Entrepreneur, orchardist, and author John McQuaig sees parallels between climbing a mountain and running a business.
Orchardist John McQuaig hopes hisbook will help people hold onto their dreams and keep heading upward in their business pursuits.
Entrepreneur, orchardist, and mountaineer John McQuaig dreamed for years of climbing Mount Kilimanjaro in Tanzania.
He finally reached the false summit, Gilman’s Point, at an elevation of 18,651 feet, after climbing for five days. The summit push, which took more than seven hours, began before midnight and he’d not slept at all that night.
Utter exhaustion made the prospect of heading back down very appealing, but McQuaig resolved to plod slowly and wearily onwards to the true summit, the roof of Africa, 700 feet up and a three-hour hike across snow.
“After years of dreaming, seasons of training, months of planning, and five days of climbing, I have reached the top!” he noted in his log after he reached the summit. As he sat down to eat a snack and rest before the descent, his mind wandered. Oddly, what came to mind was business.
“It occurs to me that what it took to climb this mountain closely parallels what it takes to run a business,” he wrote.
Only 50 percent of the 20,000 people who attempt to climb Mount Kilimanjaro each year are successful, which parallels the success rate for new businesses. Afterwards, as he mulled over other similarities between successful mountain climbing and business management, he decided to write a book on the topic.
“I’ve consulted with businesses for 35 years, and you’re always looking for a way that’s memorable that will strike a chord with people,” said McQuaig, who had experience of writing business articles and whose father, Douglas, who taught accounting, wrote one of the top-selling textbooks in the country.
McQuaig’s book, entitled Parallel Peaks, describes eight “keys to the summit” that he believes make a crucial difference between success and failure in either field.
McQuaig became an entrepreneur at the age of ten, mowing lawns for 25 cents an hour. In high school, he had a painting business. He was 24 when he started his accounting firm, McQuaig and Welk, which has grown to include business consulting and coaching. He was a cofounder 25 years ago of the North Cascades National Bank, which he chairs, and has a real-estate development company called Water Works Properties LLC, based in Wenatchee, Washington.
McQuaig bought his first orchard in 1979 and now has 430 acres of apples and cherries at Entiat and Orondo. He deals strictly with the business side of fruit growing and hires people to do the horticulture.
“When you work by the hour, you’re always looking for something you can invest capital in that has the potential to make money when you’re not working,” he explained. “At the time, I was looking at a lot of my clients who were making good money on small acreages.
You could have 20 acres of pears in Peshastin or 40 acres of apples in Chelan and make a really good living.”
His orchard is what he devotes the most time to, after his primary job as a CPA. “We have good managers,” he said, “but just taking care of the business side is pretty demanding.”
He’s seen the fruit business wax and wane over the past 30 years. The Alar crisis almost drove him under and forced him to sell some orchard, but he still thinks it’s a good, solid business to be in. “You think you come back a little bit smarter and work at it,” he said. “You’re producing food for people—that’s definitely a draw.”
As far as investments go, an orchard is no different from many other ventures, he said. “There are lots of other investments, but there are plenty that people—including myself—have lost money on. Nothing’s perfect. It’s a righ-risk business, though it’s getting better from the risk standpoint.”
There’s better crop insurance available than there was 20 years ago. Now, instead of banking on losing a crop once every five to seven years, cherry growers can buy insurance to mitigated the risk. “That’s a huge change,” McQuaig said. “One year we walked away from our crop.”
When he buys orchards, he looks for property that has other potential uses in the future, such as view sites that could be developed for housing.
He’s diversified to reduce his marketing risks and now has many different apple and cherry varieties. “We’ve got almost all the varieties of apples except Honeycrisp and club varieties, and not a lot of Red Delicious,” he said.
McQuaig has taken the additional risk of growing some of his fruit organically and noted that there’s been a recent decline in organic tree fruit acreage in Washington State, with very few acres in transition to organic, which should improve his competitive position.
He offers housing for orchard workers. “I think it’s going to become more and more important to have housing, and we’re going to have to find other ways to attract workers and get more creative about it,” he said. “When you talk about all the risk areas that are outside the business, that’s a huge one. That’s probably the biggest that’s out there.”
McQuaig said, as a grower, he’s frustrated by the lack of information from the packer about how his fruit is sold. For example, with specific and immediate information about what their fruit is selling for, cherry growers could decide if it’s worth harvesting the rest of their crop and save money they would otherwise spend on harvest—which is one of their biggest expenses.
“I think that information is probably available, and it’s something that needs to be shared more openly so that you’ve got access,” he said. “The market’s up and down, and I should be able to pull up on my smartphone exactly what my fruit’s selling for and where it’s going. In most businesses, you have access to that information. I think there’s too much of a disconnect between the market and the production.”
Vertically integrated companies—packers and marketers that have their own orchards—have that information and are able to make better decisions, he said, but for the independent grower, it’s much harder to find out what’s going on.
It’s possible that growers don’t expect to receive that kind of information, McQuaig said, but if they ask for it, there should be a way that the warehouse can supply it. “There needs to be more integration from the grower all the way to the market, so we know what’s going on at that end.”
Managing the risks of mountain climbing is another of his passions. He started about 20 years ago by climbing Mount Rainier in Washington State. He went on to climb all the major volcanoes in Washington, as well as two mountains in Colorado. He has scaled Kala Pattar in Nepal, whose 18,192-foot summit provides a spectacular view of Mount Everest and surrounding 26,000-foot peaks.
“People ask why I climb mountains,” he said. “It’s no Disneyland. There’s no back door. It tests you in all dimensions, mentally and physically. It’s not a fun endeavor at all, but it’s a challenge that’s out there that we don’t see every day.”
The paperback book Parallel Peaks: Business Insights While Climbing the World’s Highest Mountains, was published by HRD Press, Inc., in 2008, and is available from www.amazon.com.