Skip to content
Link copied to clipboard

Rural Pa. roots help guide leader of outdoor retailer REI, whose gear is coveted during pandemic

"People probably assume I’m outdoors more than I am," said Eric Artz, CEO and president of REI, which has 165 stores in 39 states. "This job’s a little busy."

Eric Artz, CEO and president of outdoor retailer REI, is pictured in mountains far higher than where he grew up in rural Pennsylvania.
Eric Artz, CEO and president of outdoor retailer REI, is pictured in mountains far higher than where he grew up in rural Pennsylvania.Read moreProvided

There’s an empty, peaceful cabin waiting for Eric Artz on Pennsylvania’s scenic Pine Creek, but as the CEO of the nation’s leading outdoor retailer, getting outdoors isn’t always easy.

“I try to live a pretty active lifestyle,” said Artz, president and CEO of Recreational Equipment Inc., or REI. “I’ve always enjoyed cycling, skiing, paddling, boating, and I love to hike and explore. But people probably assume I’m outdoors more than I am. This job’s a little busy.”

The Washington state-based REI has 165 retail stores in 39 states, including locations in King of Prussia, Conshohocken, and Evesham. Organized as a consumers’ co-op that pays annual dividends to its 5.5 million members, REI sells everything from tents to GPS-guided watches, and like retailers nationwide, its stores were temporarily closed when COVID-19 swept across the country. But interest in the outdoors exploded during the pandemic, and many retailers experienced a major run on kayaks, bicycles, and fishing gear.

Artz said the company found itself in a “fortunate situation” when it came to having a product the public was demanding during the pandemic, but “we’re also thankful we can fulfill our purpose and our value.”

“It’s only going to mean more people are going to have a stronger relationship with the outdoors after the crisis,” he said. “Our business has been extremely strong.”

Artz, who was CFO of Philadelphia-based Urban Outfitters for two years before joining REI in 2012, was born and raised in Hegins, a small town in the coal region of Schuylkill County, north of the Appalachian Trail. He studied business at Albright College in Reading before joining the Army.

Growing up in Hegins “was a great experience, an outdoor-oriented experience,” he said. “We lived on a rural road, and four sides of our house were fields and forests, and I came home from school and life would be outside. It entered my blood pretty quickly.”

While the business world contemplates the future of work and office space, REI decided to decentralize and sell its new 400,000-square-foot campus in Bellevue, Wash., before ever moving in. Facebook purchased the campus for $390 million last month. REI won’t be staying in its Kent, Wash., headquarters, either, instead focusing on smaller, regional bases and embracing remote work.

Last month, the co-op announced a plan to cut its carbon footprint in half by 2030 by reducing its suppliers’ emissions and planting more than one million trees.

Artz, who is married with two daughters, has also been heartened to see retailers and shopping centers follow suit, at least partially, on a stance REI first took in 2015 — closing on Thanksgiving and Black Friday. A large number of malls and outlets in the Philadelphia area, including King of Prussia, the Fashion District in Center City, and Cherry Hill, will close for Thanksgiving.

Artz, 52, said he still has a brother living in Pennsylvania and a cabin on Pine Creek, in what may be the state’s most scenic area, north of Williamsport.

“I spent a lot of time up there as a kid with my grandfather,” he said. “I wish I could get back more often.”