Quiksilver Inc. was only supposed to last a couple of years. It was never meant to become a multibillion-dollar company, go public and light the flame on women’s surfwear with Roxy, only to fall on hard times as the action sports industry experienced a global meltdown. “When we started, we never aspired to be more than a two-year project,” said cofounder and executive chair Bob McKnight. “We got to $100 million and gave everyone a plaque. Then $500 million. Then $1 billion. Then $2 billion. What happened is all these other people figured it out and they all jumped in and now this stuff is everywhere from 300 brands at every price point. It’s just not as special as it once was.”
Quiksilver, which updates investors on its latest results this week, saw revenues for the second quarter ended April 30 fall 16.1 percent to $333 million, a 2 percent drop in constant currency. Losses tallied $37.6 million and, in July, investment bank Peter J. Solomon Co. was hired to help it find financing — a process that could lead to the company looking into its broader options, including a sale.
Call it a midlife crisis for an industry that came of age behind the Orange Curtain — a regional barb for Orange County’s mostly suburban landscape and supposed lack of culture in comparison to neighboring Los Angeles. O.C. is where surfers, skaters and snowboarders tapped into a niche market that produced global brands. But the wheel has turned and tastes have evolved with a very different take on active — ath-leisure — picking up more and more share in the market and pressuring other casual brands.
For a time, Quiksilver tried a more buttoned-up, corporate approach, undergoing major restructuring under former Nike and Disney vet Andy Mooney. There were layoffs, globalization of the executive structure and fewer products. Brands were sold off or cut from the lineup.
But the strategy didn’t stick. Mooney was dismissed in March.
“I think it’s important, whether legacy or small brand, that you bring in people that at least understand, appreciate and feel it culturally about the products we make, the marketing that we do, the team riders that we have and the culture that we want,” McKnight said. “You have to understand what we’re doing and the history and understand the importance of the little things that we do and sometimes, big-résumé guys, they don’t get that. They think they can cut to the chase and make a bunch of changes that are out of the ‘How to Be a CEO Handbook’ or Harvard Business School.”
While there have been some corporate success stories in action sports — including VF Corp.’s acquisition of Vans Inc., now a $2 billion company, or Nike’s purchase of Hurley International — it’s an industry that was founded on countercultures and antiestablishment ethos. Companies are walking a fine line, trying to maintain their original edge and connection with loyal consumers while doing what they need to stay healthy.
Bill Bettencourt, who joined industry darling RVCA last year as global general manager, said, “This is an industry that’s growing up right now before our eyes in terms of bringing in new management and professionalism that is, quite frankly, needed if you’re going to have sustainable growth.”
But it’s still a world that’s largely insular and in many ways, not open to outsiders.
“You know, there’s the surf mafia and there’s a skate mafia. There’s a little bit of a mafia within the mafia,” said Johnny Schillereff, founder of Element Skateboards. “We were always cautious as an industry that was more grassroots…As the industry has gotten bigger, we almost had to make dramatic moves because we didn’t grow organically. All of a sudden, you’ve got to put a palm tree in a garden that’s supposed to have pine trees and things started to get less natural.”
Element did relatively well for parent Billabong International Ltd. of Australia in the year ended June 30 with its strength in Europe where sales rose 5 percent, excluding the impacts of currency. But its business is still challenged in the Americas and the Asia-Pacific region where wholesale sales were off for the year.
Schillereff, an East Coast skater who rode professionally and made his way out to California to start his business in 1992, recently moved the company from its more corporate digs in Irvine, Calif., to Costa Mesa, Calif., where the decor includes reclaimed wood and found objects. It’s an attempt to get the company back to its roots — a common theme for the industry.
“It’s that return to authenticity and smaller brands are doing good right now because of that reason,” said Pierre André Senizergues, founder, owner and chief executive officer of Sole Technology.
Senizergues, like Schillereff, is a skater. He grew up in the suburbs of Paris skateboarding by the Eiffel Tower before flying to Los Angeles and living on the streets of Venice to pursue the sport professionally. It was his own resourcefulness when it came to duct-taping or gluing his skate shoes back into repair that led him to launch Etnies with money he saved from skateboarding. That was followed by the launch of eS, Thirty Two, Emerica and Altamont. Through all of that, he’s weathered the ups and downs as a private company, shying away from prospective buyers. The trade-off, he said, has been his ability to remain nimble.
“We’re so very agile and understanding what needs to be done and being able to do it wisely,” Senizergues said. “Being private also has that level of integrity, being solely owned, where I can make sure those values are respected and used all the time through the company.”
For some, the good times in the action sports industry were clearly too good and complacency set in, leaving companies vulnerable and leading to diversification at retail and a renewed desire to bring newness to the market.
“Five years ago, everybody was so happy and making money and they didn’t want to change the formula,” said Joel Cooper, ceo of surf brand Lost International and the cofounder of venerable surf brand Gotcha. “[Retailers had] great brands giving them all the support they needed, so they were reluctant to allow the smaller brands in.”
But there’s a new approach now: It’s called hedging your bets.
Duke Edukas, co-owner of retailer Surfside Sports, has added younger brands such as Amuse Society, Beach Riot, Vissla and Roark in the past few years to balance out the legacy brands.
“There was turmoil in the last couple of years where the leadership at Quiksilver was questionable,” Edukas said. “There was a tumultuous regime at Billabong. We didn’t know where they were going to go. And it’s not just Billabong. They own RVCA, Sector 9 [and other brands]. They kind of controlled our destiny, so it was scary.”
Strategies and tactics have since changed and Edukas said he’s more optimistic about the larger brands, echoing a broader sentiment held by the industry that the collective group is entering a new chapter.
In 1998, Volcom was the relative upstart that had already established a name for itself. That year, it moved into its current headquarters in Costa Mesa at 1740 Monrovia Avenue. It was a building that had at one time been the home for Quiksilver, where Volcom cofounder Richard Woolcott had worked while getting a business degree from Pepperdine University. That year was a critical point in the company’s history.
“I’ll never forget we’re sitting out on the curb in the parking lot,” said Volcom ceo Jason Steris. “We were sitting there staring at the building going ‘Are we ready for this?’ And this was…‘Get the Boys Club,’ get everything dialed and then we got a little bit of that confidence and a little bit of that growth and we said, ‘Let’s get a bigger building because now we were on that trajectory.”
Volcom could be viewed as one of the last of the industry’s apparel brands that exploded. It was the first of the industry companies that drew inspiration from all three board sports — surf, snow and skate — which gave it an edge, infusing influences from urban and beach cultures. The company went public in 2005 and Kering paid $608 million for it in 2011.
It’s difficult to get a true read of the business today. Kering doesn’t break out the performance of each of its brands and instead lumps Volcom and eyewear, goggles and accessories company Electric into its Sport and Lifestyle portfolio. Volcom and Electric had combined revenue of $145.95 million, based on current exchange rates, in the first half of the year. That’s up 15.3 percent from the year-ago period, or down 1.4 percent excluding the impact of currency. The company has spent the better part of the last 12 to 18 months repositioning its brand. Its tag line has gone from “Youth Against Establishment” — which it had carried since the day Woolcott and Tucker Hall started the company out of Woolcott’s bedroom — to “True to This.” It is also bringing a more premium offering to the market.
“The whole thing of wanting more, more, more — we all found out that ends at some point,” Woolcott said. “How big can these companies really be and what’s more important? Is revenue more important or is running a healthy business important — or is doing what’s right more important? I think you could say the industry overextended itself and got greedy. It never knew when to stop until it was too late and then everybody had to take a couple steps back and look at themselves again.”
But this is an industry that’s largely populated by athletes — competitive in nature, willing to get back up after getting clobbered by a wave or falling off a board. Now done licking their wounds, executives say they’re ready to move forward. Starting now.
And it’s still anyone’s guess who will be the next Volcom or Quiksilver.
“There will be another chapter like what we had, maybe not as crazy as it was, but I do think there are going to be companies that come up that will learn from the companies that came before them,” Woolcott said. “Anything’s possible.”