It’s a family business.
As you look around, you might notice a whole bunch of skateboard companies.
Depending on when you started looking, this wasn’t always so. For the sake of this piece of expert typing, let’s assume you’re looking around right now. Can you follow me? Yes, I know you can–you’ve read plenty of Jim Fitzpatrick’s articles in this very journal.
Anyhow, the bunches of skateboard companies weren’t always around. There were only a handful of big companies as few as fifteen yeas ago. Skateboarding was much smaller then. Some might even say “better,” but that’s a topic for another piece of expert typing. Stay tuned.
About ten tears ago, the strong, manly handful of big companies spawned many, many smaller skateboard companies. Lots of the newer companies were started by professional skateboarders. This was good for the heart and soul of skateboarding, but not so good for the few big companies.
Those smaller companies changed the way the skateboard industry did business–the way we skateboarded, too. Lots of the change was just for the sake of change, though–kind of like a kid dyeing his hair as soon as he moves out of his parents’ house–not necessarily smart, well-designed change. But it definitely sets a tone for things to come, doesn’t it?
Well, as it turns out, skateboarding didn’t grow very quickly in the early 90s. The numerous smaller companies exploded the control mechanism of skateboarding’s industry, and–as you looked around–you might have noticed a lot of sinking and some swimming, too. The people who swam the best also changed the face of skateboarding.
In hindsight, and to use another stupid metaphor, it seems that some people just wanted the ball more than others did. That is to say, the strong swimmers wanted to change skateboarding’s direction–with all its money, power, and incestual back-biting–more than their predecessors. The cool thing was that the actual act of skateboarding progressed rapidly during this time. Because the new company owners weren’t too many days removed from their own professional careers, they sought out good skateboarders and backed (or appeared to back) these riders slightly better than they had been backed by previous sponsors. This isn’t saying much, but it did open the door for the technical street-dominated era of skating we are currently enjoying. Thanks, guys.
Jumping forward to about 1993, if you were still looking around, you might have noticed history repeating itself. The smaller companies mentioned earlier spawned even smaller skateboard companies, and so on, and so on. Sigh. Following in the recent tradition of skater-owned business, these ventures were, once again, started by pros who used to ride for this company or that. Yes, a pattern emerged, but it appeared that there really was no such thing as a free lunch. That is to say, start a skateboard company, and your team riders will learn from your mistakes and start their own (company, not mistakes).
The point of all this key striking is to introduce you to an establishment you are probably already very familiar with–Girl Distribution–the home of such perennial favorites as Girl Skateboards, Chocolate Skateboards, Fourstar Clothing, Ruby Clothing, Royal Trucks, and Lakai Shoes. The little conglomerate began as part of the pattern outlined above–with Rick Howard and Mike Carroll stepping away from Plan B in 1993 to start a business of their own design along with friends Megan Baltimore and Spike Jonze–but has since kept stepping up and up. In the last seven years, the partners have developed a management philosophy that has yet to be mimicked. But if it ever were, the entire industry would be a better place for it.
Rick Howard explains, “Part of the reason we started Girl was so pro skateboarders would have a future. Take Royal, for instance. When Guy Mariano and Rudy’s Johnson legs don’t work anymore, at least what they’ve done for skateboarding and their ideas can continue with something they can fall back on. All the Girl Distribution companies are based around people who have helped Girl get to where it is today.”
That’s what we like to hear.
And even though the one-stop shopping warehouse of Girl Distribution–where you can get everything you need to carry out the exploits of your common skateboarder, from boards to shoes and all things in between–has positioned itself as one of our industry’s stronger branding navigators–it didn’t begin by playing follow the leader.
We want our stuff to look different from everything else out there,” bluntly states Howard. “But there’s no real positioning. It’s not like we think, ‘There’s a lack of fluorescence in the industry. I think right now we’re ready for it.’ Everything always has a Girl feel to it. We don’t do any demographic or market research. We just have ideas of things we want to make and how we want stuff to look, then we do it based on our ideas.”
Talking to Rick or any of the folks at Girl, you get the idea that this is how the skateboard industry always has been and always will be. Try to hang onto that feeling as long as possible, because it’s a fleeting one. Ours, like most other industries out there, is a sector looking over its shoulder, wondering who’s coming up from behind. It also has its share of king-of-the-mountain types, funded and motivated by banks or outside hush-hush sources. Ultimately, this can lead to a lot of worries other than just making the best stuff possible–worries that Girl has never had to carry. They’ve always been self-funded.
Howard recalls, “The money came from a few Plan B tours that I mustered up, and the combination of the four of us putting in what we had and basically just starting off with decks. I don’t like the concept of owing money. We just like to have Girl dictate its own growth, and build from that.”
Megan Baltimore backs him up, “Anytime we’ve had to do a big project or anything like that, the partners have loaned the company money and then paid themselves back. We’ve never borrowed money from a bank or any financial institution. Looking back, we think it was a good idea, but I think it happened more because I’m just a freak about owing people money. I was panicked about getting into a situation where we might owe money to anyone.”
So following such logical thinking, the logistics of a company of Girl’s current girth must have been planned from the start, attacking each new endeavor with calculated precision, right?
“Everything has just kind of evolved,” confirms Baltimore. “It wasn’t like, ‘Okay, now we’re going to do this or that.’ We were only in business for about two months when we first started making jeans. I’d like to think that we do it all a lot better now, and that the stuff is a lot better quality. It’s just taken its own course. We started making a lot more clothing when we started Fourstar, and that sucked up a great deal of what we used to just have as cash flow for different projects. But nothing’s ever been like, ‘Okay guys, we’re going to budget out this whole project and make clothing.'”
As they have moved on to bigger and more serious projects, they’ve had to adjust to more stringent schedules. “Making trucks isn’t like dealing with the shape of a board, where you can just redo it in a couple hours, lacquer it, and skate it,” Rick says. “The time frame is different with castings and metals–from the point where you have a drawing, to the clay and wood models, to actually making a casting to test. And modifying can take a long time. It’s like two or three months for every little subtle change you want to make. So we weren’t really used to the time frame, but in the end it was one of the most rewarding things we’ve done.”
Kind of like on-the-job training. Does the skateboard world really need another truck?
“It doesn’t need one, but we made one that we like,” says Howard. “It’s lightweight an
d turns like a Royal. There’re also different colorways where we try to coordinate the bushings with the logo–just trying to take our color palettes from everything else we do and interpret it onto a truck.”
The same attention to detail is paid to how their brands are delivered to the masses. Howard explains, “Mike Carroll drives this Club Wagon around filled with gear. Our distributor in England did that. It was like a mini showroom in the back of a truck. We got the idea from them and sent Carroll on the road. It’s been really successful.”
“No,” admits Howard, pretending to be caught fibbing. “I guess there are a lot of road reps who do that. We don’t have any reps right now, but we’re looking to expand to that. With Lakai there’s a partnership with the Podium people makers of DVS Shoes, and they’ve been established in that area for a while. With the rest of our brands, we sell direct to shops. We also sell to Reggie Barnes at Eastern Skateboard Supply, sell Chocolate stuff to AWH Sales, and internationally the numbers are just insane–I think there’s like 40 international distributors.”
So even though they’re openly driven by the evolutionary process, Girl is really not as fly-by-the-seat-of-your-pants as they might have you believe; there really is a plan and a reason for the way they do things–one that everyone who works there believes in very deeply–but it’s not laid out as some token mission statement for everyone to chant like a corporate mantra. Rather, it’s visible in their attention to details, in their belief in what they are doing, and in their high-quality output–a grouping of brands and products that successfully mirrors what skateboarding is all about at any given moment.
Baltimore muses, “I think we’ve run this place more with our hearts than with our heads, and people have responded to that. It’s not necessarily the best way to run a company, but I definitely think it’s worked for us. I don’t know if that’s perceived by the consumers, but I always assume people outside Girl catch on to the fact that people here really like each other. It’s family. When all the things that go can go wrong, go wrong, it’s your family who’ll make room for that. That’s true about the people here, too, all the way through to the skaters.”
So, if you’re still looking around, you might want to point their attention in the direction of Torrance, California. History, new companies, patterns, theories, and expert typing aside, the folks over at Girl Distribution are doing something right. Not only have they managed to build and keep a handful of their own brands and teams, but they’ve changed the direction of the skateboarding business in the process–”Inspired By Skateboarding,” as the ads say. It seems that Girl’s success is mainly due to the fact that they’re not afraid of doing things their way, or loving the time they spend doing it.
Becoming Girl Distribution
Girl Skateboards–August 1993
. Mike Carroll and Rick Howard felt they could make a better contribution to skateboarding by running their own company rather than riding for someone else’s. Together with Megan Baltimore and Spike Jonze, they began Girl with pro-model decks (Mike Carroll, Tim Gavin, Rick Howard, Rudy Johnson, Eric Koston, Guy Mariano, Sean Sheffey, and Jovantae Turner,) and moved forward from there.
Chocolate Skateboards–April 1994
. As Girl Skateboards came into its own, the owners were approached by friends and other professional skateboarders who knew a good thing when they saw it. Rather than continue to stuff an already weighty Girl roster with more riders, a new team and company were created.
Fourstar Clothing Co.–April 1996.
The “improve on an existing idea theory” as it applies to skateboard clothing. Without producing expensive pieces, Rick Howard and Eric Koston founded Fourstar on the idea that skate clothing could be a bit nicer–something more than cargoes and T-shirts.
Royal Trucks–October 1997.
Rudy Johnson and Guy Mariano saw subtle ways to improve on the basic design of skateboard trucks. They immediately started working on models, and through lengthy refinements and R&D came up with their own contribution to the world of skateboard turning devices.
Ruby Clothing–July 1999.
A Megan Baltimore and Andy Jenkins collaboration, Ruby is a line of girls’ clothing sold in skate shops and boutiques that doesn’t follow the scaled-down skate-clothes formula. ¡Que buena!
Lakai Limited Footwear–July 1999.
Full circle. Mike Carroll and Rick Howard felt they could make a contribution to the skate-footwear world by running their own company rather than riding for someone else’s. Inspired.