Spitfire’s Champion

Ruben Orkin is winning, and he’s not about to give up.

Ruben Orkin is a fighter pilot of sorts. If you ever have a chance to meet him, you might not detect the motivation and determination he embodies – characteristics that have won Spitfire the lion’s share of the wheel market, and characteristics that quite literally keep him alive. That’s because the affable 29-year-old team and production manager for the Spitfire wheel brand comes across as an easy-going, laid-back skater. Which is precisely what he is. But when prompted, he’s talkative and engaging, his speech sporadically interrupted by compulsive laughter. His energy is infectious, and at a session, he’s the perfect companion – he skates anything, he skates like mad, and if you pull something, his is the first hand to pat your back. Married and at the helm of skateboarding’s most popular wheel company, you might think that Ruben has it made.

Spitfire was established in 1988, and in 1994 Ruben inherited what he describes as his dream job when Steve Ruggi left the company. With the help of friends Tommy Guerrero and Jim Thiebaud at Deluxe, he learned the urethane trade and the particulars of managing a company. When he joined the Deluxe family, he says he saw no need to change the direction of what was already a very established and successful brand: “Spitfire’s always been from the ground up just gnarly skateboarding wheels – we’re not really trying to portray an image other than just gnarly skateboarding. So we’ve pretty much just stayed straight on the game, as far as that goes.”

In the four years that he’s been there, Spitfire’s line has grown from about 30 wheels to over 100, and according to Deluxe President Jeff Klindt, total wheel sales have also grown about 1,000 percent. In 1997 the company doubled its production capabilities to handle the constant log of back orders and other special manufacturing. “We were always making as many wheels as we could, but we couldn’t keep up with sales,” he says.

Ruben isn’t one to bring up business in a casual conversation, but when asked about his work, his eyes light up and his face fans out into a smile. He seems utterly convinced not only of Spitfire’s market dominance, but of his team’s and products’ superiority. “The main thing is the urethane,” he says. “We give wheels to all kinds of guys – you’d be surprised. Guys with pro wheels on other brands call us up. Everyone rides the wheels, but it’s our team guys who really come through and promote. Look at every mag – every other photo’s a guy with a big Spitfire sticker on his board. They represent.”

One technical edge that Spitfire certainly does have over some of its competition is its own wheel factory. Also in San Francisco, Pointech manufactures Spitfire exclusively, and Ruben says that this arrangement allows Spitfire to protect its formulas and constantly test new ones. “We’re always experimenting with new techniques of mixing the formulas and different additives to see what would happen,” he says. “Even if people try to match our wheels, by that time our wheels are gonna be that much better. We’re always many steps ahead of everyone. We’re not even worried.”

In its vast line of 23 wheel models, each of which come in at least three and as many as eight sizes, Ruben says that he tries to address every need, from big and soft to small and hard. Spitfire also offers a range of shapes, including its original Classicwheel.

Despite the tendency to attach a pro endorsement to every type of product, Deluxe has managed to build the Spitfire line without resorting to the usual slew of pro-model wheels. In fact, Spitfire offers only two at a time, the current pro wheels being the Bob Burnquist (54mm, 57mm, 63mm), and the Scott Johnson (51mm 53mm, 56mm). Each wheel will have three series released in the next several months before another two pros are selected. “They came down to the warehouse and looked at all the different wheels that they liked and sketched stuff out,” says Ruben. “Then we made them the custom shapes. That’s how we always do it, because that’s what it’s all about – that’s why it’s a pro wheel.”

Ruben believes that having fewer pro-model wheels adds to the prestige of the Spitfire pro series. The other 21 wheels in the line, however, are the result of the constant feedback and testing from the team. Spitfire also makes Pointech’s staff and facilities available for team members who have very specific ideas of what they want to ride: “Cardiel does it all the time. He says, ‘I was riding this wheel, and it was kind of sliding out, so I want to try to make a square wheel.’ We’re always taking input from the team guys and trying to do whatever they want to do. I think that’s another reason why our wheels sell so well – they’re designed by skaters, not some businessmen in suits.”

Spitfire has always been known for its wide array of colors and sizes, and Ruben attributes that to his team. His receptiveness to their eccentric wishes have resulted in some memorable – and probably some forgotten – products. “We have the balls to come out with a line of wheels in all kinds of crazy colors,” he says. “We did it first after that early-90s spell of just white wheels. Cardiel was saying, ‘We should make colored wheels. We should make pink wheels.’ So we did. We made all these colored wheels and swirls, and they sold a lot. Other people were scared to make them before, but now they make them. Same thing with big wheels. Back in the day when everyone rode small wheels, we were like, ‘We don’t ride small wheels.’ We’ll always make small wheels for the people who like them, but we’re not gonna just sell out and only make small wheels – we’re making all sizes.”

Spitfire’s pro team is as vast as it is diverse, but the company’s promotional program doesn’t stop there. Ruben says that he regularly flows wheels to about 30 skaters who may never be on the team, but who might be underground heroes or just skaters he admires. “We give wheels to all kinds of guys who are just gnarly skaters,” he says. “That’s another reason why Spitfire’s always been number one, because we keep to our roots. We’re down with all the rippers, we’re not just sponsoring cool guys who have a name. We like to do that, too, because that’s business. But not unless they rip.”

Spitfire’s pervasive imagery and image has earned it a loyal following of consumers that spans the spectrum. So as consumer demographics changed in recent years, the brand’s popularity continued to grow. Ruben attributes Spitfire’s growth at a time when many established hardgoods brands are struggling to its legacy of quality and integrity: “There are so many cheesy companies out there, and they’re all starting to drop because the consumers are realizing that they just want to stick with something that they know is good. You can never go wrong with buying Spitfire. A lot of companies have failed in the past few months. I think it’s gonna happen even further until it’s just the top five or ten, along with some of the smaller rad companies.”

Ruben’s instincts, his sincerity, and his dedication to the company have helped not only Spitfire, but the other Deluxe brands he’s lent a hand to. He’s also built loyal teams for Spitfire and Thunder Trucks – skaters who travel, skate, and to use his own term, represent. It’s not surprising, then, that when Ruben was diagnosed last year with lung cancer, his friends on the team and at the office stood by him.

Talking to Ruben, you wouldn’t know you’re talking to someone with a life-threatening condition. The diagnosis was as much a surprise to him as it was to his family and friends, but he’s rising to the occasion and is dealing with it as well as anyone could. “It’s more of a fluke than anything,” he says of his malady. “You’re basically fighting cancer all the time. Sometimes it just kind of slips through. The more physical insults you give to your body, the more chance you’re gonna have of not being able to fight off the cancer. In my case, I basically just drank a lot of beer and didn
‘t have a very healthy diet. I smoked cigarettes, but not too many. Now, since I’ve been diagnosed with cancer, I’ve read hundreds of books on health and immunity. I’m on a fully macrobiotic diet, except that I eat some fish. I do a lot of creative visualization, meditation, acupuncture, Chinese herbal medicine, and chemotherapy.”

Eager to continue his work, Ruben had Deluxe help him set up a home office where he takes care of wheel and softgoods production. While team matters are handled by the Deluxe staff, skaters still call him to see how he’s doing. “I do a lot of the purchase ordering from my house,” he says. “They set me up with a business line and a fax machine. I’ve been doing it off and on for a year, but over the past month or two I haven’t gone into the city. I live in Berkeley, and it’s too chaotic to hit the traffic on the bridge. I do a lot of stuff for my work, but a lot of it can be taken care of by other people. They understand that I need to concentrate on this, that this is more important, and they take care of me well. Even when I was getting chemotherapy, laid up, and couldn’t do anything, they were still sending me my paycheck. They said, ‘We know you’re gonna beat this, so we’re behind you 100 percent.’ I owe a lot to Deluxe for that.

“The main thing is that I’m just trying to stay real calm and relaxed. I’m a pretty easy-going guy, but I always have 50 things in my head that I’m working on. I’m just starting to figure out that you don’t have to always be thinking about 50 things. You can just relax and you’ll still take care of all those things you need to take care of.”

After Ruben recovered from his initial rounds of chemotherapy and some heavy doses of radiation therapy, it appeared that he was on his way to recovery. “I think I got a little too cocky, and pretty much assumed I had it beat,” he says. “Even though I had tumors in me, the scans were showing that they weren’t really growing. After a while I started skating a lot again, working out at the gym a lot, going to Deluxe, and getting caught in traffic. I was getting a little too stressed and being a little too active when I need to concentrate all my efforts on healing.”

A recent check-up revealed that the cancer had grown some, so these days Ruben stays near home, venturing out to get fresh air or take care of light errands, but not much more. “It’s just hard to not grab my board every day and go out and skate,” he says. “A lot of times I have the energy to, but I know that I just need to save that energy to heal. I’ll go cruise at the end of the day maybe for a half hour, just to get on the board, because it’s pretty therapeutic to get the wind blowing through my lungs. But I’m not gonna go take some slams and stuff. All that can wait.”

If attitude accounts for anything, Ruben’s already got it licked, and he’ll be back in the office before you know it – designing, planning, talking to the team. With all the promising wheel brands out there, he has his work cut out for him.

But that’s the sort of challenge Ruben Orkin thrives on.