Dick Baker, former president of the surf brand Ocean Pacific who held several executive positions during a 35-year career in the apparel industry, died of prostate cancer Tuesday at Mission Viejo Hospital in Mission Viejo, Calif. He was 62.
Baker’s career started at Los Angeles-based Bullock’s department store, then shifted into the wholesale arena, as he moved through a succession of leadership jobs in New York, including executive vice president of Eagle Shirtmakers’ Pierre Cardin sportswear and dress shirts division, president and chief operating officer of Winston Mills’ Marithe + François Girbaud division (when the company held the U.S. license to produce the line) and president and chief executive officer of Izod Ltd.’s men’s wear.
In the mid-Eighties, Baker headed to San Francisco and rose to president of Esprit Sport, followed by Esprit Women’s Wear, where he met his wife, Una, a designer at Esprit. He also was president of Bernard Chaus and Tommy Hilfiger’s women’s division.
In 1998, Baker and his partners in the San Francisco-based investment group Doyle & Boissiere acquired Ocean Pacific Apparel Corp. from Berkeley International Capital Corp. After Op’s sale to Warnaco Group Inc. in 2004, Baker served as president of the surf brand and was retained as a consultant by Iconix after the company acquired Op in November 2006.
Baker’s mark on the surf industry was notable, especially considering that he arrived late in his career to the board-sports sector.
“He was so unique, coming from outside of our industry and ending up being almost like a father to the industry,” said Joel Cooper, chief executive officer of Lost International, who served with Baker on the board of the trade group Surf Industry Manufacturers Association (SIMA). “To me, he is the person who evolved the business from a multimillion industry to a multibillion industry.”
Baker quickly became involved with SIMA, where he served on the board for nine years, most recently as chairman emeritus. The organization plans to honor him with its lifetime achievement award. He also served on the board of trustees of the Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles.
Embracing the surf culture, Baker, his wife and two sons, Ryan and Jack, lived in a beachfront home facing San Clemente, Calif.’s surf spot, Cotton’s Point. When the surf was good, Una would e-mail Bob McKnight, chairman and ceo of Quiksilver Inc., who would come over with his board for a bout on the waves and then shower in the Bakers’ house.
“I remember him just smiling,” McKnight said, laughing as he recalled that Baker expressed his agreement on any topic by saying, “Exactly.”
“I remember a lot of soulful discussions with him: family, kids, the industry, growth, accounts we’d share information about,” McKnight said.
Baker had an ability to transcend generations and lifestyles, said Paul F. Rosengard, group president, premium brands, Perry Ellis International.
“There was no limit to what he could do or how many people he could teach and befriend along the way,” Rosengard said. “There is a giant fraternity of Dick Baker protégés and students, and many, many more friends, who will keep his legacy alive.”
A native Californian, Baker grew up in the San Fernando Valley and graduated from the University of California, Northridge.
His friends and colleagues said Baker fought cancer for two years.
He flew to San Juan last May to give a speech to the Board Retailer Association during the same week that he completed chemotherapy, said Bobby Abdel, co-owner of specialty retailer Jack’s Surfboards in Huntington Beach, Calif.
“No one else would do what Dick Baker would do,” said Abdel, noting that he saw Baker as recently as March 19, when SIMA sponsored seminars at Huntington Beach.
Stan Tucker, former men’s fashion director at Saks Fifth Avenue, said Baker was “my closest friend in and out of the industry. We go back to when he was a buyer at Bullock’s and I was with AMC.”
Tucker described Baker as “street-smart,” an unusual attribute in ceo’s. At the same time, Tucker said, he “cared for the people who worked for him. He also had the best sense of humor, even when he was sick. And he was the consummate family man.”
Baker also was a mentor, said Matt Serra, chief executive officer of Foot Locker Inc., another close friend.
“He was an incredible and talented businessman who touched many lives in the retail and wholesale industry,” Serra said. “He was always ‘up’ and positive. He viewed life as more half-full than half-empty.”
Baker “totally redefined the Op brand model and turned it into a major brand within the skate and surf industry,” said Elaine Hughes of E.A. Hughes & Co. executive search. “Dick had formulated some of the strongest and long-term relationships in the industry.”
Joe Gromek, president and ceo of Warnaco, said Baker was committed “to authenticity and was a passionate and committed steward of the Op brand.”
“I can’t imagine life without Dick, my friend of 24 years,” said Dawn Robertson, president of Sean John and former president of Old Navy. “Every major decision from markdown money to our children to moving to other countries has been done with Dick’s advice.”
Funeral plans were pending.