NHS/Santa Cruz celebrates 25 years of innovation.
Nineteen-ninety-eight is a remarkable year for skateboarding. Anyone who was involved in this business six or seven years ago will acknowledge that. The early 90s, with the Gulf War and economic recession, were the lean years. Actually, it might be more accurate to say that those were the most recent lean years. Everyone was struggling, and skateboarding had lost the popular appeal it enjoyed in the booming 80s.
In the last few years we’ve managed to climb out of the hole. We’ve popularized skateboarding once again, business is healthy, and all indicators show we’re still growing. This is what we’ve worked for. This is the good part.
But the good part never seems to last–at least that’s what history has taught us.
This year is remarkable year because this year we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of our industry. Sure, there were skateboard manufacturers in the 60s, but the modern business of skateboarding really took root in 1973 in the back room of a Northern California surf shop.
In 1998 we celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the skateboard industry because that was the year our oldest professional brand was founded. In the quarter century since, Santa Cruz Skateboards has managed to not only survive the lean years, but to innovate and contribute to the modernization of skateboards and skateboarding.
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In 1973, surfers Rich Novak, Jay Shuirman, and Doug Haut had a dream to start a surfboard company. It was the ultimate business, they thought–surf in the morning, answer calls and shape boards in the afternoon, and surf again until dark. They opened a shop, called it Santa Cruz Surfboards, and manufactured in the back. It was a dream come true, except that the dream wasn’t turning much of a profit.
That’s when the partnership, incorporated as NHS Inc., began to falter. Novak and Shuirman decided to make skateboards out of the excess fiberglass from their surfboard manufacturing, but Haut wasn’t interested. He sold his shares and went on to establish his own surfboard brand. As their skateboard operation picked up, Novak and Shuirman were selling their skateboards across the US, with department stores as far away as Hawaii eager to stock Santa Cruz skateboards.
The duo initially assembled the boards with trucks and wheels supplied by a rollerskate company, and Novak and Shuirman shortly thought about making their own components.
While the urethane wheel made skateboarding easier and more enjoyable, the loose-bearing wheels had to be constantly attended to as the tiny balls tended to fall out. Skateboarders made a habit of carrying pocketfuls of ball bearings whenever they went out for a serious session.
As skateboard makers, Novak and Shuirman had their own problems with the teeny chrome balls. One day that year their barrel of ball bearings tipped over and sent about 100,000 of them bouncing all over the floor.
Soon after cleaning up the mess, the partners had a chance visit from a bearing salesman who showed them something remarkable. When Novak and Shuirman first saw the sealed precision bearing, it was clear what they had to do. They had to design their own wheel.
The Road Rider 2 was the first precision-bearing wheel to hit the market. It was a 47-millimeter wheel with bearing seats that fit two size 608 shielded bearings with a spacer in between. "We actually chose the 608 bearing because it was a common bearing in electrical machinery," says Novak. "The standard bearing for rollerskates were 607 on a seven-millimeter axle. We were having to make sleeves to adapt the 608 bearing to fit the seven-millimeter axle. All of the trucks were still coming from the rollerskate industry."
The Road Rider 2 was a hit. To launch the wheel into the marketplace, Novak and Shuirman sponsored John Hutson, a local Santa Cruz skater, to ride his skateboard 74 miles from San Francisco to Santa Cruz. With that they created a brand-new category for the Guinness Book Of Records–the world speed distance record. Having made a grand entrance, Novak and Shuirman literally set out to supply every surf shop from California to Florida with their new product.
The first batch of Road Riders were sold out of the back of their pickup truck as the partners drove across the country and introduced their product to shop owners. By 1975, Novak and Shuirman had sold over a million wheels.
The success of Road Rider coincidentally dovetailed with other innovative skateboard products: the Bennett skateboard truck (which incorporated the eight-millimeter axle size), and the G&S Fibreflex deck (a flexible wood/fiberglass laminated board). With skateboarding’s popularity on the rise, this became the skateboard to get, and the suppliers of these three components formed the nucleus of the fledgling industry. "We all happened to just converge on a contest at the same time," says Novak of the Road Rider/Bennett/G&S triad. "We didn’t know anybody was doing anything, and that kind of kickstarted the later part of the 70s–those three things were really instrumental in pushing it forward. Then you had guys like the Logans, Stacy Peralta, Hutson, and Tony Alva who gave us the flair, and we were able to push skateboarding into CBS, NBC, and ABC."
With skaters like John Hutson, Tim Piumarta, Tony Alva, Henry Hester, and others riding, testing, and providing input on new products, Novak began surrounding himself with talented young people who could learn from him to build the company. NHS’ skateboard brands are currently managed by some of the sport’s most famous names, spanning every generation of skater from the mid 70s to now.
Since the introduction of Road Rider, Tim Piumarta has been instrumental in the research and development of many of NHS’ innovative products and brands, and currently serves as the company’s skateboard division manager and also heads research and development. After the success of Road Rider, he saw Novak and Shuirman launch another NHS wheel project in 1976. OJs were unique for their color (orange) and, says Piumarta, for their unique urethane formula. But OJs should be most famous, in retrospect, for their contribution to the marketing of skateboard products; NHS kept its affiliation with the new wheel brand totally secret. "OJs was a competing brand," says Piumarta. "We started competing against ourselves."
Another former team-member-turned-executive is NHS President Bob Denike, who was also a prominent Santa Cruz racer in the late 70s. Citing many of the products currently under the NHS umbrella, Denike credits the company as the first to truly diversify: "NHS, if you think back, was the first proponent of the multiple brand: ‘Here’s our deck brand, here’s our truck brand, here’s our wheel brand, here’s our riser-pad brand.’ We really split the components."
One of NHS’ strongest legacies, Independent Truck Co., has in the past twenty years maintained a reputation as a solid and quality product. Founded as a partnership between NHS and Fausto Vitello, today Independent ranks as one of the top-selling truck brands.
Despite its hardcore street/vert image, Indy began in 1977 as a racing truck. The original design, however, never made it to production.
"My god, where would we be if Jay Shuirman hadn’t done that first Independent Suspension truck?" says Piumarta. "They were designed with the theory of a torsion swing arm, so when you would go through a turn, all wheels would be in contact with the ground. The torsion bar is pinned inside–it’s basically a square bar pinned in a round hole." Piumarta credits the truck, in part, for many of the races won by
As good as it may have been for racing, the suspension truck wasn’t very suitable for skatepark and pool riding. By 1978 racing had begun taking a back seat to skatepark riding, so the first production model of the Independent truck adopted a straight axle in place of the torsion bar, and the word "Suspension" was also dropped from the name.
The basic Independent design would undergo six stages of modification over the next twenty years, primarily to strengthen the hanger. The geometry and turning properties, however, would remain unchanged.
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With a long list of innovations already to its credit, NHS would face its stiffest competition not from within the industry, but from without. Although skateboarding received coverage on television and was heralded in the media as the "latest thing," by 1979 it had lost its appeal. Skateparks were closing, and the skateboard industry saw its clientele disappear. Most significant, says Novak, was the conversion of Skateboarder magazine to the multi-sport Action Now: "We skateboard companies were getting 30 percent of the coverage and paying 80 percent of the expenses. The loss of visibility kind of just took the wind out of the sails. Skateboarder was kind of the flagship of the industry, and it showed the industry that they didn’t have the confidence to continue."
NHS faced another crisis at that time when Shuirman, a driving force behind the company’s success, died of leukemia in 1979. Novak took some time off before deciding to go forward and rebuild his company.
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Santa Cruz Skateboards was a dominant brand in the smaller skateboard market of the early 80s, just as it had been in the 70s. By focusing on the hardcore image of skaters at the time, Santa Cruz attached its catalog of products to the strong personalities of skateboarding legends like Steve Alba, Duane Peters, and Steve Olson. To accommodate their individual styles, Santa Cruz developed its Graduated Concave System–each pro model had its own unique concave design.
As early as 1975, NHS was experimenting with laminated maple skateboards. In the two decades since, Piumarta’s developed numerous concaves and laminate constructions–many of which never saw the light of day. What does reach the skate-shop shelves, he feels, is the best product he knows how to make: "Everyone’s got their own little tricks that they put into it. I certainly have kept a lot of my features built into boards, and yet try to keep them as invisible as possible–stiffening designs that make a board last longer."
Piumarta believes a company that doesn’t run its own wood shop is giving the consumer a generic product. "They’re just buying blank boards and slapping a name on it," he says. "We still take the time to engineer some really cool things. They skaters will not only feel the difference when they stand on it, but they’ll feel the difference when they stand on it four weeks later."
The key to NHS’s board program, says Piumarta, is its wood shop–nestled far from California beaches in the heart of Wisconsin, where the maple trees are harvested. "By putting our factory in the forest and employing people who are in the wood business to do the work with us, they gave us the benefit of not having warped boards. They’re shipped from Wisconsin sealed, so there’s no moisture penetration, no environmental effect.
He says that their belief in building quality products is worth all of the extra work and trouble of operating the woodshop in the Midwest. "There’re a select few companies that really like making good stuff," he says. "I’ve always believed in making boards that last a good long time. After all, there’re only so many lawns that you can mow in the neighborhood."
As the sport rebounded into the 80s, NHS’ board program expanded to include the Santa Monica Airlines, Lucero, Hosoi, and Air Tech brands. The experiments continued with various wood and composite constructions. The short-lived Air Tech epoxy/glass and foam-core boards were particularly remarkable; unfortunately these ultra-light boards were designed in 1986 for the increasingly unpopular genre of vert skating. A more subtle, though influential development was the notch-tail design first featured on the 1984 Rob Roskopp model. This fan-tail look would dominate board designs for the next half decade.
By the mid 80s, as skateboarding was again gaining popularity, NHS had restructured its wheel program, developed a clever four-color wheel-printing process, and successfully launched the Speed Wheels family with brands like OJs, Bullet, Psychotics, Hosoi Rockets, and Slimeballs. By the end of the decade, NHS had captured as much as 80 percent of the wheel market.
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Then, in the early 90s, it happened again. The 70s crash followed a steep and sudden growth period, during which skateboarding was widely accepted–and even commanded several hours of television air time. A similar pattern repeated in the late 80s, and Novak saw the writing on the walls. While some of his strongest competitors were betting on continued prosperity, Novak began scaling back in anticipation. "I think it was just that everybody believed in their own bullshit," he says. "Everybody would write about themselves as these great geniuses, and they were too self-confident. They believed this is gonna last forever, and I said, ‘Hey, it isn’t gonna last forever.’ I think that kind of killed us in the early 90s."
Despite the apparent hardships ahead, NHS developed and launched a new product in perhaps the most difficult category to penetrate–the truck market. Skateboarders, once conditioned to the feel of a particular brand, are less likely to switch truck brands as they are to switch board or wheel brands. And with skateboarding’s popularity already in decline, 1989 was not an optimal year to launch a new truck–unless you wanted to catch your competition with their pants down. Or unless you wanted to spend your last dollar retooling a foundry. But the Krux truck was unique, and it managed to find a niche in a shrinking market.
As a partner in the successful Independent Truck Company, why bother developing a new competing brand? "Going back to the multiple brands that are marketed differently," says Denike, "it doesn’t take you too long to look back at Indy and why it’s so strong–imagery, the logos, and the history. Krux is strong for almost the exact opposite–innovation and newness."
Denike says that the Independent was a refined truck that needed little modification, but that he, others at NHS, and–most importantly–the team riders had a lot of truck ideas. The cast-in, guaranteed-no-slip axle was the main feature of the new truck, and as an experiment Piumarta drilled a hole in the hanger to reduce weight. He’d done the same with wheels when he put twelve holes around the sidewall of the Divine Direction (now Bullet Holes) wheel. When cast into the truck, however, he found that the hole in the center of the hanger actually strengthened it. Besides, the hole easily identifies the Krux truck.
Soon after Krux hit the market, the entire U.S. economy fell into a recession, and skateboarding fell into its latest down cycle. It was not a good time to take chances, but Piumarta discovered something he couldn’t resist trying–a PBT plastic material that he found could bond to wood. He called it Everslick. "I was jazzed about it because of the lubricity or slipperiness of it," he says. "The application of detailed graphics kind of came secondary to me."
While another company, BBC, had released a P-tex-bottom board prior to Everslick, it
was the PBT material adopted by NHS that would become the industry standard for slick-bottom boards. The first prototypes were tested by Tom Knox, who quickly reported to Piumarta that he didn’t want to ride anything but Everslick. Still, convincing the public that it was better than conventional wood boards was a hard sell. Eventually, they were successful. "We came out with a huge marketing push," says Denike. "If you recall, there was like a twelve-month period when no wood boards were selling. I had phone calls from competitors screaming at me that we were destroying the industry because slicks were the only things that were selling."
PBT-bottom boards would evolve to feature detailed, photographic four-color sublimated graphics, and the NHS Everslicks also adopted better formulations and textures for durability and lubricity. But the next wave of skateboarding would be dominated by wood, and today PBT-bottom boards are scarce.
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We are currently still enjoying the growth of that mid-90s wave of popularity. And like a decade ago, we see many of the same indicators that preceded the last decline in skateboarding’s popularity–steep growth patterns, corporate interest, and television coverage. Have we outgrown the cyclical past that crushed the skateboard establishment all those times before? Novak says no. He believes it’s a natural, inevitable cycle that can be prepared for, but not avoided. "If you know that it’s coming," he says, "you can, as an industry, go forward. I’ll survive because I’m a good businessperson, and I’ve surrounded myself with a lot of young guys who are really good. Hopefully they’ve learned from me and they can surpass me. If you put smarter people around you, it makes you look smart."
NHS Director of Worldwide Sales Bod Boyle has seen the cycles from every perspective–as a young skater growing up in London, England in the late 70s, and as a Santa Cruz pro in the late 80s. "The importance of a healthy industry cannot be overlooked–supporting magazines and supporting the companies that support the magazines is key," he says. "Where I came from, skateboarding disappeared–vanished–in the late 70s/early 80s, and we stopped doing it."
As long as there are still skateboard products, magazines, and videos, says Boyle, kids will keep skating: "I think when we go through our cycles, it’s important for retailers and distributors to be aware of this worldwide industry and support it. Support companies and support magazines that will still be there in the down cycle, because that will stop the bottom from falling even further."
Novak feels that the skate media also needs to adopt a broader perspective and promote the sport on a global level. "You’ve got people right now looking county-wide when we should be looking internationally," he says. "And that goes from the leadership of both magazines all the way down to the bottom. They’re not looking globally, they’re looking at a 619 area code and a 415 area code. And that’s about as far as they can see. There’s not much vision past that."
One of Novak’s strategies for surviving any downtime in the skateboard market is diversification. In 1989 NHS launched Santa Cruz Snowboards, which was followed by an outerwear and boot line. The skateboard softgoods program continues as the Santa Cruz Classics collection. Denike says that part of this strategy is to give focus to each department–skateboards, snowboards, and apparel–by organizing them into separate entities within the corporation.
Novak says that part of his strategy for continued success calls for a fourth division to compliment the existing categories–a fourth leg, so to say. But what that leg will be made of, he isn’t saying. "Novak instilled in me the belief that when you get up to speed, you make a quick right turn," says Denike. "If you don’t roll the ship, you’ll be going off in a direction that nobody can follow. That was the brand concept–do a Cell Block, do an Indy, and we’re continuing to this day. We’ll probably divulge a new brand soon."
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Currently, NHS is focused on its established brands, and the skateboard division is as active as ever. The company has expanded into the safety-gear category with TSG, a line of helmets and pads. It’s also revived Strange Notes, a team ’zine with a quarterly circulation of 60,000. At the recent ASR Trade Expo, Santa Cruz introduced its new Roofie’s Graphic Griptape–bringing full-color photographic images to the skateboard’s topside. While this innovation won’t change the way people ride skateboards, it will change the way they look at them.
The board program continues with several concave and lay-up options including the extra-strength PowerPly series, lightweight Xtra-Light series, the Hardedge series with its unrouted top edge, the original Ever-Slick, and the extra-deep Mad Concave. Last year, Santa Cruz also introduced its Step-Side shapes, which feature narrower noses and tails for improved control. The forward-thinking NuWood board, made from a molded carbon-fiber material, remains the only functional non-wood board on the market. In addition to the Santa Cruz and NuWood brands, NHS also manufactures and distributes Creature and Sonic boards and products.
NHS’ Speed Wheels program has diversified in the last few years into five distinct brands: Road Rider, Wings, Wild Hairs, OJs, and Bullet.
The original Road Rider brand is now focused on the big-soft-wheel category, popular with longboarders and cruisers. Wings is a pricepoint line designed for complete setups. Wild Hairs are specialized wheels, featuring unique shapes like flat backs that appeal to specialist skaters. OJs is the Speed Wheels colored line. "People always think that colored wheels are softer," says NHS Marketing Director and Skateboard Team Manager Jeff Kendall, "so we’re working on doing harder colored wheels."
Bullet is the Speed Wheels flagship line. It was popular in the late 80s when Speed Wheels was the dominant wheel company, and NHS recently resurrected the name to help diversify the wheel program. "That’s our brand to go after the number-one brand," says Kendall. "We’re not looking to do colors and swirls–white, natural urethane, a little bit harder, and it’s based around eliminating unused urethane."
The Bullet line includes two design variations. D-Cups feature recessed sidewalls that eliminate excess urethane and preserve the interior graphic design. "It doesn’t make the wheel any softer or slower, it’s just that small amount of urethane that goes around the inside that’s never used," says Kendall. "It makes a set of wheels a little bit lighter."
The Bullet Holes series features twelve holes through the sidewalls of each wheel. "They’re also quite a bit lighter because the cavities are molded in the urethane," says Kendall. "Bullet is our main brand, and that’s what everybody on the team is getting behind."
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As the industry shrank at the end of the 80s, Novak decided that to survive the recession and thrive in the 90s, a new approach was needed–a drastic restructuring of company management. "One of the things we learned from our competitors in the 80s is that there was usually one person in the organization that everything had to run through," says Denike. "Richard saw that and immediately changed and said, ‘I want a team that makes the decisions, I don’t want one body that makes decisions.’ It took us about six years to really turn that around."
NHS also prides itself on cultivati
ng its own talent and promoting from within. Denike, Piumarta, Boyle, and Kendall are all examples of this.
As team manager and marketing director, Kendall continues to draw from his experience as a pro to be the link between the team and the company–that crucial hinge between the promoters and the product makers. Every bit of his experience as a skateboarder has prepared him for it, and he’s just happy to have a place in skateboarding. "You know what I think the most important thing about working within the skateboard industry is?" he says. "The people. I work for some of the coolest people, and everybody in skateboarding does. And you can’t beat that, you can’t put a price on that."
Novak says that the reason he got into the skateboarding business and stuck with it for 25 years is because it’s challenging and–most importantly–fun. "Skateboarding’s a really fun industry," he says. "But you want to kind of throw new things in there to make it different. So that’s what we try to do, always keep changes coming to keep competitors on their toes."
Boyle is still amazed to be working in the industry he dreamed about as a youngster: "It was your whole life as a kid–and being able to transfer that into your working life is good. Where there’s money, there’s bullshit, so deal with the bullshit in something you like. At least if I get worried or stressed, I could enjoy that it’s skateboarding. Yes, we all work hard, but at the same time it’s what we enjoy."
"I think for every one of us who come in here, it’s really exciting because every single day poses a new challenge," says Piumarta. "You pay the bills, but it’s not the money. It’s the fact that we love what we’re doing. Other companies, they sit back and do nothing, and just ride it out. We’re 25, we’ve done it, but every day we come in we’re doing something, and it’s been that way for all this time. We have no interest in sitting back."
NHS has been manufacturing skateboards for 25 years. If it’s still fun and challenging for all concerned, then that’s the true measure of their success.