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Bass Pro founder leads tributes to conservationist who transformed Orvis


Bass Pro Shops founder Johnny Morris has paid tribute to Leigh Perkins, the man who turned the Orvis company into an internationally renowned brand.

Perkins, who died last week aged 93, took control of the company in January 1965 and transformed it from a business with a staff of 20 and sales of $500,000 to a global enterprise with 700 employees and sales of more than $90 million.

In a eulogy to his long-time friend, Morris said: “He was one of our heroes. I thought the world of him for many reasons, but especially admired his unwavering commitment to customers and conservation. He loved the opportunity to provide customers with the very finest quality fly fishing and outdoor gear while connecting them to extraordinary outdoor adventure destinations.

“Leigh was a lifelong conservationist. Through his generosity and clear-headed advocacy, he was an inspiration to all of us who care about the outdoors. He used the powerful and respected platform of Orvis to create great awareness by highlighting priority conservation opportunities and inviting his customers to join in to find positive solutions.”

Morris also recalled one of his friend’s favourite comments, taken from Perkins’s book, A Sportsman’s Life. Asked about the success of Orvis, he said: “I was in the right place at the right time. Which proves, once again, what a number of friends have said about me – that I am a hell of a lot luckier than I am smart. If you can only be one or the other, I will take lucky.” 

Perkins earned a degree at Williams College, Massachusetts, before working in a number of jobs for the next 15 years, including in the iron mines and as a salesman selling gas welding and cutting equipment.

He took control of Orvis on New Year’s Day, 1965, becoming president, merchandiser, art director and product developer. He also took phone calls and read customers’ letters.

He founded the Orvis-Perkins Foundation that has donated millions of dollars to habitat restoration and wildlife conservation. He helped pioneer the ‘5 percent for the environment’ movement supporting groups like Trout Unlimited, the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Nature Conservancy and the Atlantic Salmon Federation.

Orvis veteran Tom Rosenbauer said Perkins’s conservation work will be his lasting legacy. “Of course, Leigh had an impact from a product and market perspective. You would expect that. But I think his greatest and most lasting contribution was his dedication to conservation before it was cool or popular. And it was not a cynical business decision. Back in the ’60s and ’70s, most fly fishers didn’t give much thought to the environment, as long as there were trout in a stream or birds to shoot.

“Leigh did it because he wanted to be a steward of this world he loved, and if the company didn’t make enough profits in a year to support a project, he would reach into his own pocket, quietly, without telling a single customer or even his employees.”

Perkins focused on providing products that solved problems and enhanced time on the water or in the field. He introduced the first retractable zinger to hold fly fishing tools and the first Gore-Tex rainwear. The Orvis graphite fly rods were not the first on the market, but were generally regarded as better-designed and more durable than those of competitors.

Perkins received many accolades, including the 1992 Chevron Conservation Award, an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Montana for conservation work and the Bonefish and Tarpon Trust’s Sportsman of Year award. honouring preservation of the fish and waters he so loved.

Despite his many achievements Perkins’s self-effacing humour was frequently to the fore. Asked in an interview what he’d like to be remembered for, he said: “My duck soup recipe!”

Picture: courtesy of Orvis

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