Sunday BIZ: Catch Up With Pierre-André Senizergues

Editor’s Note: Our new Sunday BIZ section includes in depth features, interviews, and reports that dive deep into the issues and personalities shaping the industry—bringing the girth of a Sunday paper without a trip to the driveway or sawing down trees.

Pierre-André Senizergues with the Fall '12 etnies Bledsoe Low. Photo: Lewis

Almost 30 years ago a young French skater named Pierre-André Senizergues came to the States with big dreams and an even bigger pool of talent and ambission. Senizergues’s story spawned from humble beginnings—he launched his career working at TransWorld SKATEboarding, sleeping in a car in the parking lot, before going on to not only become a pro skater and World Champion, but one of the most successful entrepreneurs in the industry.

Senizergues’ first brand, etnies, is celebrating its 25th anniversary last year, and along that journey he has gone on to launch four more labels, shutter one, and seen numerous economic cycles, fads, and trends. During the roller coaster ride of life, Senizergues has stayed true to his vision of making the sport of skateboarding more sustainable for the people passionate about it, and the world a better place. We caught up with Senizergues earlier this year in Orange County, California for a look back on the ride, the lessons learned along the way, and what he has up his sleeve for the next 25…

You've been in the industry a long time as an athlete and entrepreneur – why did you originally get into the business side of it?

I've been in this industry for over 30 years. At one point, I decided that I needed a shoe that could perform so it doesn't get destroyed in one minute, something that can be more durable. I wanted to create something to help skateboarding grow.

I was thinking shoes can be sustainable for the sport because everybody wears them. If you can make really good shoes for skateboarding, but at the same time that other people can wear, it creates a platform for sustainability for skateboarding as a whole.

From skating to trees, Senizergues's roots are definitely showing.

You've seen a lot of economic cycles over that time. In the past, when the market dipped, it was more about fads, but recently it's been more about the economy. Where is skateboarding at now?

I've seen the up of seventies, the fall of the seventies, the up of the eighties, the fall of the eighties. Starting the cycle again now is really an economic challenge, which is different than the cycle before because the industry is much bigger now.

During 2008 to 2011, the economy contracted in general. I think the industry needed to be more efficient, and I think in general the industry is probably more efficient as a whole now. The industry has had to contract and had to make cuts, had to become more and more efficient and it had to settle itself better for 2012.

Do you think we've gotten to more or less the right size?

As an industry we're better set for 2012. I see a strong possibility that the US will come back now—there are some signs already. For Sole Tech, we decided there's probably too many brands on the market right now, too much choice for the consumer; too much choice for the retailer; too much choice for distributors, so we have to look at really choosing better. Being more focused.

That's one of the reasons, in 2011, we decided to put éS on hiatus.  It is a very strong brand, but there are too many brands so we need to focus. We see growth in Emerica, we see growth in Altamont, we see growth in etnies, and we see growth in ThirtyTwo already in 2012. I think it was the right move, putting one aside and focusing on the others.

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It's really easy to say that the market needs to contract a bit to the right size, but normally when people say that they're talking about putting their competitors out of business and not looking internally at what they can do to better focus their efforts. That's a good example of looking internally to get the size correct, market wise.

Yeah, exactly. People always focus on things that are out of their control. You can't control everything. You can just focus on what you can control.

Follow the jump…

Sole Technology's Lake Forest, California headquarters

Compared to this time in 2011, how are you feeling as far as the downturn in the market and about Sole Tech’s position?

The further we get away from 2008, the closer we're gonna get to a recovery. People are tired of holding back, we've been holding back for many, many years. They're tired of saving money and not spending. Feeling better breeds a movement of better things.

It sounds like you’re focusing on what you do well, your core competencies, and selling to only those retailers who do what they do well.

We're careful who we are selling to. We try to offer a different alternative. Obviously we have a brand like Etnies, which has broader distribution. But, I would say it's not as broad as lot of brands in general, but still. We also offer other brands with more niche offerings—Emerica, Altamont , and ThirtyTwo. I really believe that we have to have this point of difference to offer the consumer variety. Sadly, it seems to be a commodity market with the same brands everywhere.

What do you see happening to action sports in the long run if that commoditization continues?

That's a real danger because sadly, we'll lose our identity, we'll lose authenticity. Action sports is more than clothes and shoes. Action sports has something different to offer.  It has personality. It has a different view. That's why we started skateboarding and surfing. We don't want to play tennis, we just want to do action sports because it makes so much more sense for our culture. If our culture becomes a commodity, it has no more meaning.  Of course, it takes work and it takes choice and it takes perseverance.

It doesn't come without earning it. It comes with choice, commitment, and a passion behind it. It has to be different. It has to really get you excited.

As big as it's gotten, if you were 14 again and looking to get into a sport, would it be skateboarding?

I don't know. That's what worries me sometimes because I'm wondering if I was a kid today, would I take up golf? Or something that's free like trail running?

I think it's also this spirit of being different, which is really developed by the brands and retailers. It's important what retailers choose to back and what they choose to inspire. Working with retailers and trying to share that spirit is very important to create that sense of authenticity that makes action sports different.

You guys are bringing back the Buy A Shoe, Plant A Tree program in Brazil. Tell me more about that.

Our mission is to inspire youth to passionate commitment through our brand. Last year we started planting in Costa Rica with the local Indians and we planted this amazing forest. We spent six nights along the river and we planted like 35,000 trees with them. They live off the trees. Obviously it's important too because we're trying to reduce our footprint on the planet, not only to reduce CO2 but to create oxygen.

This year we're working in an area in Brazil with a strong rainforest and our goal is to plant 100,000 trees. We really have to target the people who are buying the shoes and the retailers who are buying the shoes—they help us do this and it's really about doing this together. It's not just about planting trees, it's etnies working with riders, and locally with the indigenous people. It's really about coming together and joining hands.

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Who are you partnering with in Brazil?

The local people and the local high school to help them learn about trees and their role. It's cool because it brings together etnies, our riders, the kids and the people locally that depend on the trees. Those trees don't just capture CO2 and create oxygen, but they also create agriculture. It's really contributing to the community.

Senizergues in Costa Rica for the Buy a Shoe, Plant a Tree project

How did you personally develop this passion for giving back and reducing your footprint?

I think it's just a normal evolution. When I started skating in Paris with my friends, I was trying to create a support system for skateboarding. After I came to America and found my passion for skateboarding, I thought, what do we need to take this to the next level? We need performance shoes because we skate everyday. It needs to function better. I also figured that developing shoes was creating a sustainable platform for more skaters to be sponsored, because more people can wear shoes. After that I said "okay, cool, so now I create shoes to skate and clothing to skate and a job for skaters. Now I need to create a planet for skaters."

It's all about skateboarding and action sports and there's only one place we can skate; it's the Planet Earth. We need snow in the mountains. Global warming is not a good thing for snow. We need clean water when we go surfing, we need clean air when we skate in the city.

One thing I always think is "What is it really about, in the end?" I really believe it’s about what we give, not what we take. So I always try to ask, "what can I give?" At the end of the day that will be more important.

I really feel that our industry has a chance to transform this better than anybody else, because we are a young industry. The youth will change the world and parents will be changed by their kids. What makes you change your world is your kids.

Follow the jump…

Two or three years ago everybody was talking about eco-initiatives, but then as the economy hit the shitter that was one of the first things to go.  I think it's admirable that you have moved forward with these types of initiatives and have focused on your values despite the set backs of the last couple years. How important do you think it is for a business to maintain its values regardless of what else is going on?

As a business and a person, you have to find what your values are first and what's important to you. To be able to maintain, you have to run true with your values. Otherwise you're left with nothing. So, I think it's always been about being persistent and understanding what we're going to do as an organization.

Our values as a company are creativity, quality, integrity, teamwork, enjoyment, and community. Community is a very important part of it, including giving back.

At the end of last year, when you were getting down to the budget process, how much of a role did stepping back and looking at your values play in the hard decisions you had to make?

You always wish for Santa Clause to bring you more budget (laughing).  You always want more budget but you don't need budget to cover ideas. A lot of times, the best idea comes with no budget. I think you have so much budget and you have to say, "Okay, this is what I have, and now what do I do with it? How do I make the best with what I've got?"

With that creativity the budget will follow, if it's done right.

Yeah, exactly, so we find a way to move things differently, creating new ideas by creating demand for that point of difference.

Depending on how this year goes, any chance of éS coming back?

It's still here in Spring and we'll see after that for Fall '12. It's possible that we might see separate products for éS depending on if markets are asking for it.

We'll see, but for me it's really about looking at éS and rethinking how to do it with the next movement coming. For Sole Tech, it's always been about creating brands and a market by making something different. For éS, we had to put it on the side for now thinking "Okay, let's retool this like you retool an old car, for something new that's coming.” We're still doing our research on what’s coming next.

Are there areas you see as having bigger potential at this point?

Yes, but I don't want to say too much right now, we're still in the lab.

What have been the biggest lessons from going through the last couple years?

With what I've seen change at Sole Tech over the last 25 years and through the last few years, I have been really, really surprised by the commitment and dedication of my team. I have been extremely touched to see how much they will step up and do whatever it takes to make things work.

The riders on the team also take the next step to figure out "okay, how can we do more for the market? How can we represent stronger? How can we create more excitement?"

It shows their commitment and dedication, it shows their passion for the industry andwanting skateboarding to succeed, wanting snowboarding to succeed, surfing, moto, wanting all of these to happen.

I think it all comes back to your focus on selling a lifestyle, you know, you're not selling widgets, you're not trying to commoditize your product and make sales go up 10% next year.

It's about our lifestyle and authenticity. That's what we're about, that's  what we live. It's our lives.

Amen.