Harry McPherson has made a living from his passion for the outdoors. As a product developer and company positioning expert, it is his task to imagine how products can be improved, then make those improvements a reality. Most recently, he was integral to developing the new Carhartt Full Swing line of workwear.
Under the tagline “Move like you mean it,” Carhartt Full Swing promises the durability and ruggedness for which it’s famous as well as a full range of motion.
During a recent interview, McPherson described the rigorous process through which Carhartt Full Swing’s innovations were hatched: “We traveled to job sites and watched people work, and then would ask them questions (over free pizza) about what worked – and what didn’t work as well – in their work apparel. Binding and catching and restricted movement seemed to boil to the top.”
But traditional focus groups were just the start of the development task, as McPherson elaborated: “We then sent out questionnaires to a broad group, with photos in them, and we asked the group to color in the pictures showing us where they felt restriction. Then Design and Category Management went to work to find solutions for the problems our consumers were experiencing. It meant finding new materials, working with Technical Design for new fits, training sewers to handle some of the new materials like stretch panels and special insulation and stretchy mesh fabrics. “We also scrubbed customer feedback on our web or through Customer Service looking for information and comments on this type of issue, just to be sure we were addressing consumer needs,” he said.
Having collected all this customer feedback, Carhartt’s next challenge was to creatively translate that information into the full line of outerwear, pants and shirts that make up the Carhartt Full Swing line. McPherson’s verdict on the results is both confident and understated: “Innovation tied to customer feedback delivers very compelling results.” Full Swing is Carhartt’s compelling reply to its customers’ feedback. Now it’s up to Carhartt’s loyal customers to test and respond to these products, letting McPherson and his team know how well they listened.
Even though product development is business as usual for McPherson, I was interested to find out how, when and where his rather unique career path had taken shape. It turns out, he started his career as a sales clerk in a Maine sporting goods store.
“I knew a lot about outdoors products because I hunted, camped, fished and hiked all the time and had an opinion of what worked so I was effective [as a sales clerk],” he said. “I was also a library rat reading every outdoor and hunting magazine available, reading up on new products and seeking them out. If they were good, I would figure out a way for the store I worked at to carry them.”
McPherson’s efforts got him noticed. He moved up from sales clerk to manager and then buyer/manager. From there, he moved to manage a high-end, three-store chain where he also took on marketing, business planning and traveling to tradeshows in Europe. Continuing his climb, McPherson took a job at L.L. Bean as a catalog designer and developer of outdoor gear.
In addition to his considerable hard work, McPherson acknowledges and is grateful for the inspiration and support of his mentors, “As I look at my career, I had several important people who coached and mentored me. [….] They taught me to learn from my mistakes, how to coach others and welcomed my style.” Among his influencers, McPherson singled out his first supervisor at L.L. Bean, who “…encouraged me to trust my instincts and push myself toward broader thinking.”
This same mentor further encouraged McPherson to return to college. Years earlier, he’d “flunked out,” in his words, because he’d cut too many classes in order to go hiking, fishing and hunting. Completing his degree in English by attending evening classes, he honed his passions for reading and creative writing (which he still pursues through short stories and poems). Summing up the influence of his mentor, McPherson said, “In other words, he encouraged me to become a leader.”
Rounding out our conversation, I asked McPherson to recount a favorite story from his ample outdoor experiences. He described his ideal day in terms of what he calls his “triathlon:”
“I’d bring some new gear to test and head to the White Mountains in New Hampshire. I’d begin the day rock climbing on Whitehorse or Cathedral Ledge in North Conway, some of the prettiest rocks and ledges in America. Then just about noon I would take a bicycle I brought to test for a great ride from North Conway up to Attitash Mountain and past, looping back on the opposite of the Saco River for a variety of hills. I would cap the day fly fishing for brown trout on the Saco River evening hatch. Then I’d camp by the river downstream from the town, using a new tent or sleeping bag or stove, or all of it.”