REI Brand Strategist, UM Grad: A Life Outdoors is a Life Well Lived

Ken Quinn

Dec. 12, 2018

Ken Quinn is brand strategist at REI, the national outdoor retail co-op dedicated to inspiring, educating and outfitting people for outdoor adventure. He completed his MBA at the University of Montana in 2001 and has 15 years of experience in the world of brand strategy and design. He is also a regular guest lecturer at the university level, including the UM College of Business.

In 2017 he joined REI, which is recognized by national experts for its products, employment culture and communities and has been chosen for FORTUNE magazine's "100 Best Companies to Work For" every year since the magazine began compiling the list in 1998.

Quinn was kind enough to answer the following questions about his background, what motivated him to pursue his MBA at UM, and his work professionally as a brand strategist. Our conversation has been lightly edited for clarity and brevity.

COB: Can you tell us something about your upbringing that you think influenced your career trajectory?

KQ: I grew up in the suburbs of Chicago in an Irish town called Elmhurst. I was the oldest of five (3 brothers and 1 sister) in a packed household — 1 bedroom for four boys! It was a fairly straightforward, 1980’s upbringing: meat and potatoes, high fructose corn syrup, riding bikes with friends around town, playing sports, watching sports. But things got pretty boring pretty fast. I remember turning to art for entertainment — sketching, drawing, making up stories and cartoons. Looking back at it now, the homogenous nature that was the pancake-flat Chicago suburbs of the 80’s fueled my creative appetite. It wasn’t until junior year in high school when a teacher noted my creativity and pushed a general direction toward the arts. The only college degree I knew of to monetize creativity was getting into the field of advertising.

What motivated your path of study as a college student?

There were two drivers that motivated my path of study: a school that offered a strong Advertising program and a school that was in the opposite setting as the Midwest. I wanted to use this college opportunity to learn in an environment completely foreign to me. That led me to Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, Arizona. By the time I graduated with honors with an advertising degree, I was determined to obtain an MBA to balance my creativity with business acumen…because, by the time I graduated, I discovered and sought an emerging new path to be a brand strategist.

Why did you choose the University of Montana for your MBA?

Choosing UM was a bit nonlinear. I remember one of my favorite classes at NAU was organizational communication and the book was written by a professor at UM named Dr. George Cheney. I was a fan.  I know, who becomes fans of college textbook authors? I was hoping to take one of his classes while pursuing an MBA. Looking into UM from afar exposed me to the Missoula backdrop for the first time.  It looked and sounded wild, distant and adventurous. The kind of environment I was looking for. By then I had defined myself as an outdoor enthusiast. While traveling through Europe that summer, I received word that I was accepted to several universities both small and large. UM was my perfect next step in taking an uncommon path in life. I proudly accepted the offer.

How did your experience at UM help prepare you for your success over the last 15 years in the world of brand strategy and design?

Sounds corny, but UM gave me room and relationships to grow into my own person. I believe I wouldn’t have had that in a university setting of 45,000+ students. I recall teachers being able to have conversations with the class and having the time to meet in-person to dissect my thinking. The small class size spurred friendships and a competitive rivalry that allowed us all to push our studies. I valued that everyone wasn’t in lockstep with their career path. Some were chasing financial careers, careers in managing their parent’s business, careers in health science.  In my case, I was chasing a career in brand strategy. All of those backdrops allowed us to cross-pollinate our thinking into some healthy discussions.

What elements of the University of Montana and Missoula did you find the most rewarding?

I’d say the key elements were having an intimate learning culture coupled with the numerous outdoor outlets to ‘unplug’. I could study hard and play hard. Simple as that. I recall my family coming to visit for the first time and being awestruck by how remote and wild Missoula appeared to them. I loved their disbelief. And nestled at the bottom of the “M” mountain (Mount Sentinel) was this historic college setting where I was not a number but whoever I wanted to be. I didn’t have to fit in. It was an environment that instilled values that I carry to this day: integrity, grit and appreciation.

How did your time working for brand/design firms and creative agencies shape you as a professional?

Like many who graduated, the hardest part was finding a way to stay in Missoula. I gave it a try, starting my own brand strategy shop. It was literally a garage-startup with UM media arts grads. There were some cold winters working out of that garage with the space heaters working overtime! That experience afforded a crash course in running and managing your own business. It taught me how to sell my skills to prospective companies. We were profitable our first year in business and named by the Missoulian as a studio “packed with creative energy.”

After a couple years, I decided I wanted to test my skills on the world’s stage and that required a reluctant move back to Chicago. Unlike my Missoula days, I was merely a chicken scratch in that city and within that industry. I had to fight hard to succeed. I was working an unhealthy amount of hours, traveling all over the world. It was sacrifice to the career, but if you can make it through 4-5 years, you likely obtained what I like to call the “golden key.” The “golden key” is a portfolio and a range of experience that you could apply to nearly any client scenario. You eventually become a sought-after asset to any agency or client. It’s at that point I was able to take control of where and what exactly I wanted to do as a brand strategist. That’s when I began to freelance and regain my outdoor pursuits.

How did you end up at REI?

This is a circuitous, fun story. REI was the first company I EVER applied to. It was 1998 when I graduated from NAU and decided to apply to a REI headquarters job opening. Back then you couldn’t apply online. I printed my cover letter, resume and sent it in the mail for a hopeful response. It never came. 

Unrelated, I found my way to Seattle as a brand strategist and built a network over time. Surprisingly, REI never had a brand department until recently. When they started staffing a team in 2017, my contacts within the co-op reached out to me to apply.  I landed an interview for a senior position on the brand strategy team — overseeing the brand-driven marketing for REI.  I was later told I was one of hundreds upon hundreds of applicants nationwide. I sensed it was a competitive position so I played a full-court press on the opportunity — having friends and networks lobby on my behalf. It wasn’t overbearing but between my background and the relationships that advocated for me, I was able to get in the door — 20 years after my first try!  

Working at REI seems like a dream job, especially to us outdoor-inclined Missoulians. What do you love most about your job and line of work?

The REI brand purpose, A Life Outdoors is a Life Well Lived, is a purpose I 100 percent believe in and champion. Every day I’m tacking ways we can get more Americans outside. The more people that find that path to the outdoors, the more voices we have to protect our access to the outdoors.

It’s an important cause. It’s also an interesting time to work for an 80-year-old retail company amidst the backdrop of Amazon. REI is doing fantastic but it is a company in transition. We want to move from a retail to experiences company and we have the runway to actually make this happen — offering classes and outings at our stores, weekend trips to exotic adventures abroad via REI adventures. We also have an opportunity to rethink what it means to be an REI member. It’s an environment that wants to push ideas. I thrive in such environments. Oh, and of course it helps to have a company that wants to support your own outdoor interests with all kinds of perks. It’s a fun, dynamic place.

What advice do you have for current business students just beginning to launch their careers?

Advice? Stay humble, success doesn’t happen overnight. Find yourself, take advantage of your youth to go on soul-searching adventures. Do work that scares you, you’ll never grow unless you push into the unknown. Cross-pollinate, connect with others that have different interests and backgrounds than you — that’s where revolutionary ideas start! And last but not least…stay connected. Those relationships you have with fellow classmates are the underpinnings of your career support network. Help one and another achieve their aspirations.