DiscoverLeading SteepJim Coffey: Esprit Whitewater Owner & River Rescue Expert
Jim Coffey: Esprit Whitewater Owner & River Rescue Expert

Jim Coffey: Esprit Whitewater Owner & River Rescue Expert

Update: 2021-01-211


In this episode of The Leading Steep Podcast, we have invited Jim Coffey. Today, he talks about his company, how it started, and its mission for the community. Jim is the  Founder and Director at Esprit Whitewater Rafting Adventures based in Quebec. National Geographic rated Jim's Company the world's number one whitewater outfitter. He is one of the world's leading authorities on swift water rescue, and he has taught classes around the world. He is a winner of the prestigious Higgins-Langley Award for generously sharing knowledge in life-saving techniques. He also happens to be a leading environmental advocate in Canada. 


Jim's Story


From an early age, Jim has been into summer camps. From those experiences, he got involved in competitive Whitewater Canoe and Kayak Racing. He then worked as a Whitewater Rafting guide where he could train for his competition. That led him to decide that he would take one year off from college to go work and find fame and fortune as a rafting guide.


Jim is pleased that he was able to make a career in the outdoor adventure or eco-adventure tourism industry as a guide, educator, business leader, and environmental advocate.


Teaching as a Career


Although Jim didn't come from a teaching background, he did have an experience in the early 80s. He went on an expedition in the Arctic where the trip's leaders were both teachers. Out of the 8 participants, 5 of them became teachers, including Jim. He had to create his own school to become a teacher. For Jim, the original teachers' influence from the trip affected him into making teaching a career.


For Jim, being around young people and educating them is a way to keep us young and connected to what's going on. It allows us to make teaching reciprocal. Jim thinks that he learns a lot from the young people on the modern way of doing things and new approaches instead of being someone stuck on a teaching route.

Lessons from the Company he Founded


Jim had no idea what he was doing when he started his company from a business perspective. Yet, Jim is a strong operator, so he had a high level of competency. One of the schools that he teaches for their National Outdoor Leadership is that they have the Pillars of leadership. One of them is to be competent at whatever you are doing.


According to Jim, he started his business in a Recession. It taught him how to be wise with his funds, to be creative, and his way of operating.


Jim says that you'll never know who will be that one important customer will be and that their best form of marketing is in their product. Also, if Jim and his team had to take a loss on the day, they might figure out a way to turn that into a game.


You never know who that most important person will be, and you need to treat everyone as if they're that person. And for Jim, that was a key to their success.


Becoming the person he eventually became


When Jim started his company, he spent each of his winters working his way around the world as a guide. All of those experiences traveling as a guide made it easier for him to find work in different places because there were fewer local guides in the industry. That helped him become the person he is now.


Company Location


Jim's company is based in an ideal location right on the Ottawa River banks in western Quebec in a region called the Pontiac.


Training Candidates and Students


Jim says that the most amazing thing that they worked out over the past 25 Years at Esprit is that it's much easier to train a great person to become a great whitewater guide than take a great whitewater person and train them to become a great person.


One of the important things for Jim and his company before they take someone on for training is that they want to get to know them to ensure that they are the right people to represent the company's name.


When Jim looks at a resume, he immediately goes right down to the bottom a where the other interests are located. Jim likes people that have traveled somewhere, so they understand the company's travel ethos and the education that happens with travel. He is also attracted to people who can speak multiple languages, showing an interest in other cultures and other places.


Esprit does spring training as a guide course or guide school. They also run a 3-month Whitewater Guide Training Program called WILD, the Whitewater Intensive Leadership Development School.  When they do that type of course, they spent 3 months with their potential candidate guides.


Jim believes that we need to be educators and trainers who are unselfish and generous with our knowledge and skills and thatwe want to pass those on as well as possible. If that means that some people move on, that's fine. But the key is how well they perform while they're with us, and they can't do that if we're not generous with the tools and in sharing those with them.


Adversity and Uncertainty


Whenever Jim speaks to any of his long-term guides and asks them where their strength in leadership is, they always answer that they have a high tolerance for adversity ad uncertainty.


Jim says that the whole idea about training people well in his summer, which was in jeopardy, ended up being saved by an incredible staff led by one of his top guides and closest friends over the year.


Building Relationships in a Team


Jim says that you learn a lot of things. These types of operations and acting as a guide is about being part of a team. And when you're part of the team, either as a designated leader, or an active follower, whatever your role happens to be, you want to have some great teammates. You want your teammates to be as best as possible, from the most experienced one down to the newest one.


Jim states that when things go sour, you want to keep the door open because you'll never know when those people you've contributed to will come back and contribute back to you. 


According to Jim, the key is that to start with the right people. If you have the wrong people, you can try and have them buy into your culture or sell them your culture, and if they're not going to, they're just not going to.


What Jim teaches to his new guides


Jim wants his new guides to get away from the idea of how fast and adrenaline oriented their activities are and teach that it's all about control.


What Jim and his company do is about people rather than that passion or that wild and crazy activity. It's about sharing it with people, being an ambassador for the environment, and the river corridors we descend.



Jim believes that you have to be good with names because it's all about people in their industry. What Jim's company teaches to their staff is how to remember everybody's name.


Jim and his team would direct their guides over a flatwater section before a forced raft to sit at the raft's very front. When they sit at the front of the raft, they'll ask the person on the front left their name. And then they get them to repeat everybody's names the entire way through.


Jim thinks he has failed if he's teaching a course without 20 participants or if he hasn't worked everybody's name out by the first days' lunch.


The Elite Guides


Jim's elite guides all start off with being exceptional people. They're smart, kind, compassionate, self-aware, and understand their role in life and the community. They show a sense of humility or humbleness. They're also great communicators. They have great judgment and decision making. They've got this tolerance for adversity. They behave well while wearing the company crest. They show a high level of competency in each of the disciplines in which they work in.


Leaving the Nest


One of the things that Jim and his company do is that the students have a self-led expedition without any staff members on it at the end of the program. It's like the graduation or the pushing their students out of the nest so that they feel calm at day 91, that they're competent to do this on their own, that they don't need one of the WILD instructors holding their hand through that whole section.


Making his own Luck


Jim often thinks that people sometimes say that they were lucky in the world of outdoor adventure, but for Jim, they manufacture their own luck. They were able to manufacture their own luck where preparation collides with opportunity or opportunity collides with preparation


Proactive vs. Reactive


According to Jim, being proactive versus reactive is very important in whatever industry, whether in outdoor adventure or finance.


The Higgins-Langley Award


The Higgins-Langley Award is the premier award for swift water rescue, divided into a wide variety of categories. One of those categories is for program development and education. Jim was fortunate enough that he fell into creating a water rescue video series, one of the first of its kind, called Rescue for River Runners. Jim decided that it was time to do a series of short, instructional res

Comments (1)

Kim Clary

What a legend! Jim's hiring for culture practice is was SO ahead of the times. Such an engaging story and people. I am on to listen to ALL of these podcasts-I can't wait!!

Feb 11th








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Jim Coffey: Esprit Whitewater Owner & River Rescue Expert

Jim Coffey: Esprit Whitewater Owner & River Rescue Expert

Barry Kruse