John Mead was 12 years old when he first set foot inside the Adventure 16 (A-16) company headquarters. In 1968, Mead was en route to the Sierra for his first backpacking trip, when his uncle, Mic Mead, took him to a factory garage in La Mesa, California, where the company manufactured and sold gear. While shopping for some of A-16’s latest goods, John watched intently as a handful of workers assembled packs and stuffed down into sleeping bags.
“There was high energy in the room, and the interaction between the employees and the customers made a strong impression on me,” says Mead.
Twenty-four years later in 1992, Mead became president of A-16 and further shaped it into an a innovative retail store that taught its employees how to take the lead.
During that first trip to La Mesa, Mead got a glimpse of his future. But his path to the outdoor industry actually began 900 miles north in southern Idaho, where Mead grew up. At 6 years old, Mead got his first taste of the outdoors during trips to the Sawtooth Mountains with his father, who was a climber and Boy Scout council leader.
“I wanted to mirror what he did,” says Mead, explaining that he joined a very active Scout troop and eventually achieved the rank of Eagle Scout. During those Scouting years, Mead spent summers in Southern California with his uncle Mic, who introduced him to the Sierra Mountains. “He took me to the Palisade Glacier area, which is still one of my favorite places,” he says.
John and Mic not only had a common love of backpacking, they also shared an entrepreneurial spirit. “From the sixth grade on, I would hang on Mic’s shirttail. He was always an entrepreneur,” says Mead, noting that Mic became the owner of A-16 in 1970.
Inspired by his uncle, John spent his high school years creating silkscreen T-shirts and selling them at a local outdoor store. In 1978, Mead received a business degree from the University of Idaho and immediately took a job managing the sewing operation at A-16.
When Mead arrived at A-16, he not only brought a nose for business, but also the principles he learned as a Boy Scout. “I’m a big believer in having a mission statement and a list of values that steer your course,” he says, adding that the Scouting principles of creativity and learning have guided A-16.
As president, Mead implemented training programs, such as Blanchard’s “One Minute Manager,” that went beyond typical retail-sales and product training to teach leadership and management skills. “He understands the value of investing in training and giving people a path forward,” says Kenji Haroutunian, a 14-year A-16 employee and former director of the Outdoor Retailer Trade Show.
Over the years, at least 50 former “A-16ers” have gone on to become outdoor industry professionals and launch or lead influential companies like Mountain Hardwear, Mountainsmith, Lowe Alpine, and SNEWS.
As Mead empowered employees, he also found creative ways to elevate the business. Having designed A-16’s Journey pack, which converted into a duffel, Mead was an early adopter of the adventure travel concept. In the ’90s, he was one of the first outdoor retailers to emphasize the category and add the word “travel” to store signs.
A lifelong participant in the Scouts, Mead also values community service and launched A-16’s Donate-A-Pack program in the ’90s. Each year, stores collect about 1,000 pieces of gear and donate them to Southern California nonprofits.
As Mead built a successful company, he also chased a dream of opening 16 stores. But, online competition and other market forces whittled the chain down to four stores by 2014. “It was painful to give up on that goal,” Mead admits. But he’s now focused on increasing the number of in-store events (135 this year) to make each shop a true hub for locals. “We’re part of the outdoor community like we haven’t been since the ’60s,” he says.
By letting go, Mead also realized that his life was maybe a little too structured. At age 60, he’s more relaxed, especially when he’s outdoors with his family.
“About every two months, I take my grandson camping,” he says. “When I took my own kids outdoors, I was too uptight, and it was more like a march. With my grandson, I just let the day flow. I let him lead.