The Success Of Subversion

The late 80s was a pivotal time in the history of theskateboard industry. A handful of mega manufacturers sponsoredthe top riders, owned or controlled most skateboard-manufacturingfacilities, and represented the only viable brands available toretailers. As business grew through the late 80s, their powerincreased, and small start-up skate companies had virtually nochance of breaking into the major distribution channels or makingan impact. In 1989 that all changed.

The previous year, Steve Rocco was fired from his team-managing position at Vision Skateboards, one of the largest andmost diverse manufacturers of skateboard hardgoods, softgoods,and shoes. Rocco decided to launch a small company, SMA RoccoDivision, that he financed on credit cards and borrowed money. Hishope was that he could coexist in the market alongside the bigbrands, but soon found he was up against them. “We just wanted tobe friends with everyone,” says Rocco. “But then they started tellingtheir distributors not to buy from us. So we fought back.”

Before the decade was through, Rocco had morphed hiscompany into the ironically titled World Industries, skateboardinghit another of its famous downturns, and by the fall of 1989,skateboard companies large and small were feeling the pinch. Butwhile most company owners were scrambling to downsize, Roccosaw an opportunity. Having recruited disillusioned top-name skaterslike Rodney Mullen and Mike Vallely, he broke all conventions andbegan a campaign to discredit the big brands through brutal andwitty advertisements, and even turned his cynicism on his owncompany. No one was safe from his deprecating humor, not even hisown teamriders.

The companies and individuals he mocked in hiscampaigns may have fought back if they could, but Rocco wasseemingly several steps ahead of everyone, and with the largercompanies struggling with bankruptcies, layoffs, and massivedownsizing, his shenanigans were the least of their worries. Anotherkey factor in Rocco’s eventual success was the rapidly changing faceof skateboarding, and his own ability, as a small company, to changewith it. As boards got narrower and noses longer, as wheels shrankand their edges rounded, and as graphics became disposable andRocco realized he could change them every two months, he did. Andeveryone else was slow to follow.

New Brood

When skateboarding began to re-emerge in the mid 90s,World Industries had become the dominant brand and had grown tospawn several other companies under its umbrella–Blind, 101,DuFFS shoes, and Big Brother magazine, to name a few.

Ironically, as World became the new model for a growingcadre of small skater-owned companies, Rocco and staff foundthemselves in the position he rebelled against when he started hiscompany. World Industries had become the industry leader, and byvirtue of that was the new establishment. But what a cynical anddarkly funny place that was. Long gone were the days of warm fuzzyskull graphics. The 90s was the era of cartoon characters, mischief,and the mayhem of an industry now made up of many emergingcompanies.

Rocco and the World staff managed the company on thefly, and in that way were able to react to the constant changes in themarket, keep the brand fresh, and stay ahead of the pack. A seriesof limited-edition but shocking graphics kept people talking, andseveral cease-and-desist orders and a couple lawsuits didn’tdissuade the company from pushing the boundaries of what retailerswere expected to stock.

Touring with the team in the mid 90s, Rocco made theobservation that the crowds at demos had gotten younger. When hereturned from that trip he initiated a plan to address this emergingpreteen demographic just as it was revitalizing the skateboardmarket. For the millions of kids getting into skateboarding in themid to late 90s, World Industries and its new cast ofcharacters–Devil Man, Flame Boy, and Wet Willy–spoke their visuallanguage.

Cartoon Mania

The characters and many of World’s infamous graphics arethe creations of Marc McKee, whose duty it was to develop imagerynot only for the formidable World pro team, but for a line of kid-oriented decks and products. Controversial and often violentmaterial was imbedded in cartoon battles between Flame Boy andWet Willy–akin to MAD magazine’s Spy Vs. Spy comic strip–andMcKee learned to imbed subversive and questionable imagery intoseemingly harmless cartoons. Case in point–Devil Man, a smilingstick-figure caricature of Satan that adorns many World skateproducts, has also been made into a horn-fingered Tech Deck figuresold at toy stores. Even the company’s Web site features a site mapthat organizes sections by rings, as Dante illustrated the variouslevels of Hell in his Inferno.

Diversify And Conquer

In 1998, Rocco and his investment partners created KubicMarketing as a holding company for their various companies, andWorld Industries peeled off from the other brands it spawned,leaving them under the Dwindle Distribution umbrella. Rocco settledinto a role helping strategize and direct Kubic, while on its own theWorld staff expanded its softgoods, accessories, and snowboardprogram, and launched a line of footwear as well.

While the split from Dwindle was necessary to allow theWorld staff to focus on its formidable program, the company alsohad a different distribution scheme that the other Dwindle brandsdidn’t share. With much of World’s product appealing to preteenswho spend more time at malls with their parents than they do atskate shops, it seemed natural that mall chains like PacSun shouldoffer World products, although the company says that the vastmajority of its accounts are still ‘core shops.

World President Bob Sayre also suggests that, while manyWorld products are designed for and appeal to younger skaters, thecompany’s core consumer is in the eleven to fourteen range. “In acouple categories, like shoes, it might even go a little bit younger,”he says. “In snow, that’s definitely more of the focus. But thattwelve- or thirteen-year-old kid seems to be the top of the bellcurve, and we’re really successful focusing on that kid. He wants tobe kind of rebellious, but he’s still very Mom-influenced.”

If you trust the numbers offered by some researchorganizations, the six-to-eleven demographic accounts for almosthalf of today’s skateboarders*. In that light, World seems perfectlypositioned to attract and carry those kids through all of theirskateboarding years–once they’re over the Wet Willy and Flame Boybattles, World pros like Chad Fernandez, Neal Mims, or Sluggo Boyceare likely teen idols.

World’s skate team is made up of a broad range ofindividuals that Team Manager Rodney Johnson says can be difficultto put in the same room. But for the company it’s important to haveskaters promoting the brand who are not only great athletes, butmemorable personalities. “It takes a character to get noticed,” saysJohnson. “The kids respond to that. The average Joe with no imageis hard to sell. All the crazy personalities and images really docomplement each other. The kids just eat it up.”

Global World

In June, Australian shoe-and-apparel giant GlobeInternational bought Kubic Marketing and all of its subsidiaries,including World. While the partnering of World with a company thatcan potentially help its footwear and softgoods programs isn’t toosurprising, the fact that the dynamic company is now under foreignownership raises questions about whether the World staff willcontinue to be able to truly direct the brand from the heart of theskateboarding world–So Cal.

Another fundamental difference for World is that Globe ispublicly traded (GLB on the Australian Stock Exchange), which putsadded pressure on Globe management to turn a profit any whichway it can, regardless of what’s happening in the skateboardindustry.

Sayre believes that Peter, Steve, and Matt Hill, theAustralian skaters who founded and still manage Globe, understandthe skate market and have been successful leading their skate-basedcompanies into the public arena. The Hills’ Har
dcore Distribution,after all, has been distributing World and Dwindle products inAustralia for years, and they therefore understand the brands, theirhistories, and their strengths. “Globe has a very well-managed and’core distribution network in the United States,” he says. “Theirlargest national account right now is PacSun. They’re veryconscientious about what the distribution should be relative to thebrand and the image, and just how loyal we all are to ‘corebusinesses. So I really see it as a good thing.”

Sayre points to economies of scale and Globe’s ability toimprove and expand World’s footwear and softgoods programs asclear benefits. “The immediate impact over the next year to eighteenmonths is that they’re going to help us do a much better job onapparel and footwear, which should have a great impact on all ourcurrent accounts,” says Sayre. “If we can do a better job in apparel,if we can do a better job with footwear–those are the types ofbrand extensions that will be very positive to World’s overallgrowth.”

Before the Globe deal was signed, Kubic management haddecided to consolidate Dwindle’s and World’s offices, although thecompanies will continue to operate separately. Their shipping andwarehouse operations already merged, the World/Dwindleconsolidation will allow both organizations to operate moreefficiently, particularly in light of the Globe purchase.

Growth Mechanisms

Sayre expects much of the company’s future growth tocome from its emerging softgoods and footwear programs,expanded accessories like helmets, as well as new areas like theWorld Industries trucks, which were recently redesigned by RodneyMullen. Sayre also sees opportunities to appeal to an even broaderdemographic. “We’re looking at what we’re doing with minis–minitrucks, mini decks, and completes has been a growing business forus, too,” he says. On the other end, maintaining a strong pro teamand a stream of controversial graphics for its bigger boards hascontinued to be a priority. “We’re also working to keep the integrityof the graphics and making sure Marc (McKee) has free reign withhis creativity to push the edge.”

The consolidation and reorganization of its manufacturingand shipping should also create visible changes for retailers. “A yearago we had difficulties delivering some products,” says Sayre.”We’ve really focused on quality issues, and in terms of the biggerchains, we’ve narrowed it down a little bit because we feel it’s reallyimportant to focus the business.”

The differences between World’s ‘core and chain accountsrequire that the company handle them individually and cater totheir particular needs. From his experience, Sayre has observed thelarger mall-based and chain accounts appeal to the company’s ‘coreconsumer and younger, while ‘core accounts attract that eleven- tofourteen-year-old consumer and older. “We’re making sure we haveenough of the right product for both ends of the business,” he says.”The product isn’t really the same. A lot of ‘core shops don’t buyinto completes as much as a large chain account will. So looking atwhat we’re doing with the graphics, we’re really trying to hone inthe business to the customer and to the type of account. A lot of thelarger chain accounts don’t have people who put decks together ona daily basis. That’s a huge commitment. For that reason, the non-‘core retailers tend to carry more completes and packagedproducts, rather than the component-based ‘core-shop business.”

Sayre believes that the non-‘core retailers are critical to akid’s introduction to skateboarding: “The large chain accounts arethe first shops that a kid and his mom might go to, and that’s hisfirst exposure to it. But that’s not necessarily where they go back toget all their hardgoods components. They might go in to buy acomplete or shoes or a T-shirt. Then when they get more seriousabout it, they tend to want to go to ‘core shops.”

The World Industries scenario plays out like a feedersystem, attracting kids before they actually begin skating, sellingthem their first board at a mall-based shop, and being the firstbrand they recognize when they hit up their local ?core retailer. “It’sworked out well for us because we’ve introduced a lot of kids intothe sport,” says Sayre. “If they’re going to buy into the sport, thenwe’d like to make sure they’re getting a legitimate, quality productfrom a pro skate company.”

Worldwide Manufacturing

With softgoods, shoes, accessories, and truck partsmanufactured in Asia, World–like other shoe and softgoodscompanies–sources its manufacturing wherever the company canget the quality and price it needs. Currently, its decks and wheelsare all U.S.-made, and Sayre expects that to continue. “It’s not aconscious effort, it’s just whatever makes the most sense,” he says.”We’re really happy with the quality that we’re getting with all ourU.S.-made products.”

“Urethanes will always be made here,” says ProductManager Evan Woodall, suggesting that the decades of refining theformulas and processes for skateboard wheels can’t be easilyexported. But there have been fears among U.S. deck manufacturersthat cheap Chinese boards could be attractive to companies likeWorld that appeal to young skaters with price-conscious parents.”When we got into the helmet business–that’s overseas,” says Sayre.”It’s really just looking for the best quality. There are certainbusinesses where you can’t replace the way things are made here.But like any other products, it’s just a matter of timing. In five yearswe may be having a different conversation.”

World Industries has grown from a small bedroomenterprise to a skateboard-industry leader with broad distributionthrough a range of outlets domestically and internationally. Itsproducts span a range that cuts through all of the skate-hardgoods,softgoods, and footwear categories, and includes several peripheralprograms, like toys and even school folders. If the company intendsto continue its growth, it’ll be tough to identify a product niche ithasn’t yet penetrated. “We feel really good about where all ourcomponents and hardgoods are, and the deck business is reallystrong,” says Sayre. “We’ve got a lot of work to do with the shoes, sowe see growth there. We see growth in things like accessories, fromhelmets to other components. We see growth in our decks, too, sowe’re not looking to push any one particular product group over theother. We see opportunities across the board, and we’re just lettingit find its level. The one thing we don’t want to do is have all of ourgrowth tied into one thing.”

Lights, Camera, Satan

A few years ago World dedicated staff to a new effort toplace its products in television and film productions. This programhad limited success, but as soon as the company gave up,production companies started coming to them with requests for T-shirts and logos that made their way onto television shows likeBoston Public and The Simpsons, and movies like MVP, Zoolander,and Domestic Disturbance. Even Martha Stewart magazine featureda kid in a World T-shirt in a recent “Skate Birthday” feature story.The exposure may not reach ‘core skaters, but it may create brandawareness among non-skaters who will happen upon World productsat the mall.

The company has also been generating broad exposurethrough events like the Grand Prix Of Skateboarding contests inLausanne, Switzerland, and the company’s own World War III contestit’s staged in So Cal for two years now. Marketing And PromotionsManager Whitney Slobodian hopes WWIII may eventually spin offinto a series of events, but for now will focus on a single contestthat continues to offer the most money–20,002 dollars for2002–by two dollars. “It’s open to everyone, and that’s what wasgreat about it last year,” she says. “There were several ams in thetop 20 who were beating the pros.”

“We want to give back to skateboarding, too,” saysWoodall. “And give a lot of big-name pros who don’t like formattedcontests something different, something creative, and somethingthat’ll make them want to go and break it off for the money. That’sthe premise of the contest.”

Image Is (Almost) Everything

Through all of its changes and relocations, the look andflavor of World Industries has been preserved by Marc McKee, who’sbeen creating the company’s art and graphics since 1989. Thesedays he also works on graphics for Blind and Speed Demons, andmanages two art staffs that do finishing work on his initial designs.

McKee’s fine-art-quality illustrations really began jumpingoff World decks when the company started using the heat-transfergraphic process last year. While many companies were using thetechnology for its cost-effectiveness on their tattoo-quality designs,McKee was pushing the line-screen envelope and exploiting its nearphoto-quality resolution. Wet Willy and Flameboy took on a newdimension as McKee’s work jumped off the decks, and the decks inturn jumped off the shop walls. “I didn’t like it at first,” says McKee,who thought heat-transfer looked too mass-produced. “But itallowed me to put more personality into the graphics.”

“It allowed him to take the graphics to a new level, whichin turn helped the product stand out,” says Woodall, who alsodeveloped a range of sublimation-printed products that featurephoto-quality graphics on a range of products, like wallets andshoes.

World graphics have always pushed the envelope, at leastin terms of subject matter, since the company’s first run of boardsin ’89. But back then it was easy to be controversial in a sea ofconservative skull graphics. Now, with broad distribution, skepticalparents making purchase decisions, and vibrant, realistic printingtechniques, being funny and subversive has become an art in and ofitself for McKee. “With this level of distribution, it’s not like you’redoing a run of 200 or 300 boards,” he says. “If you get a cease-and-desist letter in the mail, you can’t just say, ‘Oh, we haven’t sold thatboard,’ because there’d be like 10,000 of them out there. So thereare a lot of things we can’t do.”

It forces him to be more creative with his concepts. “Youhave to be more covert than overt,” says Sayre. Which is difficultwhen Martha Stewart is featuring your products. “But she didn’t tiltthe deck in the light.”

If someone told Rocco in 1988 that his products wouldfind their way into Martha Stewart’s magazine in 2002, he wouldhave laughed in disbelief. But it’s very likely that he planned to besuccessful and to have fun getting there. And free from the dailyrigor of company management, skate-industry politics, and thebiannual trade-show chore, chances are that he’s off on sometropical island goofing off and laughing at all of us working stiffsstuck in our routines and sitting in traffic. Alhough we laughed atthe things he did with his company over the years, thinking so-and-so really got burned with that one, maybe all along the joke’s reallybeen on us.

* From American Sports Data, Inc.’s 2001 Superstudy Of SportsParticipation.