SUNDERLAND — Leigh H. Perkins, the man who turned The Orvis Company into an internationally renowned sporting goods brand, has died. He was 93.
Perkins, who bought the Sunderland-based Orvis in 1965, died Friday in Monticello, Fla.
“To many of us, my grandfather was a visionary, a pioneer, a lover of the outdoors, of fish, of birds, of dogs, and someone who passionately believed in protecting our natural resources for future generations,” said Simon Perkins, the current president of Orvis and the third generation of the family to lead the company over more than a half-century. Simon Perkins succeeded his father, Leigh “Perk” Perkins, as the company’s CEO.
“Professionally, he was ahead of his time in many ways. From introducing fly-fishing schools in the mid-60s to committing corporate profits to protecting habit and species, his fingerprints will exist on the outdoor and conservation worlds for a long time,” Simon Perkins said of his grandfather. “Personally, he taught me many valuable lessons, starting with the simple and yet powerful idea of ‘You always learn more by listening than you do talking.’”
Leigh H. Perkins earned a degree from Williams College in Williamstown, Mass., 1950. He worked at a variety of jobs for the next 15 years, including in the iron mines and as a salesman for a company that made gas welding and cutting equipment.
But Perkins wanted to build something of his own. An avid sportsman who said to have kept hunting and fishing more than 250 days every year into his 90s, Perkins had been a customer of Manchester-based Orvis since his college days.
Perkins took control of Orvis on Jan. 1, 1965, becoming its president, merchandiser, art director and product developer. He also took phone calls and read customer letters, a custom still in practice at Orvis to ensure customers are satisfied, or understand why they aren’t.
He took the company, founded more than a century earlier by Charles Orvis in Manchester, from a business with 20 employees and a half-million dollars in sales to a global enterprise with more than 700 employees and sales of more than $90 million.
A year after buying Orvis, Leigh H. Perkins launched what is believed to be the nation’s first fly-fishing school in Manchester.
Tom Rosenbauer, the Fly Fishing Outreach and Education and Lead Enthusiast at Orvis, has worked for Orvis for more than three decades and has developed an international reputation for his knowledge of all things fly fishing. He is a renowned angler, author, teacher, and podcaster.
Rosenbauer said Perkins’ launch of the fly-fishing school was groundbreaking in those days.
“[It] must have been one of the first outdoor schools for adults of its kind,” Rosenbauer said. “Kids got that kind of stuff at summer camp, but it was groundbreaking for adults and the industry.”
Later, Orvis added a wingshooting school.
Perkins was strongly dedicated to conservation, founding 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.
Rosenbauer said Perkins’ conservation work will be his lasting legacy.
“Of course, Leigh had an impact on the fly-fishing industry from a product or market perspective. You would expect that,” Rosenbauer said. “But I think his greatest and most lasting contribution was his dedication to conservation before it was cool or popular.”
Honors followed. In 1992 he was presented with the Chevron Conservation Award. In 2016, Bonefish and Tarpon Trust named him Sportsman of Year, honoring his conservation work and dedication to the preservation of the fish and waters he so loved.
“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 long-time 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.”
And, Rosenbauer added, it wasn’t because it was good for business.
“It was not a cynical business decision,” Rosenbauer said. “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.”
Leigh H. Perkins is survived by his wife, Anne; his children, Leigh “Perk” Perkins, David Perkins, Molly Perkins and Melissa McAvoy; his stepchildren, Penny Mesic, Annie Ireland, and Jamie Ireland; 11 grandchildren; and three great-grandchildren.
“At the end of the day, he was one of the best damn anglers and hunters I’ve ever met, who loved Vermont and loved to share his passion with me, my brother Charley, my cousin Hannah and so many others,” Simon Perkins said. “He will be greatly missed.”