Leigh H. Perkins, who purchased The Orvis Company in 1965 and over the next three decades transformed it into one of the country’s top outdoors brands, died May 7 in Monticello, Fla. He was 93.
Widely viewed as a strong businessman and marketer, Perkins was a lifelong outdoorsman who was more at home tossing a line in a trout stream or following a bird dog through a field. He hunted or fished more than 250 days a year even into his 90s, according to the company, and was a leader in the drive to conserve land and water resources for future generations.
He was born in Cleveland in 1927 to a mother, Katharine, who was a dedicated angler and hunter at a time when there were few women who engaged in those sports. “She taught me to fish and hunt, and she was my principal sporting companion for the first 18 years of my life,” he wrote in his 1999 autobiography, “A Sportsman’s Life: How I Built Orvis by Mixing Business and Sport.”
After graduating from Williams College in 1950, Perkins took a job as a rodman on a survey crew in the iron mines of northern Minnesota, working his way up to foreman before taking a job as a salesman for Cleveland’s Harris Calorific, which made gas welding and cutting equipment. He began looking for a company of his own to build and thought of the Vermont-based Orvis, a company he’d been a customer of since his college days.
The business, which was founded in 1856 by Charles F. Orvis, was owned at that time by Dudley “Duckie” Corkran, and after nine months of persuasion, Perkins was able to purchase the business on Jan. 1, 1965. Over the years he served as president, merchandiser, art director, product developer, and anything and everything else. He also personally approved every item in the company’s catalogue.
Over the next 27 years, he grew Orvis from a niche business with 20 employees and $500,000 in annual sales to a mail-order and retail chain with more than 700 employees and sales exceeding $90 million. Among the products he is credited with inventing was the retractable zinger to hold fly-fishing tools and the first Gore-Tex rainwear. He also developed the Orvis Dog Nest bed, the first of its kind sold in the U.S. in 1977, which grew into an entirely new, and profitable, business for the company.
In 1966, he launched the world’s first fly-fishing school in Manchester, Vt., and opened a wing shooting school several years later. The company now offers free instruction to more than 15,000 would-be anglers each year. In the 1980s, he began to donate 5 percent of Orvis’ pretax profits to fish and wildlife conservation groups including Trout Unlimited, the Ruffed Grouse Society, the Nature Conservancy and the Atlantic Salmon Federation.
Perkins retired in 1992 and the business passed to his sons Leigh H. “Perk” Perkins Jr. and David Perkins, with Perk Perkins serving as president and chief executive officer. Today, the company is run by Perk Perkins’ son, Simon. It operates 77 stores and eight outlets.
Leigh Perkins also served on a variety of nonprofit boards, and in 1985, he founded the Orvis-Perkins Foundation, which has donated millions of dollars to habitat and wildlife conservation efforts. “It’s no exaggeration to say that Leigh Perkins was a friend to anglers everywhere,” said Johnny Morris, founder of Bass Pro Shops and a longtime friend of Perkins. “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 was one of our heroes.”
Over the years, Perkins was awarded many accolades including the 1992 Chevron Conservation Award. Nine years later, the University of Minnesota awarded Leigh an honorary Doctor of Laws degree, for “[helping] some of the most prominent and important conservation organizations in the world to modernize their practices, create scientific research programs and achieve their potential for service,” as well as for creating a permanent forest-wildlife research program at the university.
He is survived by his wife, Anne; children Perk Perkins, David Perkins, Molly Perkins and Melissa McAvoy; stepchildren Penny Mesic, Annie Ireland and Jamie Ireland; grandchildren Simon Perkins, Charley Perkins, Hannah Perkins, Molly Perkins, Jake Perkins, Leigh Perkins, Spencer McAvoy, Emma McAvoy, Ralph McAvoy, Melissa Mesic Marshall and James Mesic; three great-grandchildren, and a pack of dogs.