Gretchen Gunn recalls feeling uncomfortable about being asked to go on an outdoor field trip not long after she joined Convergys Corp. two years ago. She didn't know anyone at the company, and the thought of going into the Uintas with a bunch of strangers to climb ropes and ford streams sounded more scary than fun.

But her fears were groundless. It turned out that participating in the Norwegian Outdoor Exploration Center's corporate training program was the best thing that could have happened to Gunn; if she didn't know her co-workers when she left, she sure did by the time they returned.

"The team building and feedback were awesome," recalls Gunn, secretary to Convergys Corp. President Garth Howard. A national 1-800 phone center, Convergys is one of Utah's largest employers with a payroll of 44,000.

John Berge, second vice president of General Ree, a San Francisco insurance underwriter, said his company decided to skip Florida and and Arizona last month, the usual locales for its corporate outings, and come to Utah. Norwegian Outdoor took them snowshoeing in the mountains above Sundance resort in Provo Canyon where General Ree's employees had a great time.

"We definitely got what we asked for, and we were quite interested in Norwegian Outdoor's non-profit status," said Berge. "A portion of the fee we paid them goes to fund programs for various at-risk youth groups (kids with behavioral, alcohol and drug problems), and we saw that as a big attraction in working with them."

Adrienne Gerard, of E.S.E.C., a Phoenix-based computer hardware company, said the lessons that she and her co-workers learned on a recent Norwegian Outdoor adventure in Utah has served them well back at the office.

"The instructors gave us a series of challenges to solve, such as working through a ropes course, and we found that we could work them out only as a team. We had to listen to each other, brainstorm and be creative, and we took that back with us. We saw a different side of the people we work with, and we learned that it's not always good to be independent. It's better to be a team."

Craig Merry, director of Park City-based Norwegian Outdoor Exploration Center or NOEC, has heard many such testimonials directed at the small, non-profit company, but he and his 30 compatriots who take business men and women out of their suits and ties and put them into jeans and hiking boots, never tire of hearing them.

Strange as it sounds in today's business world where the only goal seems to be to make as much money as fast as you can, the folks at NOEC have no aspirations to launch an IPO and strike it rich. In fact, any money they make beyond what it takes to cover salaries and expenses, goes toward providing free services for at-risk youth programs.

Sound idyllic? You better believe it. And it's a safe bet that most of the folks working at NOEC wouldn't change jobs with anyone.

NOEC was started in 1980 by Tom Cammermeyer who was living at the time in Silverton, Colo. He called it The Norwegian School of Nature Life, an odd-sounding monicker that Cammermeyer believed captured the outdoorsy culture of Norway — no, not jumping naked into icy fjords, but rather cross-country skiing, snowshoeing, hiking, camping, that sort of thing.

Not surprisingly, Cammermeyer is of Norwegian descent and has long been an adherent of friluftsliv, which is described as a "life in nature." NOEC's mission statement sums up the spirit of friluftsliv this way: "To teach people to better understand and respect themselves, others, and all of nature through a unique outdoor educational experience, accessible to everyone. Simply stated: We take people outdoors and have fun."

But not long after launching Norwegian Nature Life in Silverton, Cammermeyer moved the school to Park City, citing two practical reasons that had little to do with friluftsliv . (1) There were not enough people in Silverton to keep a business, even a non-profit business, going, and (2) the base camp for the school was at 10,000 feet, and the students had trouble breathing.

So Cammermeyer moved west to the relatively benign climes of Park City (altitude 6,900 feet) and restarted the business. True to its goals, he hasn't gotten rich but the school is still going strong. The biggest change? Recently they decided to change the name from the quirky Norwegian School of Nature Life to Norwegian Outdoor Exploration Center.

"The new name represents more of what we do," said Merry, who took a university class from Cammermeyer four years ago — his last class before heading on to law school. You can guess what happened next. Merry was so taken with the Norwegian adventure thing that he decided the world didn't need another lawyer and he's been adventuring ever since.

"I'll probably get a master's in business," says Merry, 29, vaguely aware that he should have some higher goal than simply having fun in the great outdoors all the time. Let's see, a Dilbert cubicle in an office tower and dinner at a drive-through eatery or a yurt under the stars and fresh trout cooked over an open campfire. . . pretty tough decision all right.

As might be imagined, it hasn't all been smooth sledding for NOEC. It's 20 years of existence has depended on grants and corporate fees to fund the youth programs. But Merry says things have stabilized somewhat in recent years to where they now own their equipment rather than having to rent it, and they have been able to expand the programs out of Utah. They've taken kids rafting in Yellowstone and Moab, rock climbing in the City of Rocks south of Boise, and this summer they'll be taking a group of kids from Courchevel, France (Park City's sister city), to southern Utah and Arizona to "experience the West."

A lot of NOEC's corporate customers have told them they should turn it into a for-profit business and have even volunteered to help them do it, but they aren't interested in going that route. "From the outside looking in, it looks like we could make a lot of money doing this, but with our mission statement, helping kids, that isn't an option. We have five youth clients for every corporate client," said Merry.

While NOEC has an array of established programs, the company is willing to try new things if a customer wants it. Recently, a corporate group wanted to learn how to fly fish. NOEC didn't have a fly fishing program but, hey, the customer is always right. They took them fly fishing.

Some corporations have sent employees into outdoor "team-building" programs and found they got more than they bargained for. Many workers complained of being forced to do "high rope" courses that left them terrorized if they did them and ostracized if they didn't. Merry says NOEC isn't into that.

"We offer non-threatening environments. We will never put people into survival conditions." NOEC's "Stranded in the Rockies" adventure gives participants a small taste of the survival experience, but guests are never given a Bowie knife and left on their own. It's really another experience emphasizing teamwork and then only for a few hours.

The ropes course is only a few feet off the ground and there's no one screaming "Jump! Jump!" at you. NOEC has found that creating such peer pressure works against team building and rewards the athletes in the group at the expense of the less fit.

"We've had a lot of years to learn what works and what doesn't," noted Merry.

Last year, NOEC had more than 100 corporations and some 8,000 people participate in its various programs. The company is based at 333 Main Street, Park City, UT84060 P.O. Box 4036. Toll free phone 1-800-649-5322.


You can reach Max Knudson by e-mail at max@desnews.com