Media reports have linked Jerry Stritzke, REI's former CEO, with the head of an outdoor nonprofit that received nearly $1.5 million in grants from the Seattle retailer.
Even as REI tries to move past last week’s surprise resignation of CEO Jerry Stritzke, new questions have surfaced in the outdoor industry after the subsequent departure of a woman who led a nonprofit that received $1.4 million from REI’s philanthropic wing.
On Feb. 12, the Kent-based outdoor equipment retailer announced that Stritzke, 58, would step down after failing to disclose a “personal and consensual relationship” with the head of “another organization in the outdoor industry,” which REI declined to identify.
Although an investigation by the member-owned cooperative uncovered no financial misconduct by Stritzke, REI officials said, his failure to disclose the relationship violated company guidelines and “led to a perceived conflict of interest” for the retailer, which has long cultivated an image of transparency and ethical behavior.
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Days later the trade publication SNEWS reported the resignation of another outdoor industry leader — Deanne Buck, CEO of Camber Outdoors. The Boulder, Colo.-based nonprofit promotes diversity in outdoor recreation and has received $1.4 million from the nonprofit REI Foundation.
The SNEWS report prompted other media reports and revived the issue of Stritzke’s resignation in the outdoor industry.
REI would not comment about Buck or Camber Outdoors. Camber Outdoors also declined to respond to an email query from The Seattle Times.
During an interview last week with SNEWS, Buck deflected a question about whether she had a relationship with Stritzke, saying that “any question about REI and Jerry’s personal relationship or personal life should be directed to REI.”
Jerry and Edith Stritzke filed for divorce in January of 2017.
Buck also told SNEWS that her departure from Camber Outdoors had been in works since last June, but had been accelerated following a controversy over remarks she made in January, when she suggested that one of Camber’s diversity initiatives was “the first of its kind.” Buck and Camber Outdoors have since apologized and acknowledged that similar initiatives were launched much earlier by other groups and individuals.
But the timing of Buck’s resignation, just three days after Stritzke’s, and the philanthropic connection between the two organizations, prompted speculation that Buck was the other party in the relationship.
REI works with many outdoor and environmental nonprofits, which it often supports through generous grants — nearly $100 million since 1976. In 2018 alone, REI gave $8.8 million, according to the company.
Some of that philanthropy is managed by the REI Foundation, a separate nonprofit whose board includes the company CEO, said REI spokeswoman Halley Knigge.
In January of 2015, Stritzke signed a $1.5 million “pledge” intended to help Camber Outdoors transform itself “from a networking association for women into an organization focused on tackling bigger questions of gender equity in the outdoor industry,” said Knigge. To date, $1.4 million of that pledge has been fulfilled, Knigge said.
REI officials declined to say how involved Stritzke had been in the decision to offer the funds to Camber Outdoors.
Similarly, neither Knigge nor Steve Hooper, REI board chair, would comment on whether the pledge was connected to the investigation into Stritzke’s relationship or to his subsequent resignation.
In a brief telephone interview Wednesday, Hooper reiterated that the sole issue for REI was Stritzke’s failure to disclose the relationship — “The perceived conflict of interest that was not disclosed according to the [company’s] policy, and the fact that all employees at REI are held to the same standard, but executives and leaders in an organization must exhibit the highest standard of conduct.” Hooper also repeated earlier comments about the board’s satisfaction with Stritzke’s performance as CEO.
Knigge said REI has no plans to review or change its grant-making processes, and added that Camber Outdoors would be receiving the final $100,000 of the REI Foundation grant.