Sunday BIZ: Zeal President John Sanchez On Building An Uncommon Brand

John Sanchez‘s path to the corner office has been anything but traditional, but then again, so are Sanchez’s personality and philosophy. After spending time with him, his infectious ideas and passion make it easy to get behind the  tag line of the company he is steering, Zeal Optics‘s “Follow Us.”

Sanchez grew up in a rough part of San Antonio and gained a gritty education from gang-ridden streets and boxing throughout his youth. Sanchez managed to stay out of trouble and got his first break 21 years ago with a job assembling Wayfarers at Ray Ban’s San Antonio factory. Over the next two decades, Sanchez, 42, supplemented his early education with a vast spectrum of on the job training as he worked his way up through Bausch & Lomb, Serengeti, Bushnell, and finally Maui Jim, absorbing the various facets of the different business units he was in.

“No matter what I’m doing, I’m always asking myself, what is the learning experience from this?” says Sanchez. “I relate all these experiences to golf.  They’re all like picking up another club. I don’t know if I’ll need all the wedges in my bag, but I know that I have them, and there is going to be a shot that I might need to break them out for.”

One of the clubs he got to see swung repeatedly during his career was the M&A Wedge as the optics market evolved in ongoing rounds of mergers and acquisitions. Sanchez joined the Maui Jim team in 2010 as VP of product development and shortly thereafter began working on the acquisition of a small Boulder, Colorado-based sunglass and goggle company, Zeal Optics. Sanchez assembled the brand’s core team including industry veterans Joe Prebich, Chelsea Lawson, and Shawn Leydecker, before being appointed president of the brand in September of 2012.

Zeal's David Borbon, John Sancez, and Joe Prebich at the company's  Boulder offices and retail showroom.
Zeal’s David Borbon, John Sancez, and Joe Prebich at the company’s Boulder offices and retail showroom.

In its short time under his stewardship, Zeal has undergone a re-branding, an overhaul of its product, and vastly expanded its distribution. While Sanchez and his team started with a relatively small brand, it was well established and had a strong core of loyal followers. Perhaps his team’s greatest accomplishment has been keeping those loyal brand advocates in the fold, while managing to morph the company and giving a clear direction to its mission, which is shaped by three key pillars.

We caught up with Sanchez recently at Zeal’s Boulder headquarters to learn more about his strategy for recrafting Zeal as a purpose driven business where every decision is based on strengthening the pillars that support it, as well as a healthy dose of his personal and business philosophy that definitely has us following the brand zealously.

zeal opticsHow did Zeal come on your radar at Maui Jim?

We were trying to diversify our portfolio. I had been part of a lot of acquisitions—we were buying a company almost every year before. You know you are going to have to change something, and it’s hard to change a large infrastructure. Zeal had been around for a bit, and had been working really hard. Maybe they hadn’t hit any homeruns, but they were striking pretty solid doubles. They were still invited to the party and that was cool. It was small enough that we felt we could give it the things it didn’t have and we didn’t have to convince a lot of people or fight through a lot of negativity.

Be true to the brand, but apply the lessons you’ve learned along the way to help it grow.

Exactly, take the positives from Maui Jim but let it have its own identity. So my boss [Maui Jim CEO and Owner Walter Hester] said to me; “What matters to you the most? Build it that way, this is your chance.”

So what matters to you the most?

There three different pillars. Being sustainable and ecologically friendly was something I’ve always wanted to do in products and never really had the chance to. Every other business I had worked for always tried to cost analyze that stuff. This was an opportunity to be able to do it right away. We have access to some great materials from twenty years of relationships that can help in coming up with new materials and technologies that are environmentally responsible.

The second thing was being socially responsible. I came from nothing and I wanted to make sure that we were always giving back. That is a big part of the way we are coming to market. We partner with some really good groups.

The third pillar is enhancing outdoor experiences. If I make good glasses and goggles and we make some money doing it; then it’s not about how much money we make, it is really about the impact that we have in those three different areas.

You guys talk a lot about being “grounded,” both with product and in business. Explain that.

I like to use this example of our brand as a tree. It was just planted, and as we are growing its different branches represent the different markets. We launched in Australia in November and we are going to go into Europe.

The roots represent our ecological responsibility and our social responsibility and if the roots aren’t growing at the same rate that the business is growing then the entire tree is off balance. This is a tree that needs equal growth in both directions. As the president I try to make sure that those things are in balance. I don’t want to have ten thousand accounts that flip a display one time. I want to have one thousand accounts that flip a display ten times, because that means that they are solid, they get the brand, they ‘re driving it home, we’re partners, and we are both working together.

It is more about, are people successful with us? Because if they are, then we can find success and do the things that really mean the most to us.  “Grounded” in summary is that tree that we talk about.

Zeal’s Grounded Campaign

How much of that was in the brand’s DNA when you guys acquired it?

The thought process was there, but I don’t think it touched anybody, and that is a shame. We shared some of the same things, but the way we presented it was different.

It doesn’t feel like an entirely re-branded product or image, but definitely a megaphone was given to some things that were there and then fertilized by your team.

We shared the same thoughts, how we get there might be a little different, but I think we all wanted to do the same thing. We bring in experiences from all these other industries, credit affiliations, you get to put a brand model behind all of it, and you get this louder, like you said, this megaphone that allows us to speak with an amplifier to people. One of the things that we are really proud of is we didn’t change the name—we changed the logo because we wanted people to know there was a transformation, but we kept the name of the company because we felt like at the principle level we believed in the same things.

It is a great name and it ties into what you are speaking of, having a zeal for life, you know, it’s passion.

We are passionate, but there has to be a purpose. Passion is energy, and it only gets you so far. You can have all the passion in the world, and be like “I want to climb Everest,” but once you run out of energy you fall down and you’re done.

But what’s my purpose? My purpose is to overcome a fear that I’ve had of heights my entire life, my purpose is to cross a boundary that I’ve never crossed before, my purpose is to send this message back to my child that you can take yourself out of your comfort zone and do these things. So what’s the purpose behind it? And those purposes go back to those three pillars we talked about. We always go back to that and everybody that we partner with has to have the same mentality.

Our athletes—we look for really good athletes, but we look beyond their abilities. We interview them. “What are you about? What’s your life like? What do you believe in?” Every one of our athletes has a connection, every single one of them. Jussi [Oksanen]’s got his water bottle company that he’s a part of. Every water bottle that we bring to an event in the future, his company is there. We are a partnership; we want to help him succeed. Kimmy [Fasani]’s got her organic bakery, which is rad. Every time we have visitors in we put goodie packs together and there’s Kimmy’s bars and so forth and it is pretty awesome. This is a family, and we don’t bring in another athlete unless everybody in the mix approves of the new person.

If you really stand for something, make sure every time you make a change that you are asking yourself “does it align with my values, does it align with who I am?” It’s going to save your brand equity going forward.

Zeal’s team.

That said, as much as you guys have changed what Zeal is and as little name recognition as it had before, what did you see as the brand equity when you were acquiring it and what was the point of buyin Zeal and not starting your own brand?

We looked at that a lot, and frankly speaking I think that if Maui Jim created this other product line, I think it challenges the core Maui Jim consumer to think, what’s happening with the company? A parrot on a goggle strap? Not cool. They aren’t going to get it and it’s going to give the staff and all the people that we brought in to create it an injustice and an extra hurdle to try and overcome.