couldn’t access in Canada affordably. As a kid, I used to drive from Ottawa to Syracuse for back-to-school shopping and we like these homegrown successes, especially tied to our twin passions, which is the outdoors and sport. We know we have a massive responsibility, and you’ll see that in our product this summer in value, and also quality. We don’t want our product in landfills. We won’t produce anything in a way that’s not sustainable and it has to function in the outdoors.
BK: Tell us about the vibe currently at Mountain Equipment Company.
AK: Very entrepreneurial, like in a way it hasn’t been in 20 years.
BK: What do you mean?
AK: The bigger a company gets, and co-ops are no different, the more cumbersome and complicated they become, and it’s hard to reset the culture. The people that stayed with the company, and the people we now attract, want to go somewhere where they can make a difference. I know I wanted to go somewhere I could have a positive impact.
BK: Like what?
AK: It’s the difference between working for Nike and MEC. At Nike, you’re a cog in a giant wheel building beautiful things, but you don’t get to look back and say, ‘I did that,’ whether it’s community outreach or teaching Learn to Camp or building a new sleeping bag or bringing in a new running shoe brand. Everyone in the company has the ability to make a difference—and that drives culture.
BK: I just feel like the whole country is behind you. We want to see MEC succeed.
AK: The last four years haven’t been easy.
BK: One thing after the other.
AK: Exactly—we went bankrupt and that sucks for everyone. People lost their jobs and that’s brutal and awful, and COVID shut everything down. People stayed home. And then of course the supply chain mangled everyday inventory followed by inflation and maybe a recession, so you have to be resilient.
BK: Luckily your team mostly consists of athletes.
AK: We’re tough. We work hard. We give a shit.
BK: And what is it, beside a paycheque, that you fight for?
AK: People want to see us succeed. But on the flipside, they hold us to a high standard. People’s expectations are high. We used to be a co-op, now we’re a private company but when you show up properly—from product to service—you unlock that love again.
BK: So let’s get into it. What MEC products will unlock the love?
AK: Our camping business is huge and our products are so much sharper coming into this season. We have more technical product offerings, and the camping is surging. We have tons of momentum going into April.
BK: I have a new MEC hydration backpack that’s certainly better than any MEC product I’ve ever owned.
AK: All of our lightweight packs have completely been redesigned. And that makes me happy because we have a massive backpacking business. People are moving further and faster in the Mountains and our new packs reflect that.
BK: I certainly appreciate your being so open and honest. It had been a while since I’d spoken with anyone at MEC and I used to be in cahoots with you guys all the time.
AK: We’d fallen behind in design and development and lost our focus over the last few years, but it’s a good time to be sharing our direction, and we want as many people to try our products as possible. We have great choices across a wide range of categories and our products can go toe-toe with any brand in the market right now.
BK: With all this stress and work, you still getting outside?
AK: I live in North Vancouver and started running fifteen years ago. Today I mostly trail run, but I also hike, backcountry ski and mountain bike. I find all those sports center me. Especially trail running which gives me headspace.
BK: Hopefully on your next run you’ll decide to bring back your races.
AK: I know. People loved them. But running events just take a ton of resources. You have to be all in.
BK: I’m just saying, those were good for the sport.
AK: Oh, for sure. And we have a good running business, it’s important to our members. We sell a lot of Hoka, Brooks and Salomon and good run apparel assortment, but really at our core we’re an outdoor, hike, climb, camp and backcountry ski company. And from a community standpoint, I just think it’s more important to put our dollars and energy behind those categories, like Learn to Camp programs or else supporting the climbing community or Indigenous youth outdoor or—
BK: Fine, fine. I’m just saying—think about it.
AK: Deal. And I totally get it. I run up in the North Shore mountains and I get how fun and social running events can be. You’ll be in the middle of nowhere and then come across a Vancouver run club and those will be the sixty happiest people you’ve ever seen in your life. These are my people.
To check out all the latest from MEC, see MEC.ca.
Glad you brought up the races. I loved those, and I even medaled once! (Benefit of holding a race over an hour’s drive outside of the city.) It’s great to see a C-level at MEC who seems to have a concrete sense of where the company went astray and what “focus” needs to look like, even if it means disappointing some folks who were coming to MEC for things outside of its core strengths. I’m still wearing MEC thermal boxer briefs on every winter run (though I finally wore out my Mercury thermal tights last winter) and I hope at some point they re-introduce their own line of running gear.
The MEC races were a very easy promotional event for the shops. They could have products sold there, it would have likely worked very well. An investment for sure, but profitable. Typically buying less at MEC since they stopped the local races.
Comments are closed.