The Periodic Tale Of Element

Patience and persistence has paid off for Johnny Schillereff and company.

After five years of endless days and restless nights, Johnny Schillereff is beginning to sleep easy. When he took over Element skateboards in 1994, he had a vision, but a skateboard industry still recovering from recession held him back; certain collaborators he secretly sought were not yet available, and the Featherlight technology that would launch Element to the top of the hardgoods heap was still four years off.

Today, his patience has paid off. After all this time, opportunity and circumstance have aligned themselves to allow him his dream¿Schillereff has finally arrived at the place he was always hoping to reach.

Ever since Element released its Featherlight decks in 1998 and enjoyed record sales, Schillereff has been careful not to succumb to the tendency to do too much too fast and ruin a good thing. His strategy was always to evolve the company at a deliberate and steady pace. Before debuting the Element World Tour video and launching the company’s extensive apparel line at last fall’s ASR Trade Expo, he had to feel certain that the hardgoods end of the company was still solid.

Whether it was the reputation of the strong Element team and products that gave the clothing line its initial push, or just the clean, technical designs isn’t clear. But in all regions of the country, shops are pushing units of both Element decks and apparel, and the brand is currently enjoying its place in the sun. “When the boards got solid, the team was really solid, the company started getting more solid, and we felt that we could start focusing on other areas without getting defocused from the stuff that really matters, we finally went ahead and did it,” says Schillereff. “The image and the feel of what Element represents really goes well with clothing. I just wanted to take it one step at a time. You’ve gotta choose your battles wisely because it’s clothing one of the most complicated and intricate things to do.”

Managing a skateboard brand is complicated enough, and Schillereff learned the hard way¿from the ground up. Recently promoted to vice president, his history with Giant Distribution reaches back before the now-gargantuan supplier was even officially in business. Giant’s original brand, New Deal, was just an idea in 1989 when Schillereff was recruited for its amateur team. New Deal debuted the following year, and he watched the company grow and expand, spawning the Giant umbrella and several other brands.

When friend and teammate Andy Howell launched Underworld Element in 1992, Schillereff was doing artwork for New Deal, and began working with Howell on graphics and building a team for the new company. With Giant headquartered in suburban Orange County, California, Howell, Schillereff, and the Underworld Element design office were based in Atlanta, Georgia, where the two attended graphic-art school. Underworld Element assumed a hip-hop-influenced cartoony gangster motif developed by Howell, who led the brand until 1994.

When Howell left to pursue other creative interests, Schillereff found himself at a crossroads. In discussions with Giant President Steve Douglas, Schillereff was given the choice of starting an entirely new brand, but opted to reconstruct Element from the ground up. “I always had a vision of what I wanted a skateboard company to be,” he says. “So when Steve Douglas said, ‘What do you want to do?’ I still saw the potential within Element, and I had a passion for what was there. I just basically dropped the ‘Underworld,’ we revamped the team, and slowly worked with the people I personally wanted to work with. Since that day, it’s been Element.”

From the get-go Schillereff has been responsible for all creative and team duties. While Giant conducts an efficient manufacturing, sales, and distribution machine, the Element blueprints come from one person. “From the day I took it over, I did the teamanagement, picking up new team riders and packing their boxes, promo, the ads, the graphics¿everything from A to Z,” he says. “For a long time it was definitely hard to relinquish any control. And I think that’s why it’s been so successful, because when you start something out and you’ve got too many cooks in the kitchen, you all don’t have the same vision. When you’ve got one person with one vision, pointing it in one direction, you’re more than likely gonna get there. It might be a harder struggle, but you’re gonna get there.”

“I believe in him and in what he does,” says Douglas. “What’s good about Johnny is that he’s an artist with a really good business sense. He’s not unrealistic. It’s really a breath of fresh air to be working with him.”

Schillereff’s partnership with Giant is intricate and tight, he says, crediting the distributor for keeping his dream alive through some trying times and not pressuring him to redirect the brand. “One reason that Element has done so well, too, is because there has been very little red tape,” he says. “It’s been a company that has not had a lot of things getting in the way.”

On the contrary, while Douglas concerned himself with keeping the distribution channels flowing, Giant Founder Paul Schmitt contributed his manufacturing experience, working with Element pro Kris Markovich to develop the Featherlight board in 1997. When Markovich joined Element, he asked Schmitt to develop a thinner, lighter board. At first, Schmitt was worried about diminishing his boards’ strength, but Markovich persisted. “At first we tried rounding the rails because we thought that maybe it was all in my head,” says Markovich. “But it didn’t work. So I asked if he could make thin boards just for me, and he made a bunch of different types to try. I found one I liked, so we gave it to Reese Forbes and the team, and they liked it.”

The simple idea of thinning a couple plies (the two cross-grain veneers, to be exact) to shed some weight and retain as much strength as possible, was actually more complicated than it seems, and the team rider and the manufacturer both had to compromise to achieve the final result. “Markovich was just so insistent on wanting a thinner and lighter board, and I was like, ‘I don’t want to make boards that are that flimsy,’” says Schmitt. “He kept on pushing what he wanted, and it made me change my thinking. I was also able to get him to change his thinking about riding a steeper mold that has more concave in it. We all sort of came together with that combination of things.”

“It made a world of difference,” says Markovich. Once he was satisfied with the new construction, prototypes were distributed to the rest of the team, and all agreed the new board was a hit. But the actual construction was just one aspect of the Featherlight concept; it would be six months before the boards arrived on the market, and another year before Featherlight really took off. “I don’t like to call it the ‘Featherlight Craze’ because it’s market position isn’t just about board construction, it’s about the whole picture,” says Schmitt. “I can’t say that enough. It’s not Featherlight that made Element successful, it’s the combination of team, marketing, board construction, market position, and distribution. It doesn’t happen from one thing.”

Schillereff deflects much of the credit for Element’s success to the staff at Giant. As he puts it, there’s only so much one person can do. Many of the team and promotional duties are handled by Team Manager Ryan Kingman, Dan Wolfe is responsible for the Element videos and ad photography, and since last year, Schillereff has had Art Assistant Robert Mars helping produce ads and graphics. But his direction is the glue that keeps the Element concept cohesive and consistent.

When Schillereff assumed the helm in 1994, Element began a drastic transformation as he realigned its direction to follow his own. “I think with most companies, the companies are an extension of whoever’s running them,” he says. “When I made the decision to do Underworld Element, it’s not that I took Andy Howell’s thing and threw it out the window, but I wasn’t Andy.”

A few years ago, when the cartoon-graphic craze was at its peak, Element wasn’t. Schillereff had repositioned the brand with a series of clean, iconic graphics set against bold, solid colors. Market pressures suggested he steer toward cuter, softer, more cuddly images, but Schillereff refused: “I just said, ‘I’m not gonna do it. This is what it’s always been, and it’s never gonna change¿even if it goes out of business being that way.’ It eventually came full circle, and people respected it for being that. I think companies like Black Label and Alien Workshop have done the same thing¿they’ve never sold out, they’ve always had an image and stuck to it. If you do that, your time will come, rather than constantly chasing the trends. That’s one thing about Giant¿it’s always supported what I wanted to do, even if it hasn’t been what the whole world wants to see.”

What Schillereff wanted to see was a company that appealed to a broad range of individuals; one that didn’t pigeonhole itself to death. “I wanted Element to be was a little bit of everything,” he says. “That’s what skateboarding is, and that’s what makes it such a beautiful sport, it’s a piece of everything¿every culture, every person. You’ve got kids from the suburbs and the ghettos interacting. And that’s what I wanted Element to be¿basically the complete puzzle of skateboarding. That’s why the graphics and everything are very clean-cut. It doesn’t say or preach to one particular thing, it just says, ‘Stay true to whatever you are.’”

Schillereff points to the Element team to illustrate his point: Donny Barley, Tim O’Connor, Reese Forbes, Mike Frazier, Kenny Hughes, Natas Kaupas, Kris Markovich, Billy Pepper, and Jeremy Wray. These nine individuals, each respected for his particular talents on-board, represent a broad range of backgrounds and personalities. He believes that they’ve established the company as a champion of individuality: “One of the first ads with Reese said ‘Protect Freedom.’ That kind of wraps it up in two simple words. I think the thing about the guys on Element is that I wanted people who are just people. They’re not an image, they’re not anything but who they actually really are in life. And that’s what Element is, it’s about nothing but being who you really are, and not letting anything get in the way of that.”

Like most successful brands, Element is also connected to a bigger family of companies. “I’ve been fortunate with Giant behind Element,” he says. “I’ve always had something to lean on. Maybe Element would have gone out of business years ago if it wasn’t for that. I’ve seen the numbers, maybe it would’ve eventually.”

Schillereff also credits the team¿not just for lending their talents and influence, but for understanding the limitations on a growing brand. “I owe a lot to those guys” he says. “Everybody has gotten multiple offers to ride for other companies, especially as Element’s grown, but those guys are Element For Life, and have stuck by it. If it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have made it, because obviously nine guys and nine packages going out twice a month, and travel, and all these things that can easily ruin a company right into the ground, especially when you have a bunch of team riders who don’t understand the big picture. But these guys do, and they always have.”

The freedom Schillereff’s had to develop Element his own way has been crucial to its eventual success, he says, and Giant’s own user-friendly persona has helped him steer clear of the pitfalls of skateboard politics. “Giant Distribution has helped Element along the way because it’s so well put together, the gears are so well greased, and it’s got great distribution, great public relations, and great relationships with everyone we deal with. I of whoever’s running them,” he says. “When I made the decision to do Underworld Element, it’s not that I took Andy Howell’s thing and threw it out the window, but I wasn’t Andy.”

A few years ago, when the cartoon-graphic craze was at its peak, Element wasn’t. Schillereff had repositioned the brand with a series of clean, iconic graphics set against bold, solid colors. Market pressures suggested he steer toward cuter, softer, more cuddly images, but Schillereff refused: “I just said, ‘I’m not gonna do it. This is what it’s always been, and it’s never gonna change¿even if it goes out of business being that way.’ It eventually came full circle, and people respected it for being that. I think companies like Black Label and Alien Workshop have done the same thing¿they’ve never sold out, they’ve always had an image and stuck to it. If you do that, your time will come, rather than constantly chasing the trends. That’s one thing about Giant¿it’s always supported what I wanted to do, even if it hasn’t been what the whole world wants to see.”

What Schillereff wanted to see was a company that appealed to a broad range of individuals; one that didn’t pigeonhole itself to death. “I wanted Element to be was a little bit of everything,” he says. “That’s what skateboarding is, and that’s what makes it such a beautiful sport, it’s a piece of everything¿every culture, every person. You’ve got kids from the suburbs and the ghettos interacting. And that’s what I wanted Element to be¿basically the complete puzzle of skateboarding. That’s why the graphics and everything are very clean-cut. It doesn’t say or preach to one particular thing, it just says, ‘Stay true to whatever you are.’”

Schillereff points to the Element team to illustrate his point: Donny Barley, Tim O’Connor, Reese Forbes, Mike Frazier, Kenny Hughes, Natas Kaupas, Kris Markovich, Billy Pepper, and Jeremy Wray. These nine individuals, each respected for his particular talents on-board, represent a broad range of backgrounds and personalities. He believes that they’ve established the company as a champion of individuality: “One of the first ads with Reese said ‘Protect Freedom.’ That kind of wraps it up in two simple words. I think the thing about the guys on Element is that I wanted people who are just people. They’re not an image, they’re not anything but who they actually really are in life. And that’s what Element is, it’s about nothing but being who you really are, and not letting anything get in the way of that.”

Like most successful brands, Element is also connected to a bigger family of companies. “I’ve been fortunate with Giant behind Element,” he says. “I’ve always had something to lean on. Maybe Element would have gone out of business years ago if it wasn’t for that. I’ve seen the numbers, maybe it would’ve eventually.”

Schillereff also credits the team¿not just for lending their talents and influence, but for understanding the limitations on a growing brand. “I owe a lot to those guys” he says. “Everybody has gotten multiple offers to ride for other companies, especially as Element’s grown, but those guys are Element For Life, and have stuck by it. If it wasn’t for that, we wouldn’t have made it, because obviously nine guys and nine packages going out twice a month, and travel, and all these things that can easily ruin a company right into the ground, especially when you have a bunch of team riders who don’t understand the big picture. But these guys do, and they always have.”

The freedom Schillereff’s had to develop Element his own way has been crucial to its eventual success, he says, and Giant’s own user-friendly persona has helped him steer clear of the pitfalls of skateboard politics. “Giant Distribution has helped Element along the way because it’s so well put together, the gears are so well greased, and it’s got great distribution, great public relations, and great relationships with everyone we deal with. I think we’re the most nonpolitical skateboard distributor in skateboarding.”

In the last year, Schillereff has been busy balancing the business and creative components of the company. While Giant has been a great place to manage the manufacturing and sales of Element products, it’s not been the most conducive environment for Schillereff to plan its creative direction. “In order to have a successful company, you’ve gotta have strong business¿strong sales, strong distribution, and strong administration,” he says. “But then you also have to have people who are cutting-edge creative, who are on top of the pulse of what’s going on in the world today, and who are good artists. It’s like left-brain right-brain¿the artists need to be able to come and go, flow, think, and not have the phone ringing off the hook, people crunching numbers around them, and constant chaos.”

As a solution, he followed the example set by an animation empire that’s as famous for its business exploits as it is for its memorable characters. “The way to do it, and Disney does this, is that you have two separate buildings¿two separate worlds,” he says. “The number crunchers get frustrated with the art people because so-and-so’s rolling in at two o’clock to work on graphics. Little do they know that the guy was up until four in the morning because that’s when his brain works the best. So a lot of tension can arise, and the best way to eliminate that is just to separate it.”

Using the Disney model, Schillereff moved the entire Giant design studio up the coast to Santa Monica. Known as Little Giant, the new creative office is close enough to Giant that he can commute there two or three times a week, but far enough to insulate him, his team, and other collaborators from the phones, faxes, and mechanical functions of a business. In one sense, he’s less in control of the company’s day-to-day business, but Schillereff clearly sees the relocation as an investment in the brand’s future: “This move to Santa Monica is, I think, monumental for Element because I’m trying to create a hub of artists who are focused¿no politics, just a lot of good creative things coming out. I wanted a place with a pulse where you’ve got lots of different culture, lots of different things going on, and different types of people. I’ve always wanted to live somewhere where there’s a bit of character. In Southern California it’s hard to find that.”

One of the immediate benefits of the move has been more frequent and intense interaction with the team, including late-night brainstorming sessions with Santa Monica native and childhood-hero-turned-team-rider Natas Kaupas. Schillereff grew up skating in the 80s when pros like Natas, Mark Gonzales, and Neil Blender inspired him with their skateboarding abilities and individuality. “Skateboarding in those times was very well-rounded and super creative and artistic,” he says. “A lot of great things have come from that. I hope the same will come from this generation of skateboarders. If we push it in that direction, hopefully we’ll have the same result.”

Element’s continued success, he believes, hinges on his ability to build on the company’s accomplishments without going too far too fast. “People always say, ‘Be careful and don’t sell out,’” he says. “I think people don’t realize what selling out actually is. Selling out isn’t how big you get, it’s what you make of what you’ve got. As soon as you start making things that are ridiculous and go way beyond what you’re all about, that’s when you sell out. It’s all about what you produce, not how much you produce.”

Staying true to yourself, though, doesn’t mean a brand can’t evolve. In fact, Schillereff’s the first to admit that success requires a great deal of maintenance: “You’ve gotta keep everything new constantly. That doesn’t necessarily mean changing your team or changing your image, it just means keeping it up to par, and always having new product coming out¿just basically pumping blood into it all the time. Keep surprising people.”

When asked about his future plans for Elemment, Schillereff speaks in vague terms, but suggests that he’s relaxed the reins enough to allow the brand to evolve naturally. “I definitely have other things I want to do, and other projects I want to start, and I think that Element is a great launch pad for just about anything,” he says. “I’ve actually got more ideas and goals now than I ever had, because before it was just me, and it was very frustrating. It was like fighting this war or battle that I felt I could never possibly win because I was in it all by myself. And now we’ve got a great team, great distribution, Giant’s on the up and up, and you’ve got all these great people behind it. We have everything you need to turn anything into reality. So almost anything is possible, which is something I never really realized until right now.”nk we’re the most nonpolitical skateboard distributor in skateboarding.”

In the last year, Schillereff has been busy balancing the business and creative components of the company. While Giant has been a great place to manage the manufacturing and sales of Element products, it’s not been the most conducive environment for Schillereff to plan its creative direction. “In order to have a successful company, you’ve gotta have strong business¿strong sales, strong distribution, and strong administration,” he says. “But then you also have to have people who are cutting-edge creative, who are on top of the pulse of what’s going on in the world today, and who are good artists. It’s like left-brain right-brain¿the artists need to be able to come and go, flow, think, and not have the phone ringing off the hook, people crunching numbers around them, and constant chaos.”

As a solution, he followed the example set by an animation empire that’s as famous for its business exploits as it is for its memorable characters. “The way to do it, and Disney does this, is that you have two separate buildings¿two separate worlds,” he says. “The number crunchers get frustrated with the art people because so-and-so’s rolling in at two o’clock to work on graphics. Little do they know that the guy was up until four in the morning because that’s when his brain works the best. So a lot of tension can arise, and the best way to eliminate that is just to separate it.”

Using the Disney model, Schillereff moved the entire Giant design studio up the coast to Santa Monica. Known as Little Giant, the new creative office is close enough to Giant that he can commute there two or three times a week, but far enough to insulate him, his team, and other collaborators from the phones, faxes, and mechanical functions of a business. In one sense, he’s less in control of the company’s day-to-day business, but Schillereff clearly sees the relocation as an investment in the brand’s future: “This move to Santa Monica is, I think, monumental for Element because I’m trying to create a hub of artists who are focused¿no politics, just a lot of good creative things coming out. I wanted a place with a pulse where you’ve got lots of different culture, lots of different things going on, and different types of people. I’ve always wanted to live somewhere where there’s a bit of character. In Southern California it’s hard to find that.”

One of the immediate benefits of the move has been more frequent and intense interaction with the team, including late-night brainstorming sessions with Santa Monica native and childhood-hero-turned-team-rider Natas Kaupas. Schillereff grew up skating in the 80s when pros like Natas, Mark Gonzales, and Neil Blender inspired him with their skateboarding abilities and individuality. “Skateboarding in those times was very well-rounded and super creative and artistic,” he says. “A lot of great things have come from that. I hope the same will come from this generation of skateboarders. If we push it in that direction, hopefully we’ll have the same result.”

Element’s continued success, he believes, hinges on his ability to build on the company’s accomplishments without going too far too fast. “People always say, ‘Be careful and don’t sell out,’” he says. “I think people don’t realize what selling out actually is. Selling out isn’t how big you get, it’s what you make of what you’ve got. As soon as you start making things that are ridiculous and go way beyond what you’re all about, that’s when you sell out. It’s all about what you produce, not how much you produce.”

Staying true to yourself, though, doesn’t mean a brand can’t evolve. In fact, Schillereff’s the first to admit that success requires a great deal of maintenance: “You’ve gotta keep everything new constantly. That doesn’t necessarily mean changing your team or changing your image, it just means keeping it up to par, and always having new product coming out¿just basically pumping blood into it all the time. Keep surprising people.”

When asked about his future plans for Element, Schillereff speaks in vague terms, but suggests that he’s relaxed the reins enough to allow the brand to evolve naturally. “I definitely have other things I want to do, and other projects I want to start, and I think that Element is a great launch pad for just about anything,” he says. “I’ve actually got more ideas and goals now than I ever had, because before it was just me, and it was very frustrating. It was like fighting this war or battle that I felt I could never possibly win because I was in it all by myself. And now we’ve got a great team, great distribution, Giant’s on the up and up, and you’ve got all these great people behind it. We have everything you need to turn anything into reality. So almost anything is possible, which is something I never really realized until right now.”t¿just basically pumping blood into it all the time. Keep surprising people.”

When asked about his future plans for Element, Schillereff speaks in vague terms, but suggests that he’s relaxed the reins enough to allow the brand to evolve naturally. “I definitely have other things I want to do, and other projects I want to start, and I think that Element is a great launch pad for just about anything,” he says. “I’ve actually got more ideas and goals now than I ever had, because before it was just me, and it was very frustrating. It was like fighting this war or battle that I felt I could never possibly win because I was in it all by myself. And now we’ve got a great team, great distribution, Giant’s on the up and up, and you’ve got all these great people behind it. We have everything you need to turn anything into reality. So almost anything is possible, which is something I never really realized until right now.”

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