Prosper - August 2007


Rolling on the River

By Russell Nichols


IN AN INSTANT, the placid, jade river turns into gushing white water, and the life-jacketed restaurant execs in the yellow raft grip their paddles, preparing to go to work. They push their blades into the waves and try to maneuver through the turbulent currents of the American River’s South Fork while paddling and chanting in unison: "For-ward! For-ward! For-ward!"

Then, suddenly, the churning river snatches a paddle from the hands of John Zhang, a Panda Restaurant Group area coach from Hawaii. Sitting next to him is Peggy Doty, 43, who can’t swim and hates water. Bur she leans back and, using her own paddle as a hook, pulls the wayward paddle close enough to reach. Zhang, 43, grabs it, and the group cheers, lifting all their paddles and clapping them in the air.

Such teamwork may not come as naturally in the corporate environment, with so many individuals fighting to get ahead. But here on the water, it is a bit easier to achieve and is the motivation behind the corporate adventure programs created by O.A.R.S. (Outdoor Adventure River Specialists), a 38-year-old outfitter based in Angels Camp, California.

In addition to solo excursions, family adventures and multi-sport vacations, the company offers corporation wilderness trips of up to seven days in California, Idaho, Utah and British Columbia. O.A.R.S. has orchestrated tips for such companies as Blue Shield of California, Altrec and Discount Two-Way Radio. Each trip is different, depending on the group's interests and amount of time on the river, but most team-building excursions include a facilitator.

"There are lots of parallels to draw between life on the river and life in the office," says Steve Markle, the company's marketing director who manages corporate retreats. "Synchronicity, working together and challenging obstacles in the river. The camaraderie definitely comes out when you're out there in such a unique environment." Nestled in the Sierra Nevada foothills, the South Fork snakes through the Coloma-Lotus Valley, summoning whitewater rafters and kayakers to its rolling river. Oaks and pines salute from the banks, and jagged rocks jut out from the shore. Led by guides, whitewater rafters work their way through rapids (Class I-III in difficulty) that have names like "Troublemaker," "Satan's Cesspool" and "Deadman’s Drop." This is where the 49ers first found gold more than 150 years ago. These days, company leaders on these corporate retreats wind up making different discoveries.

Mining for Insights

Just ask Jeff Gellert, president of Jesse Engineering, a steel fabrication company in Tacoma, Washington. Eight years ago, Gellert wanted to help his senior- and mid-level leaders work together more efficiently as they navigated tough times in the industry. When he first proposed a river rafting retreat in 1999, his employees were skeptical.

"No one had ever been on a river before," he says. "But by the end of the third day, there was a complete turnaround. We found out that we all had the same goals, same concerns and same needs. Just a different way of getting there."

This September, his company will embark on its fourth retreat with O.A.R.S., taking on the Snake River in Idaho's Hells Canyon.

Every few months, longtime executives and potential leaders with Panda Restaurant Group get together for some type of outdoor team-building retreat that may include obstacle courses and relay races. But the South Fork day trip marked their first river-rafting retreat. And of the 30 company leaders nominated to attend, only a handful had been rafting before.

"This is completely new," says Megan Griffin, instructional designer for Panda, which launched in 1983 and now has nearly 1,000 locations in 37 states. "A lot of individuals that work at Panda already have an adventurous spirit. This brings together everything they have learned all year."

After reaching the end of the trip at Folsom Lake, Doty, Panda's regional director from Atlanta, stands on the shore, sun-beaten and soaked. But, she claims, de-spite her fear of water, she would do it all over again.

"I was kind of scared at the beginning," Dory says, "but the team made me feel comfortable. They kept checking on me to make sure I was OK."