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Credit: Courtesy of Herschel Supply Co.

Jon Hoerauf, who joined Herschel as CEO in March, was previously president of Arc’teryx Equipment

Founders Lyndon and Jamie Cormack tapped outdoor apparel veteran Jon Hoerauf to help the midsize B.C. retailer grow in the wake of the pandemic

Herschel Supply Co. looked far and wide for its first-ever CEO, only to find the right person in its backyard.

“We hired a New York–based search firm to go scout out the market,” says Lyndon Cormack, co-founder of the Vancouver-headquartered bag maker and retailer. “We talked to world-class candidates from all four corners of this Earth,” he adds of the search, which began early last year.

In the end, Cormack and his brother Jamie settled on Jon Hoerauf, a veteran of the outdoor apparel industry. “We had some amazing candidates, and our first choice was Jon,” Cormack says via Zoom from Herschel’s Railtown offices. “Not because he lived in Vancouver but because we thought he’d be the best to help navigate the next decade.”

For the founders of the 200-employee company, it was time to bring on someone who knows how to grow brands on a large scale. Launched in a Gastown basement studio 10 years ago, Herschel now sells its backpacks, bags and accessories at 9,000 retail doors in some 90 countries, Cormack notes. But he sees plenty more room for expansion.

“There’s a lot of different mechanisms that are going to help us scale to the next level, whether that be smartening up on digital distribution to how do we prioritize geographies right through to what are the next products Herschel is going to be famous for.”

Hoerauf brings a wealth of experience to the job. Before joining Herschel in March, he was president of North Vancouver–based outdoor clothing and gear specialist Arc’teryx Equipment, as well as president, apparel, with Chinese-owned Amer Sports, whose brands include Arc’teryx, Salomon and Wilson.

He previously spent more than a decade with The North Face, where he served as global product director of the American clothier’s high-performance Summit Series and played a key role in growing annual revenue from US$100 million to more than US$2 billion.

“My favourite thing in my career has been building high-performing organizations, helping take brands and cultures to the next level,” Hoerauf says. “What I saw from the outside was an amazing, well-curated brand that was 10 years young,” he adds of Herschel. “And a lot of drive and energy and grit inside the organization, a lot of entrepreneurial spirit.”

Hoerauf plans to help the brand evolve, he says. “A lot of people have used our travel cases and our backpacks to move around in their lives quite easily,” he observes. “We want to grow that beyond just a functional connection to a longer-term emotional connection, which means that Herschel has to mean something to people beyond just a backpack to carry their everyday life in,” he explains. “Once we figure that piece out, that will allow us to expand product categories and things like that, but in a way that hits both functional and emotional attributes.”

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Credit: Courtesy of Herschel Supply Co.

Herschel has sold almost a million face masks since it started making them last year

How do we use this pause for the better?

Asked what it’s like to run Herschel during a pandemic, Cormack doesn’t mince words. “It’s been challenging,” he admits. “It’s been horrible and really special, all in the same breath.”

Cormack flew home from New York last March 12, the first day of mandated travel quarantine in B.C., he recalls. “About two weeks later, we were shutting down our entire offices, and everybody was working from home,” he says. “We were facing a global depression, and everybody was left scrambling to figure out what we should do, including us.”

After digging in its heels to manage the crisis, Herschel saw an opportunity, Cormack says. “We quickly moved to our toes to say, We’ve never had a pause in our business, ever,” he remembers. “All we’ve been doing is running and running and running, and growing and growing and growing. We’ve got a pause here, so how do we use this pause for the better?”

For one thing, the team started improving Herschel’s sustainability efforts. “It’s going to be really important for the brand to be more responsible out there in the world,” Cormack says. “So we spent a great deal of time working with vendors, working with raw materials suppliers to figure out how we could be better.”

As one result of that move, Herschel customers can expect more products made with recycled, organic and other eco-friendly materials.

The company also revamped its digital operations. “We’re very, very well set up to be able to facilitate business in a modern world,” Cormack says. “When we’re allowed to be interacting with customers, great. We’ve always been really good at that. But we also have built this digital capability that didn’t completely exist before.”

In response to the pandemic, Herschel pivoted to making face masks, too. So far, the company has sold almost a million. “It’s the first business I’m looking forward to getting out of,” Cormack jokes. “I hope it doesn’t last too long.”

On the talent side, the shift to remote work is an advantage, Hoerauf maintains. “It actually, in a lot of ways, opens up the door for not only retaining top talent that you have today—because people are looking for flexibility in their lives—but also attracting new talent in the future, especially for roles where maybe they don’t have to come into the office on a daily basis.”

Cormack is encouraged by the return of travel in the U.S., Herschel’s biggest market, where COVID-19 vaccinations are proceeding rapidly. Last month, American airports saw their highest passenger volumes since the previous March.

“All in all, we didn’t have our best year, but we had a pretty good year,” Cormack says. “We’re looking forward to coming out of this thing and getting back to the future and defining what that means for Herschel.”