Meet Our Director of Quality
Welcome to our Employee Spotlight series — a chance to get to know the folks behind NEMO who work hard to innovate amazing gear, improve our impact on the planet, and inspire adventure for all.
Employee Name: Rick Vance
Title/Position: Director of Quality
Years at NEMO: 8 months (since February 2022)
First beers post-expedition to the Kichatna Spires in the Central Alaska Range. Talkeetna, AK 2021
What does your role entail? What duties are you responsible for?
Quality extends beyond just products — it encompasses the processes that we use to bring products to market, or to ensure customer satisfaction, or even how we manage the business at a high level. My role manages all of our products and suppliers, and I’m responsible for analyzing how our processes that relate to those two things function.
Is your role common at outdoor companies?
It’s a common role at manufacturing companies. But NEMO’s goal — and the reason I was hired — is to build a more “letter of the law” quality management system that encompasses more than just product. The Head of Quality is always responsible for product quality, but when you really geek out on what some of the standards and philosophies around quality are, it balloons out and moves to more of a customer satisfaction focus. That’s what I was hired to focus on.
I’ve started with product because we’re a product-driven company and there are improvements to be made in how we bring products to market. Since we sell products, our primary measure of customer satisfaction is how satisfied they are with the product, but my focus is more on the process we use to bring those items to market. That really expands the scope pretty quickly.
“Product” is kind of a pigeonhole term. When you think of product, you think of the physical thing, but customer satisfaction isn’t based only on the physical thing — it's based on marketing content, the packaging, the brand’s image and how that connects with the individual customer. When I think about NEMO’s product, I think more holistically about what we’re providing to the customer in total, as opposed to just a Stargaze chair.
"Beauty and the Beast" Route (5.12 rating) Indian Creek, UT 2019
What part of your background/experience led you to this role?
I’m a mechanical engineer, and I started out how a lot of engineers do: designing machines. My first job was for the U.S. Navy, designing equipment for submarines and aircraft carriers — primarily environmental quality systems that were meant to prevent the fleet from polluting the oceans. (I’ve always gravitated toward sustainability-related roles.)
Then I took two years off to go climbing and lived in a truck for a good chunk of that time. [Laughs]
I landed in Salt Lake, primarily driven by the need to be closer to the mountains, and I started working at the University of Utah running a biomechanics lab. I was still climbing a lot and getting into the deep end of the technical side of climbing gear. And I was also learning a lot, professionally, about risk management and product quality and things like standards requirements and things like that. And that led me to a position at Petzl in 2009.
That role was really focused on product risk management on the user side, like how customers interact with the products. You can make the greatest product in the world, but if folks don’t know how to use it properly or they don’t understand all the features, then — at least, in the world of PPE for climbing, mountaineering, and work at height — people’s lives are at risk.
I was at Petzl for almost 8 years when a Director of Quality position opened at Black Diamond. It was a tough move because Petzl was an incredible company to work for, but BD was also in Salt Lake and it tied really well to the experience that I had gained at Petzl. I jumped on that opportunity and my role grew into something very similar to what I’ll be doing here at NEMO, working on very specific, tactical problems.
Prior to NEMO, you were working with products that have life-or-death stakes. Did that heavily influence your standards when it comes to quality?
Yeah, I think it did. In that world, you really have to focus on every single little detail. I was working on questions around how the customer was using the product, so I had to really think ahead: How easy is this new widget to use? How understandable is it? What could go wrong with it? What risks do we need to design out of this product vs. how do we warn about or mitigate those risks for the customer? You go real deep with those products because somebody’s life is on the line.
What brought you to NEMO?
Prior to COVID, I was already getting pretty burned out at my role at BD — it was a lot of responsibility, and my team was almost the size of NEMO. (At some points, it was the same size as we are now!) And essentially 24 hours of my day was dedicated to climbing. Climbing had originally been a stress release for me, but it was impossible to go without checking serial numbers and wondering who built the equipment I was using!
I was due for another break in my career, like the one I took when I moved into my truck, so I pretty much did the same thing. I started working for myself, doing a bunch of side gigs. (I have a weird Swiss Army knife–suite of skills; one of them is that I trained as an arborist at one point, so I started a little tree care company.) I also did a lot of consulting in the outdoor industry related to quality management, risk management, and market development.
NEMO reached out to me, and we started talking, and I really liked the vibe. It’s a small, family-owned business, like Petzl, and I had enjoyed working in that environment vs. a publicly traded one. I like that NEMO is Cam’s company and decisions come from him instead of a board of shareholders, and the staff size is manageable enough that I actually know everyone’s name here! [Laughs]
When I was approached with the position, I was impressed by how committed NEMO was to building a quality management system.
Gear prep in base camp before an attempt on an unclimbed line in the Kichatna. Kichatna Spires, AK 2021
Talk to me about your experience with the outdoors — was climbing the gateway? Or have you always done outdoors stuff?
Being outdoors is always something that I’ve done. My family’s always been into camping or hunting or just being outside in some shape or form — vacations were trips to the lake house and stuff like that.
A friend introduced me to climbing late in my teens and I got hooked on it, but I was also a college athlete and paid for a big chunk of school with scholarship money. I couldn’t risk my scholarship by doing that kind of stuff, but once I reached the end of college, I could finally climb again.
It became all-encompassing. At that age, I was probably in the climbing gym three times a week and climbing outside every single weekend. I was living in Maryland, and it was all climbing. And then I moved to Salt Lake, and it was all climbing. Over the years, it’s been such a focus.
Climbing is a great expression of the type of adventure that I really like. It’s about adventure and exploring new places and learning new things. It takes you to places where nobody goes and puts you in stressful situations, and you learn a lot. Just recently, I’ve taken a little break from climbing, and that’s taught me how to look at other things in the same way.
Are you picking up a new hobby or passion, or shifting down to something a little more relaxed like... camping?!
You mean am I getting old? [Laughs] Did you just accuse me of getting old?!
I just meant maybe, now that you work at NEMO, you might be doing more car camping these days!
The one thing I’ve gotten into since winding down with climbing is pack rafting, which is camping with a boat. I’m pretty psyched to apply some of the NEMO gear to some pack raft trips.
These days, though, I’m trying to not be so focused on one thing. Through my climbing career and all the work I did in the climbing industry, I learned a lot about the sport. I’ve always been an all-arounder from a climbing perspective — there are five types of climbing, and I tried to get good at all of them. I trained as a guide; I went real, real deep, learning new things and applying those skills and becoming proficient. That’s the part that I always liked about climbing: It seemed almost endless in terms of the directions you could take it and the things you could learn from it. So, I’ve tried to apply those lessons in new ways, to new things. I like being in the steep part of the learning curve.
What’s the best part about working for NEMO?
I really enjoy the people the most. It’s what sucked me in — I was content to work for myself and initially told Cam that I wasn’t looking for a job. But when I got to know the people, I could see how dedicated everybody is to the team, and that’s my favorite part.
NEMO’s chaotic in its own way, but it’s the attitude you have that matters. Here, when something is hard, the response is “Let’s pull together and figure this out.” That’s very similar to what I like so much about climbing: It’s a really hard situation, and it’s you and your partner, and you’ve gotta figure it out. You’ve gotta figure out how to get to the top, or how to get home safely, or how to navigate this difficult glacier or weird weather. You have to keep a positive attitude and be a strong team.
I see a lot of that at NEMO.