IRVINE, Calif. — Dipping into the California beach lifestyle market with its recent buy of Ocean Pacific Apparel Co. only marks the start for Warnaco — it’s determined to ride the brand into a $1 billion player while searching for even more West Coast deals.

Those two challenges fall to Richard “Dick” Baker, who remains OpAC president while joining Warnaco’s senior management, where his responsibilities will include canvassing the marketplace for similar opportunities for his new employer.

“We’ll be able to utilize his talents beyond Ocean Pacific and Op,” said Joe Gromek, Warnaco Group Inc. president and chief executive officer, in an exclusive interview at the OpAC headquarters. “We would ask him to ferret out other brands in California — or beyond — if it makes sense. Brands that he can build this licensing model on that would allow us in-house to be a vertical part of the process. Our business has sufficient cash flow to support those kinds of initiatives. The sooner the better.”

Heightened acquisition interest in the action sports industry is becoming more the norm than the exception these days. Billion-dollar surf behemoth Quiksilver added the skateboard-focused DC Shoes last spring to its 13-brand stable, which includes the golf line Fidra. Meanwhile, Nike’s 2002 purchase of Hurley International continues to be referred to as a benchmark of outsider companies buying into the longstanding insiders’ club of surf and skate entrepreneurs.

And observers within and outside the surf industry have said that representatives from Liz Claiborne have been exploring the market in recent months. With Op now sold, just who is up for grabs next is mostly speculative — although at least one small, reputable brand, Fresh Jive, is considering putting up its sign.

Paul Altman of Sage Group, the investment banking firm that advised OpAC, as well as DC Shoes in its acquisition by Quiksilver, observed that strategic buyers in the mergers and acquisitions sector have a lot of competition these days from financial buyers also looking to do deals in the apparel sector. “The M&A market is dramatically different from what it was a year ago,” he said. “We also see strong market multiples for many of the deals. Op’s financial success, growth trajectory and nice mix of distribution made it easier to sell. But as in any deal, it is still the brand that drives the value.”

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