Tod Swank has built Tum Yeto from the foundation up.
It’s early August, and Tod Swank (like just about everyone in this industry) is preoccupied with the trade show. With ASR just five weeks away, he’s still trying to build a booth, design and print catalogs, produce samples, and oversee all of the myriad tasks a successful show requires. But Swank has been through this several times before, and he knows it’s a time when he needs to be simultaneously extra-productive and super-creative.
After eight years in the business, Swank is unsure if trade shows really make a difference to his company’s bottom line. But the trade-show process has become a habit, and for now it’s one that continues to run him and his employees ragged. And if they’re going to make the effort, he wants their booth to look good and function well. “Back in the old days I thought it was a good contrast to look a little rough-and-ready – just not spending a lot of money and time working on a booth,” he says. “Now I worry about new accounts looking at us, saying, ‘Oh, this just looks like a bunch of kids – they can’t have their shit together.'”
Swank wants to build a cleaner, more professional booth because that’s how he likes to do business. He prides himself on Tum Yeto’s tight infrastructure, and its ability to stock and fill orders on demand for all of its brands: Foundation Super Co., Zero, Toy Machine, Pig, and Landspeed. Swank also prides himself on being able to support a star cast of team riders and provide them with a livelihood and an outlet for their creative talents. “There’re a lot of easier businesses than this that you can make really good money at,” he says. “This is not the easiest business to be in – not just skateboarding, but this alternative, fickle, youth market. But it’s a lot funner than anything else.”
Swank believes the skateboard industry has become much more competitive in the last couple of years. He attributes that to the onslaught of micro brands and the proliferation of blank boards. But these companies, he says, aren’t contributing as much to the promotion of skateboarding as his and the few dominant companies are. “Everyone’s kind of riding the backs of the premium board companies – the shoe companies, the blank-board companies, and the shops that have their shop boards are riding the backs of it,” he says. “Woodshops are selling them boards for so cheap that they’re not making any money, and they’re definitely not putting any money into the industry. I’ll put my marketing and promotions expenses up against anybody’s.
“The main focus for Tum Yeto is the team and rider development. Promoting riders is the same thing as promoting skateboarding. We’re spending thousands of dollars a year to send a guy around to promote skateboarding, and all these guys are riding the backs of it. I’m not bitter or anything, but it’s a bad economic situation when nobody else is putting into it.”
While skateboarding is enjoying a wave of popularity, Swank says that his and other top companies are doing well but aren’t growing as quickly as they ought to be: “I’ve heard what other companies sold back in the heydays, and I know we’re not capturing all those additional sales – and we’re supposed to be one of the top companies. We’re up from last year, but based on what’s going on out there, we should probably be doing a lot better.”
Swank agrees that there is a place for pricepoint equipment in this market, but that retailers should focus on premium products from companies that actively promote the sport through teams, tours, ads, videos, contest sponsorships, and the like. “If everyone went pricepoint, you’d go into a shop and every board would look the same – there’d be no inspiration for a kid to buy anything,” he says. “There are plenty of premium-brand companies who are gonna put something back into skateboarding. Those are the companies that shops and distributors should support.”
Another problem, says Swank, is the proliferation of companies that begin with high ambitions, but end up discounting their products when they realize how difficult it is to compete in a saturated marketplace. “It’d just be nice if it could be harder for people to get into the industry, which means that you would have to have your shit together,” he says. “Right now, it’s so easy. Anybody can start a company, get a few team riders, and get those guys’ pictures in the magazines.”
But not every company can get their riders on TV. At the recent X-Games in San Diego, California, Tum Yeto had Chris Senn and Ed Templeton there representing Toy Machine, but while their participation may have turned young people on to skateboarding, it didn’t necessarily turn them on to Tum Yeto products. “My bank guys are all, ‘Oh, did you notice an increase in sales because of the X-Games?’ Not really,” says Swank. “If anything, those kids see skateboarding on TV, and their parents go to Oshman’s Sporting Goods or a skate shop and buy the cheapest board there.”
Now, at a time when all of his years of hard work is supposed to pay off, he’s disappointed that imported and pricepoint products are reaping the benefit. “Publicly traded companies like Nash and Variflex – where are they in the industry? What did they do for it?” asks Swank. “Variflex is the biggest importer of skateboards. I wouldn’t mind usbeing that company, plus having a premium brand, because I know that at least that way we’d be putting money back into the sport. I just saw yesterday in the paper that Nash has a twenty-dollar complete skateboard – it has plastic trucks, and it was a piece of crap. But that means Oshman’s Sporting Goods is getting it for ten bucks at the most – in a display box!”
While he laments his and other premium companies’ inability to provide equipment at such bargains, he also concedes that the large importers like Nash and Variflex sell in volumes and have established very strong distribution channels that ‘core skateboard companies never could.
Beginning with Foundation Super Co., Swank built a reputation in the early 90s for making quality and creative products, and early on began to tour nationally with his teams and produce videos. Many of the new companies today, says Swank, don’t have the dedication that he and many of the other start-ups did when he began. “I had to fight my way in,” he says. “I had banks tell me they weren’t going to do crap for us, and I had to pay cash for stuff all the time. But we kept it in control and kept it going. Looking back now, it was atrocious – it was gnarly. But it was a good learning experience. I don’t think I’d want to do it differently.”
He launched the company in 1989 at the behest of friend Steve Rocco, and for the first two years, Foundation wasmanufactured and distributed by World Industries. Then Swank took a chance and moved the company into the San Diego garage where he lived. In 1994 he incorporated as Tum Yeto, Inc. and has helped build the brands it now distributes, sending even more teams out to promote the products and the sport. “That was my goal all along, to have a skateboard company and work with skateboarders,” he says. “Then there was an opportunity to work with others skateboarders, and it’s just logical to share overhead. Throughout our growth, whenever we could, we created a new program and spent more money. But if our sales decrease, the first thing it’s gonna pinch is the marketing and promotions budget, and that’s the promotion of skateboarding.”
A few companies may pay their pros more than Tum Yeto, concedes Swank, and former teamriders have, in fact, gone on to more lucrative contracts. But Swank says he keeps no secrets from the riders, explains where the company’s money comes from, where it goes, and he helps them define their role in the company. Tum Yeto skaters enjoy company benefits like health insurance, and are encouraged to be involved with their brands. When they go on the road to represent their teams, he says their needs are taken care of, and their minds need only think about
their job – skateboarding. “I’m just doing my thing, but it sucks to know that companies are making money and they’re not doing shit for their riders,” says Swank. “I hear horror stories about companies that send their pro rider to a contest with a plane ticket, and that’s it – the skater has to find their own transportation and a room to sleep in. That’s a joke. I hope that we can set a standard, and everybody else will have to meet that standard. But that won’t happen because there are a lot of cheeseball companies out there that just take advantage of their riders.”
The contributions that pros make to the marketing of skateboarding and skateboard companies can’t be discounted, he says. They are the role models whom young skaters look up to, and pros are the ones pushing themselves and risking their health to progress the sport. “Obviously, these guys aren’t gonna be doing this forever,” says Swank. “But it’d be great if they could come in, earn a living, save some money, and then move on. They’re hitting their prime educational years, too. These guys are giving up a lot.”
Today, Swank sits in the accounting office signing paychecks for his 30 employees. At one time or another, he has performed every role in the Tum Yeto universe, from screenprinter to shipper to artist to pro skater to sales rep to where he now sits, in front of a computer combing cryptic columns of numbers. Currently, Tum Yeto operates its own printing facility for boards, wheels, and shirts, plus embroidery for clothing and hats. The company also maintains extensive Web sites for each brand (www.tumyeto.com), plus skateboard.com, a general skateboarding Web site with features like chat rooms, trick tips, a worldwide skatepark list, and feature stories.
What Tum Yeto doesn’t do is manufacture its boards and wheels – an arrangement, says Swank, that works great for him. Because he’s worked with his suppliers so closely and for so long, he’s certain of the product quality and the suppliers’ reliability. “We have really good relationships with them,” says Swank. “We’re really efficient, and we pay our bills.”
With so much of Tum Yeto’s production in-house, he feels that running manufacturing facilities would distract him and his staff from their development, design, and marketing focus. “If we had a woodshop, we’d have to double our employees,” he says. “We want to stay focused on the ever-changing trends and help push the envelope of skateboarding.”
In addition to running Tum Yeto with General Manager Rob Valerio, Swank also continues to direct the Foundation Super Co. brand, and codirects Pig with Josh Beagle. Ed Templeton directs Toy Machine, Jamie Thomas leads Zero, and Rob Erickson drives Landspeed. Each of these individuals manages their respective brand independently and is responsible for their product development, teams, and ads. Tum Yeto’s role, says Swank, is to provide an environment conducive to their creativity, and to provide infrastructure, financing, and distribution for each brand. The sales, warehouse, office, and production staffs, says Swank are part of that infrastructure, and he’s proud to be able to hire the “punkers and skaters” who make up the Tum Yeto team.
With their print production, warehousing, and shipping facilities in-house, Swank and the brand managers are able to oversee every step. It also helps control costs and broaden their margins. “That’s the nice thing about being a premium company – you might not be selling as much stuff as import brands, but you’re making good margins,” he says. “That’s why I don’t agree with all the Powell pricepoint stuff. Even if a kid paid 65 bucks for a board four or five times a year, it’s still the cheapest thing you could do compared to snowboarding, wakeboarding, or BMXing.”
Swank believes that shops could play a key role in promoting the brands that offer top-quality products and support strong teams and broader promotional programs. While the quality of pricepoint and premium products is often close or the same, Swank feels that companies that invest in the future of skateboarding deserve the support. Shops could begin, he says, by educating parents about the relative thriftiness of skateboarding: “I can see the problem when a parent walks into a shop and says, ‘Oh, 65 bucks for this piece of wood?’ If I was a shop guy, I’d just be all, ‘Well, you could go out and get a snowboard and gear for your kid, and it’ll be a thousand dollars. And every time your kid wants to go snowboarding, it’s gonna be at least a hundred bucks.’ Comparatively, skateboarding costs nothingto do.”
But promoting skateboarding through his company’s teams, videos, and tours does cost something, and those costs need to be offset by sales. “The problem now is that everybody just wants stuff cheaper and cheaper,” he says. “I paid a hundred bucks for a complete when I was a kid, and now you can get them for less than that.”
At day’s end, Swank makes his way to the warehouse in time to meet the UPS truck. With the fresh evening air wafting in through the open gate, he momentarily escapes the rigors of office work and helps the warehouse staff load the tall pile of boxes. Standing in line, they pass the packages into the truck, and on to shops and distributors around the world.
With the trade show sneaking up on him, his juggling of duties at Tum Yeto and the external dilemmas wrought by the forces of commerce, Swank finds himself in a position that most skaters never will. He enjoys the dynamics of the skateboard industry and wants to continue to contribute to the creative essence of the sport that attracted him to it in the first place. The skaters that manage the Tum Yeto brands, he believes, are that essence. They create the products that inspire young people to be involved in the sport, and Tum Yeto helps them realize their vision. “We have the resources, we have the distribution – we’re just like the backbone for each one of those guys,” says Swank. “It’s good for us to be multi-branded because we save on overhead, but I don’t really have anything to do with what Zero does, or what Toy Machine does, except each brand has budgets that they get to work within. We’re all friends, and we all work together. That was the goal, and that’s the way it is.”