State Of The Union: NHS CEO And President Bob Denike
Editors' Note: For our annual State Of The Union feature in the January issue of TransWorld Business, we checked in with industry leaders at the brand and retail level to hear about their wins, losses, opportunities, and challenges throughout 2013, and where they are turning their focus for 2014.
2013 was a big year for NHS. The Santa Cruz based skateboard company celebrated four decades in the business—a pretty big feat for any company these days. A big part of that success can be contributed to strong leadership from company Co-founder and Chairman Richard Novak, who remains at the helm today, as well as Jeff Kendall, current vice president, and CEO/President Bob Denike.
Last October, in honor of its anniversary, NHS hosted the skate industry at the grand opening of its skateboard museum, a visual history lesson and tribute to all of the legendary skaters who have made Santa Cruz, Independent and the rest of the NHS family what it is today.
We caught up with NHS’ Denike on the cusp of 2014 to hear his thoughts on why NHS’ strong roster of brands have held the line in today’s market, standing the test of time through several turbulent economic periods over the past 40 years. Denike also provides some advice for passionate entrepreneurs looking to break into the industry today.
Congratulations on the 40 year milestone this year. What insight can you provide on lasting four decades within the skate market – key lessons learned?
Thank you. There are so many lessons; too many of them learned the hard way. The first one is do not be afraid of change. Hanging in there for 40 years, we have seen a lot of change in this business and your whole organization has to learn to embrace change, take on new challenges and adapt to what is going on. Are you going to fail? Sure, from time to time, but sticking your head in the sand and hoping and praying things just get back to the way they were is a recipe for failure.
Along those same lines, surround yourself with good people; people who are smarter than you and do not be threatened by that. Employees, skaters, shops, distributors, partners— people that work as hard as you do and who will listen, exchange ideas and who are willing to improve, adapt, and move into the future. That has been our strength: adapting, constantly improving, and aligning ourselves with employees and partners who get it and share our work ethic.
Things you would do differently in hindsight?
For a few years in our history, probably a good decade starting around the early 1990’s, we were chasing and reacting to what was happening to us and we stopped leading and doing our own thing. We lost what had made us so successful: not being afraid to go down our own path. We stopped innovating and it almost sank our company. Once we started doing our own thing again and not caring what others thought, we became successful again. We rededicated ourselves to creating industry leading brands, products, and programs, and assembled a group of people who shared that passion.
“I always tell people that momentum is extremely hard to get and once you have it, it's even harder to keep. If you are standing still in this business, you are going backwards. So you can never let up. And finally, throw a little bit of good timing in there, know when to put the hammer down and go pedal to the metal, or when to back off, down shift, and regroup. Novak is a master at that and he taught us to do the same.”—Bob Denike, NHS CEO/President & Co-Founder
What are a few specifics that you attribute your company’s “staying power” within the market?
The first thing I would say is many in our company, including myself, had the honor of learning from some pretty heavy hitters; industry pioneers. Richard Novak (the "N") and Jay Shuirman (the "S") pretty much set up the modern skateboard industry in the 70's. Novak mentored us in the late 80's and 90's and still does today. I learned a lot from Fausto Vitello, and Eric Swenson at Ermico and Thrasher Magazine and I also learned by watching the top company owners in the 1980's, like George Powell, Brad Dorfman and an industry pioneer in Europe, Michael Allen. These guys were the true original entrepreneurs of our business and they laid down the foundation. We all stand on their shoulders today and I am grateful. And I also learn a lot from our employees and partners and I admire a lot of our modern competitors. I like meeting people and thinking to myself "damn, that person just blew my mind, he/she is on a whole other level!" There are some really smart and creative people in our business today.
So we take these lessons and add it to a mix of great ideas, innovation, great employees, great shops/ distributors/ partners, one of a kind skaters with unique personalities, killer brands, killer products and killer artwork, when you mix all that together and have a strong business foundation behind it, it's really amazing what you can accomplish. And it's a lot of fun. But it's a sh*t ton of work, every day, you cannot let up. Do not underestimate the amount of work it takes. I always tell people that momentum is extremely hard to get and once you have it, it's even harder to keep. If you are standing still in this business, you are going backwards. So you can never let up. And finally, throw a little bit of good timing in there, know when to put the hammer down and go pedal to the metal, or when to back off, down shift, and regroup. Novak is a master at that and he taught us to do the same.
“It takes talent and guts to be different, create and do your own thing, and be confident in your vision.”—Bob Denike, NHS CEO/President & Co-founder
If you had to give an emerging skate brand a key takeaway or piece of advice that can be applied to the future of the skate market – what would it be?
Be different. This business is as crowded as it's ever been and you have to break through the clutter and the noise. The new companies I see that are doing something that has never been done before, I admire that. It takes a lot of guts to hang it out there and try something brand new. And don't copy other people's products, their look and ideas; too many companies in our business right now think R&D stands for "rip off & duplicate," they do some watered down "me too" version of the best sellers and sell it at a lower price and on consignment. That does not take any intelligence, guts or creativity. And these rip offs do not invest in skateboarding. They just take; they use skateboarding. It takes talent and guts to be different, create and do your own thing, and be confident in your vision.