The early 90s was an interesting time for Lance Mountain.
At the time, he was one of skateboarding’s veteran professionals and skating for Powell-Peralta-the company that launched Mountain, as well as Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Mike McGill, and Tommy Guererro into stardom as the Bones Brigade. “In 1991 skateboarding was changing a lot, and the business of skateboarding was changing even more,” says Mountain. “People were either pushed out of the skate industry, or joined in-I didn’t feel like doing either.” Mountain found his own path and created The Firm.
At its inception, The Firm consisted solely of Mountain, his wife Yvette, and the team: Ray Barbee, Keith and Joe Gruber, and Weston Correa. And despite the company’s significant growth over the past twelve years, the staff still remains small-just a handful of employees. Keith Gruber fans will be pleased to know he’s still with The Firm, working in the accounting department.
When asked how his role at The Firm has changed over the years, Mountain explains, “Today I do everything but stock, ship, and sell the product. When we started, I used to stock and ship the product, too.”
The Firm is distributed through Tony Hawk’s Blitz Distribution. Hawk explains that it was a matter of convenience, but mostly a matter of friendship: “We were distributing The Firm when Lance first started it in 1992. It was mostly personal, as both Lance and I had just left Powell to start our own companies and we wanted to keep working together.” Hawk also says that The Firm has strengthened Blitz overall: “It has made our overall distribution more diverse and allows us to keep working with friends we grew up skating with.”
What’s In A Name?
Mountain is perhaps one of skateboarding’s last great staples. His professional career spans three decades, and he’s one of the only guys who skated Skate City in Whittier, California and can also tell you the difference between a frontside flip and a switch frontside flip. Prior to starting The Firm, Mountain had one of skateboarding’s most recognizable pro boards on Powell-Peralta. Mountain’s departure from Powell didn’t come easy-he had been skating for them for eight years-but he wasn’t alone: “Stacy Peralta, Craig Stecyk, and just about everyone but Stevie (Caballero) had to move on, it was all at once.” In fact, most of the original Bones Brigade departed around the same time-Tony Hawk left to start Birdhouse, Mike McGill began Chapter 7, Rodney Mullen partnered with Steve Rocco to begin World Industries, and Tommy Guererro and Jim Thiebaud parted ways with Powell to form Real.
With almost everyone branching out on their own, Mountain had the opportunity to find his voice. When asked about the name, Mountain attributes it to several meanings: “It was the name that just kept coming up, when thinking about what I wanted to do. The British mob and the hooligans are called firms-groups of dudes doing their own things. Skating has never been truly accepted, you had to make your own way, do your own thing. It’s not violent to others (unlike the hooligans), but the skating is aggressive-it pushes the limits of oneself.”
Mountain explains the name is also a means to express the camaraderie that exists between the people involved: “It has aspects of the Mafia, a group or ideas, a belonging-it’s more than just a team.” The Firm, as a name, can also be taken very literally, regarding Mountain and company’s dedication to integrity. “I feel it’s important to stand up for what you believe in.”
A Business Model
Not only has Mountain been around skateboarding for a long time, he has successfully run The Firm for the last twelve years-making the company a seasoned veteran. From this perspective, Mountain can understand the importance of longevity: “A lot of companies have gotten into the business of building themselves up to look good for investors, and then selling. That makes it hard for the industry to do what’s best for the long term-it leaves us in an inflated bubble that will burst.”
Despite this, Mountain remains enthusiastic and optimistic about skateboarding’s future. Skateboarding has always been an industry controlled by those who are passionate about it. At first if skaters themselves didn’t start their own companies, no one would, but then something interesting happened. Other people who didn’t skate and never had skated tried to launch their own skateboarding brands. Skateboarders were understandably wary of these companies, and as a result the companies were met with hesitation. They were generally kept out of skateboarding’s inner, credible circle. If you don’t skate, you don’t relate, indeed. Mountain acknowledges that skateboarding, as an industry, takes pretty good care of itself. “The influential skaters won’t go away. It’s hard to keep the right skaters and vision when the bottom line is controlled by someone who does not live skating-there is no substitute for passion.”
The Firm holds to a rather simplistic view of the role of a skateboard company in the bigger picture of the industry-just skate, and the rest will fall into place: “Skate until you physically can’t-that’s the job of a company and pro skaters. That’s what can help skate shops and skaters create a strong industry.” Mountain’s approach provides insight as to why The Firm, with a team of some of the world’s most talented skaters, remains an underground company. Mountain also remains cautious about what could happen if the industry grows in the wrong direction: “Skaters are going to skate as long as it’s fun to them-the industry is there only to spotlight and inspire it. We don’t want it (a skateboard) to just become a tennis racket that you can get at the local toy store. Skateboarding is way better than that.”
When it comes to the tough decision-making aspects of running a business, Mountain admits he feels the situation out, rather than rely on business strategy: “I’m not too good in that department-I just follow my heart.”Longevity
Despite having one of the most widely respected teams and reputations throughout skateboarding’s fickle industry, The Firm still tends to be viewed as one of the “underdog companies”-albeit the largest of its kind. As skateboarding undergoes various phases of baggy pants, leather jackets, and handkerchiefs, The Firm’s skaters continue to do what they’ve always done-skate.
When asked about this, Mountain admits that he doesn’t hold much stock in the quickly passing trends skateboarding has seen: “There is no catch besides skateboarding, we have been doing the same thing for years. The Firm has had skaters that have changed or influenced skating-a lot of companies can’t say that. It’s underground, but untouchable.” Mountain has proven that image alone doth not make a truly influential skateboarder. Ray Barbee, Bob Burnquist, Matt Beach, Rodrigo Teixeira, and Mountain himself have all greatly impacted skateboarding, and for that remain widely respected and never forgotten. That’s how Mountain defines success: “Having top skaters that can offer skateboard history something and will be remembered ten years from now.”
Skateboarding As An Art Form
With the ever-increasing number of mainstream people getting into skateboarding, it is becoming widely regarded as a sport-a name Mountain shrinks back from. “Skateboarding can be ever-creative and self expressive. There is more to it than sport-the competition is just one aspect of skating.” According to Mountain, it’s skateboarding’s individuality that propels it beyond sports like soccer and baseball. “Even the skater who doesn’t have what it takes to be professional has something to offer. There are so many great skateboarders out there who have ideas and feeling and originality that offer skateboarding something in someway-sports are not like that.”
Asked what sets The Firm apart from other companies in a burgeoning, even saturated industry, Mountain’s faith is clearly in his team: “The skaters speak for themselves. Bob Burnquist is one of the gnarliest skaters ever-switch skating on vert
. Ray Barbee, one of the forefathers of street skating, he’s not on a comeback, he never stopped. He skates because he loves it. Matt Beach, one of the most underrated skaters ever, but he’s one of the most respected among other pros. With Javier Sarmiento, it’s the same. He does what he does, and it doesn’t matter what the masses can or can’t comprehend. Rodrigo TX can’t speak English but wins a pro contest at fifteen years old, goes on to become one of the best. Why go on? The ones who know, know.” Mountain adds, in his dry, sarcastic way, “And, of course, myself. Who else has ridden for Variflex? They lead the way-selling lawn furniture with their name brand on it to Wal-Mart. That’s a lot of history.”
Another interesting thing about The Firm is that most, if not all, of the people involved are deeply religious-although you’d never know it at a glance. There are no biblical references in their advertisements, and no icons adorn their boards. Although faithful, Mountain believes in letting his beliefs influence his life, but draws the line at using his company as a vehicle for promoting his personal beliefs. “Jesus is my Lord, I accept that-it’s a personal relationship and a choice for him to rule over my life. I will try and run a business and deal with skaters accordingly, but The Firm does not sell religious artifacts-we promote and sell great skateboarding.”
All things considered, Mountain appears to be less of a businessman, and more of a man who is trying to promote skateboarding in his own way, letting both his faith and sense of humor guide him: “I like to do things that I like-not a good business practice, really.”
Despite Mountain’s atypical attitude toward business, The Firm has achieved both success and the respect of the skateboarding industry. And if the success stems from The Firm’s talent pool, the respect is most likely a result of Mountain’s attitude and love for skateboarding: “At the end of the day, all that matters is how you treated people and how you dealt with problems-not how much you got.”