Some thoughts on the recent purchase of MEC from Uncle Dave

Words Dave Tolnai
Date Sep 29, 2020
Reading time

I know that I spend too much time these days writing and talking about “the good old days”. But how do you talk about Mountain Equipment Co-op without talking about “the good old days”? What else is left?

My love affair with MEC began in the early 1990’s. Living in Kamloops there weren’t many places that one could go to buy cool shit, so receiving the annual MEC catalogue in the mail was a big deal. I didn’t know what half the things in it did, but boy did I enjoy looking at them! The trends of the day were sort of a gore-tex space lumberjack schmozzle, and MEC was perfect for that. It was the one stop shop for a water resistant jacket, pseudo hiking boots and a huge-assed backpack to hold your lunch and a book.

I moved down to Vancouver in 1995 to go to school. The first crew that I fell in with was a group of mountain bikers. We had no money…well, I had no money (I say this in the relatively well off, middle class, University student who owned a fancy mountain bike and was on a meal plan sense of things)…but we still found a way to ride our bikes from UBC down to MEC on Broadway at least once per week, or whenever somebody needed a new tube. We’d buy cheap tires, parts and tools, and then return a hefty percentage of those same cheap parts and tools a few months later when they broke. I’m not sure how I would have done it without MEC back then. The things that we needed to keep our bikes running were so much cheaper there and it would have been tough to figure it out without that option. Shit, we were replacing our V-brake pads every second week! That alone would have broken me.

But MEC was always about more than just stuff. It was a presence. It was something that was there for the community. Wherever you were and whatever you did, that logo seemed to be attached somewhere on the sponsor page. They were also a place that wasn't afraid to speak up on behalf of members, and that could blaze a trail for other large companies to follow. They spoke up about concerns people had over supporting a company that produced firearms and supported the NRA. They spoke up and supported activities related to climate change. They stood up against Facebook. They weren't always perfect, but they seemed to at least listen when they weren't. They took some tough stances, and there probably won't be many companies stepping in to fill that void.

That is the MEC that I choose to remember. And yes, I place it in the past tense. That thing we enjoyed no longer exists, or at least won't very shortly. All that will remain is an ever more ironic name.

The path MEC started carving a few years ago shouldn't leave us terribly surprised that this is where we wound up. That idealistic place that I used to shop at all the time disappeared several years ago, around the time their prices started going up, the logo changed and their stores multiplied and got all fancy and shit. This was around the same time that their categories expanded and their SKU's multiplied. There's just so much stuff now! Every aisle is jammed full of so many things, yet somehow it feels like you're less likely to find what it is that you were looking for.

I'll give you one example of how my MEC purchasing habits changed over the years (but this could apply to numerous other things). Tires used to be a thing that I bought all the time at MEC. They had a good selection of Maxxis DH casing tires at a great price. Yes, this was back in the day when there was one diameter and we put a lot less thought into our tires. Now, it requires 3 cups of coffee and a full afternoon just to wrap your head around all of the different Maxxis permutations. We can't possibly expect MEC to stock a tire for everybody, but it feels like the path they've taken is to stock tires for almost nobody. The entirety of their 29er offering is seven tire options! Two of those are studded winter tires! One of those is an Ardent! So, of the four remaining actual tire options, what are you left with? Nothing against E*Thirteen tires, but only one of these is something that most people are going to buy for their bike without 45 minutes worth of second guessing themselves (Assegai with an EXO casing and MaxxTerra rubber). Even that one probably isn't the first choice for many. And if you did buy that Maxxis, you'd have to go to Dunbar down the street to find a good option for the rear. And when you got there, you'd discover that Dunbar is selling that same Assegai for 7 bucks less than MEC, plus somewhere in their sixteen 29er options you could probably find one with the casing and rubber compound that you actually wanted in the first place. And they sell inserts!

The good news is that the picture that I've painted is incredibly positive for us consumers. How fantastic is it that we have so many local shops that are able to sell us the things that we want at a reasonable price? But more often than not, that store is no longer MEC. So it becomes a place where one goes every few months to hunt for hidden gems amongst the closeout racks stuffed with XXL and XS clothing, or to buy a decent version of something for an activity that they're marginally educated about.

This probably goes some of the way towards explaining the debt that MEC has racked up, but it doesn't tell the other part of this story. The part where it feels like an American investment firm managed to stroll in and trade a bag of hockey pucks for a Canadian institution. The part where it feels like you would probably need a degree in finance to truly understand all of the subtle and intricate ways that MEC members have been fucked through this process. Maybe this isn't the case, but when the new boss of MEC has things like this to say about the members, the people who he just supposedly bought the place from, what else can we possibly feel?

"Like in any business, if it's a co-operative or another, equity ranks at the bottom of the list," he said. "I'm sure there'll be some people that won't be happy they lost their $5, but I think the co-op's given them over the years a lot more value than $5."

This is such a baffling statement to make for somebody supposedly looking to keep those same suckers coming through the doors and spending money. He's like that substitute teacher who shows up and complains that you've had it too good, for too long and he's going to make your whole day miserable to prove some kind of point to himself. I know that he probably has a strictly dollars and cents view of this whole transaction (the new CEO, not the imaginary substitute teacher), but the balls on this guy! You hear all the time about people who thought that they owned a business who wind up with nothing after a sale takes place, but it's pretty fascinating to see it unfold so openly and on such a grand scale.

It’s a shame that it’s not this “let them eat cake” asshole that is going to shoulder the brunt of the misfortune that might be coming down the pipe. Even if he colossally fucks this all up, leaving nothing but a smouldering crater where there was a perfectly fine MEC store, I wouldn't be surprised if he still makes a bundle (I'm having a hard time pinning down Matt Taibbi's beliefs these days, but this article is a great insight into how this process might god what a beautiful article...can you believe we now live in a world where Mitt Romney is one of the good guys? Oh. Wait. Nope. Spoke too soon). The people who feel the shocks of this are not going to be the ones that screwed it all up.

Speaking of the people who screwed it all up, let's save some of our wrath for the executive and the board of directors. The true blame probably lies with the people that held those positions 5-10 years ago, but then again, at least they didn't sell the rug out from under us. I'll spot them the fact that there probably wasn't a good decision available for them to pull MEC out of this nosedive, and maybe it did come down to a choice between bankruptcy and vulture capitalism (which wind up looking fairly similar, at the end of the day). This is largely speculation though. It took half of Canada raking these people over the coals for us to get even the tiniest scraps of information, and that certainly hasn't been enough to figure out what happened, when. That's just democracy though, isn't it? Some smooth talking insiders figure out a way to get elected to a position of power and authority. The general population carries on with apathy and disinterest, assuming that everything is trucking along just fine. By the time we realize something bad is happening, nothing is left but the curtains and a few rolls of toilet paper and all that we can do is scream into the void about how unfair it all is. Get out and vote, people!

Still, can you imagine going down in history as one of the people who voted to sell off a Canadian icon to an American private equity firm? You ran for the board of directors figuring it would be a sweet way to pad out your resume, only to be faced with a horror show of a balance sheet and the wrath of a bunch of random yokels? There's an argument to be made that these people deserve our sympathy, but perhaps we should wait and see how many of them end up with cushy jobs with the "new and improved" MEC before we go that far.

That's just it though, isn't it? Why does all of this have to happen so fast? Why are all the financial details of this transaction such a big secret? Maybe as members/owners we aren't entitled to a vote on any of this, but I sure think we deserve to understand who is getting what, and why. Where did all the money go? Until we get some understanding of what is actually going on, we can only assume the worst.

We also need to remember that there is a whole pile of people with a shitload more at stake than us. I know that this is tucked way down here at the bottom, but I don't want you to think this is an afterthought. It's much easier for me to rail in anger at the things that I have direct experience with, but it's important for us to think about the employees. I feel incredibly sad for all of them. You would hope that a Co-op started by hippies and made up of Canadian outdoor enthusiasts would be a place to set an example for labour relations, but we will find out if that is the case. Hearing firsthand stories about what happened during the last round of layoffs a few years ago, this might not be pretty. So, a sincere thank-you to all the employees, past and present. Your green vests were a comforting presence and you were always one of the good things about MEC. I hope that this all goes well for each and every one of you.


Some dumb asshole who is out his 5 bucks

We sent some questions to the PR department at MEC but we did not hear back by press time. – Ed.

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+9 IslandLife Pete Roggeman mrbrett Cr4w Brad Sedola Todd Hellinga ManInSteel DCLee Bikeridenow
jaydubmah  - Sept. 28, 2020, 10:26 p.m.

Great article! I too have fond memories of the MEC of yesteryear. The biannual paper catalog  was eagerly awaited and there was a feeling in the physical stores that this was a "different" kind of place to shop. You're not just a customer - you're a member!   

To me, the first sign of things going bad were the electorate mailouts. It used to be a list of people expressing their platform and why they should become a board member. It was all very open and grassroots. 

But then one year,  certain candidates in the mailout were "endorsed" by the board. What a joke! From then on, the MEC board was an insider club. If people weren't aligned with the current board, they would never get in. Well, that string of continuity led to a Canadian feel-good story dying an ugly death.

The thing that really steams me is that all these board members that engineered MEC's demise are able to hide in faceless obscurity. I wonder how they sleep at night knowing their deluded vision crushed a Canadian icon?


+9 Grif Pete Roggeman jaydubmah Cr4w Cam McRae Tremeer023 ManInSteel cedrico Bikeridenow
Sean Chee  - Sept. 29, 2020, 4:37 a.m.

Great article. You have successfully eulogised what seems to be a national institution. 

I really cannot stand the behaviour of opportunistic private equity firms. They rank only behind hedge funds as the worst humans in the world. 

I should know, I spent ten years working in them. 18 months ago I had an epiphany and departed that career. I couldn't be happier. My ex colleagues on the other hand are still miserable.


+2 Pete Roggeman cedrico
Tehllama42  - Sept. 30, 2020, 7:59 a.m.

I'm with you about private equity firms - capitalism sucks... it's just somehow better than every alternative that's been attempted to date.  That inescapable fact is a reflection on human nature that really just leads to me wanting to be alone.  With my bike.  Miles from what passes for civilization.


Ceecee  - Oct. 1, 2020, 8:56 a.m.

In terms of resource extraction, capitalism hasn't been that great for the nonhuman nature in which alone you ride. Try environmentalism or pacifism.  Also the way Taibbi describes it, we're not in capitalism, but a private-public kleptocracy more akin--via inbreeding--to a gangster monarchy. Dealmakers are religious fundamentalists or artists hawking an ideal of free market freedom, best experienced alone in a yacht anchored off Grand Cayman. Dependent on banks and tax code, they produce capital, but are something else.


+3 Pete Roggeman Cam McRae ManInSteel
Vik Banerjee  - Sept. 29, 2020, 5:45 a.m.

I've still got a Serratus frame bag in my parts bin. I'll have to keep that forever now as a reminder of the good old days of MEC.

+3 Vik Banerjee meloroast ManInSteel
Pete Roggeman  - Sept. 29, 2020, 7:36 a.m.

I no longer have it, but I fondly remember my purple MEC backpack, used on countless trips (hiking, skiing, camping, even school) that was from those same days when the Serratus packs were a step up but the MEC versions were well-designed and made and lasted forever.


+5 Vik Banerjee jaydubmah Cr4w ManInSteel cedrico
Brad_xyz  - Sept. 29, 2020, 7:20 a.m.

You hit the nail on the head with your article.  Back when I was a footloose lad, I use to regularly attend the MEC AGM and it was such a great community event.  You felt you were part of something.  I've watched the slow motion train wreck and knew things were not right: the rapid expansion into markets and goods that didn't make sense, going into debt to finance newer, bigger and fancier stores and a massive head office building.  The locking down of who can get on the board because we need "business experts" on the board.  (How did that work out?)

I'm super frustrated by it all but I guess I can't complain since I didn't do much other than try to still vote for the limited candidates that were available.

I don't know that there really is much hope but a group has been started to save MEC and they will be in court again today to try and get some breathing room to work out an alternate deal.  Apparently RBC is the major creditor (or at least the one with the debt coming due right now) so if anyone wants to write an email to them that is what the group is currently asking.  More details here:

(Sorry for the long text in the link, I couldn't get figure out how to get the link function to work properly.)


cedrico  - Oct. 1, 2020, 7:38 a.m.

Great comment


+1 jaydubmah
Andy Eunson  - Sept. 29, 2020, 7:47 a.m.

The Co-op has certainly changed a hell of a lot since I first started shopping there in the late 70’s. It was a place where you could buy equipment that wasn’t readily available elsewhere. Back then there was no internet. Only catalogues and mail order and you read about stuff in magazines. I think in more recent years members were asking for more name brand things. The membership has changed and the Co-op responded to that change. That change was inevitable but the damn business people getting involved turned the Co-op into a growth for growth sake enterprise. Friends of mine that worked there started to get worried when The Co-op started to sell bikes. They thought that was an area where the Co-op had zero expertise and was going to be an expensive loss. The Co-op seems to have become a place for members to purchase Gucci outdoor clothing for cheap. It is no longer where you go to get stuff you can’t get elsewhere. You don’t go there for expert advice. It’s not often cheaper either because distributors don’t want to alienate their existing clients so limits are imposed on the Co-op in terms of what they have to sell things for and what stuff they can actually sell. Regular retail shops can’t compete with a shop that sells for cost plus expenses. The Co-op was not supposed to be for profit but for members. Capitalism does not even begin to understand that.


+2 Pete Roggeman Andy Eunson
Tehllama42  - Sept. 30, 2020, 8:04 a.m.

It's not that capitalism doesn't understand it, investment firms are always going to look at that as a giant opportunity cost, and the tax-advantaged way of upcycling that added revenue when you can get ahold of it is to expand without regard to how much sense it really makes.
Vertical integration with a co-op model gets really tricky too - on paper it should work brilliantly, but in reality staying within a niche is the gateway to lasting success, but the temptation will always exist to bring on new hotshot business people who come from the school of 'maximize the boom so that you're left with enough to start over when you eventually bust', while co-op is one of the few models that can function partially countercyclically because they can ignore quarterly profits for longer term goals and hold fast to those niches.  Same stupid problem happens with credit unions - they keep turning themselves into banks for no readily apparent reason, then wondering why they have to spend money on advertising like banks do in order to have membership...


+2 Pete Roggeman ManInSteel
Greg Bly  - Sept. 29, 2020, 7:56 a.m.

MEC made practical clothing and gear at a reasonable price . They always backed the product. Then they got rather large and trendy. Still they sold affordable oil for bleeding my brakes( discontinued) so I would shop there. One large reason? I was supporting Canadians. Canadian money staying in Canada. 

I don't shop on line. I support my LBS. Which also has flaws but God damnit I'm feeding families in my neighborhood! Not some other country. 

MEC sold out they no longer get my business.


+2 IslandLife ManInSteel
LWK  - Sept. 29, 2020, 8:13 a.m.

Good article as usual and I'd echo the sentiments above.  No love for VC but honestly, MEC started to die about 10y ago and that's on the people who were "leading" MEC, not the buyer.  They went from something unique and special to just another poorly executed big box retailer in the urban wasteland.


+7 Grif Mammal jaydubmah Pete Roggeman ManInSteel Velocipedestrian DCLee
IslandLife  - Sept. 29, 2020, 8:49 a.m.

This sucks... for me and my family, I'll miss MEC the most for the really useful niche they fit = good quality kids gear.  They have (had?) so much simple, quality, well priced kids gear.  From rain shells to backpacks, to well spec'd and priced kids bikes (and parts), to sunglasses, to ski gear, etc, etc.  That stuff is so hard to find anywhere else.  Luckily for me my kids are aging out of kids gear now, but from when they were basically newborns to very recently, MEC allowed us to keep living an outdoor wet-coast lifestyle on a budget in comfort.  It will be sad to see that go away for young families.

I knew it was almost over when they started bringing in Fjallraven gear... wtf MEC... like how much further from your ethos can you get??  And at the same price as at the Fjallraven store across the street... like what's the point!  They definitely lost their way... cramming the board full of MBA's with big corporate experience and zero grassroots representation to offset that was a HUGE mistake.

For those living in Victoria... a great local option for your outdoor gear is Robinsons Outdoor store, they have an 80-year history as a local, family-owned business.  We also have some great LBS's like Marty's and Oak Bay.  Lots of great local options.

Would be great to see NSMB do some profiles on local bike/outdoor stores... seem to remember that happening a couple times in the past??


+4 LWK jaydubmah Pete Roggeman ManInSteel
Brad Sedola  - Sept. 29, 2020, 8:54 a.m.

I totally understand the creation of the Broadway store years ago. It was the flagship. It used to be the only store. I visited there whenever I went through town over the years. I haven't lived in the lower mainland for 25+ years. It was an event. Once satellite stores opened up, it was exactly as stated above, you would never find what you were looking for. It made mail order far more favorable. I never liked dropping $500 on a jacket that I never tried on, but for bike shit, you knew what you were getting for the $$. I'm pretty sure I paid my $5 in to MEC in 1987 when I got my drivers license. As a member for 33 years, I would have had no problem shelling out $25 as a bail out. $25 x 5 million members aint no chump change. The members were never even asked. Options like this were never even mentioned. Once you look at that untimely opening of the new downtown store, it puts things into a little more perspective, too little too late. RIP MEC, the good ol' days are just that.


+1 Pete Roggeman
Brad_xyz  - Sept. 29, 2020, 9:26 a.m.

Like I said, if anyone wants to see if we can save the co-op, at this point it is super easy to participate as per these links:

A lot may be determine in court today and much depends on RBC extending the financing to give some breathing room.

Sure its a super faint hope, but it would be such a good news story 10 years down the road if MEC could actually make it past this and turn a corner.  A journey of a thousand miles is begun with one step.....


Brad_xyz  - Oct. 2, 2020, 2:20 p.m.

Update: Well, it sounds as if they lost in court so the original sales agreement is all but done at this point.


+7 Cam McRae Cr4w Mammal Niels Pete Roggeman ManInSteel IslandLife
WheelNut  - Sept. 29, 2020, 10:09 a.m.

Looks like someone needs to start a new CO-OP that sells the things we need to use in the mountains. I'll bet there is a bit of market space opening up soon...


+4 jaydubmah Andy Eunson Pete Roggeman ManInSteel
Onawalk  - Sept. 29, 2020, 12:34 p.m.

I cant even begin to describe how much the sale of MEC grinds my gears!

I’ve been a member for as long as I can remember, growing up the son of parents who weren’t really interested in being outdoors, the MEC catalogue was a welcome sight when it arrived.

The article echoes my thoughts on MEC in the past 10 years or so, it truly was an event going to MEC (growing up in a town that didn’t have one) but I haven’t found a thing I wanted to purchase in there in years.  I regularly receive gift cards, and struggle to use the ones for MEC.

I will say, something about their clothes never quite fit me properly, its like I was in between a medium and large on their sizing.  

In speaking to friends who either own an outdoors store, or work in management positions within one, they never really had many good things to say about the co-op.  Seems there are several tax incentives related to being a co-op that they were able to exploit, while driving smaller, better staffed stores out of business.  This goes a long way to frustrating me even more about this sale, as members, and tax paying citizens of this great land, we would have been artificially propping up this failed business model for quite some time.

It put them in a tricky place, where established brands or suppliers would limit what they would sell to MEC to appease the smaller local shops (which I support), It’s why you cant find the Maxxis tires you, or anyone else is looking for....

I will say, if the inevitable extinction of MEC drives people to support some of those smaller local stores, and maybe inspires the growth and opening of new ones, I say let it die.  

MEC was lost a decade ago, maybe its time to let it go...


yahs  - Sept. 29, 2020, 1:15 p.m.

When you hear first hand from an ex employee at head office how badly MEC was run. Those in the know knew this was coming for a few years. Major mismanagement of funds.


+5 LWK Andy Eunson jaydubmah Pete Roggeman ManInSteel
TonyJ  - Sept. 29, 2020, 2:49 p.m.

As a vendor that sold them product over the years, then for the last 10 years did repairs for MEC, I can speak to the mismanagement of processes. Having them ship an $80 wholesale item back and forth across the country ($80 in shipping) for a $20 repair, makes no sense. Giving members warranty on items past the warranty period, that they could not verify was purchased from MEC, is well, just stupid.

As for the vendor dealings, they had no clue what they were doing in so many categories. They purchased from us, an item that does not work without a specific battery (only available from us), we told them that they only ordered enough batteries for 1/4 of the items, they said no, its fine, we know what we're doing. All they had to do was purchase the items as a prepacked set, but no, they were smarter than that somehow.

Most of the people I dealt with over the years, on the purchasing side, that were good at their jobs, left in the last 5 years (saw the writing on the wall). A bunch of the long term floor staff were culled about 3 or 4 years ago (they made too much money), but they were the staff that knew what they were doing.

In my opinion, MEC haven't been a Co-Op in about 15 years, probably longer if you look at their practices closely. They certainly weren't following their Mission Statement, when they started selling Bikes and Alpine Ski Gear, products readily available everywhere.


+1 jaydubmah
[user profile deleted]  - Sept. 29, 2020, 4:16 p.m.

This comment has been removed.

+2 Pete Roggeman ManInSteel
Poz  - Sept. 29, 2020, 4:33 p.m.

I too long for the days’ passed. I have been thinking about this though and while I firmly believe MEC has not been a true co-op for some time one of the impacts we will see now is the maojority of today’s members don’t see themselves as members but having just paid $5 to get access. Kind of like Costco or Altitude Sports. 

Without that sense of ownership at a large scale I see any initiatives to “MEC” are hopeless.  

Great eulogy and to be fair you really brought to my attention MEC was a Canadian icon. I remember being called out as a Canadian while abroad over a decade ago because of the MEC gear I had on. The good stuff that was branded Mountain Equipment Co-op and a mountain top.


+3 ManInSteel trumpstinyhands Andy Eunson
jdt  - Sept. 29, 2020, 7:17 p.m.

The decline of MEC is directly reflective of the overly materialistic and gear-oriented appetites of the outdoor recreation community. As a broad (yet diverse) group, we have become obsessed with the latest fanciest shiniest and best of everything. I want one in carbon, titanium, merino, and BPA-free! I need designer cuts to my shell so I look like a ninja, and more choices of colours to flash in my kit! We demanded more and more and more and they gave it to us, and compromised everything we naively thought the co-op was about to buy it buy it buy it. There's no single CEO to blame for MEC's decline. We can't lazily pin this death spiral on Backcountry or Last Hunt, or the ill-timed decision to go big with Intense. Look in the freaking mirror....NO, look in your closet and your gear storage.....look at all the crap we bought that we really don't need to enjoy being outdoors. WE KILLED IT. In the game of big store big selection low price, death is inevitable. Few will survive. The deeper MEC went into the arena of satisfying consumer lust, the more certain their fate became. I love the people trying desperately to save MEC, as if it is some last vestige of nobility in the outdoor gear frontier. Forget that. They're little different from the others apart from smugly being able to recite your member number when you go into the store. I won't miss them terribly. In fact, maybe I'll buy a little bit less now. I guarantee you this - buying less will do NOTHING to diminish my enjoyment and exploration of the outdoors.  So long MEC, I enjoyed trying on a hundred garments and stuffing them into the sort bin, loved your awesome warranty, and thanks for employing some friends of mine. I'm sure we'll do fine without you, and just fine without whatever unholy zombie iteration of MEC-ness is resurrected in your place.


+1 DCLee
upandown  - Sept. 30, 2020, 9:18 a.m.

On top of the above-mentioned sentiments, Thanks for the Romney article


Zowsch  - Sept. 30, 2020, 2:06 p.m.

I still have my classic MEC Bernoulli Gore-Tex cycling jacket form maybe '97. An incredibly well designed technical piece of outerwear that was priced at least $100 below any comparable item. We used to be able to go to MEC and get quality and price - not one or the other.


Bryce Borlick  - Oct. 3, 2020, 8:31 a.m.

My experience blah blah blah...

I think what happened is blah blah blah

Bottom line: fuck the new MEC


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