In Consolidated’s head office there are boards with rather interesting graphics nailed to the ceiling.
For example, a deck stating: “Buy THAT board,” with an arrow pointing to the right. Another one features a doctor holding a hairy newborn baby with the words “It’s a man!” underneath. Outside the doorway is company Owner Birdo’s small metal desk loaded with proofs, papers, notes, a pair of sunglasses, and next to it, a rifle.
Some companies rely on concepts like “bold design” and “innovation,” but when it comes down to pure moxie, there’s hardly anyone who’s been doing it longer than Consolidated skateboards, which unwittingly has a reputation for being a dissenter.
Steve Guisinger (better known simply as Birdo), Steve Keenan, and Leticia Ruano (who once gave her tuition money to Birdo so he could pay the riders) started Consolidated in 1992. Together the three ran Consolidated out of Birdo’s garage and pushed a new company into an industry on the edge of recession.
“A lot of times people say, ‘Oh, you guys have this distinct image.’ Well, what is it? I don’t know because we’ve never talked about it. So often you look at a company and see they’re making this image … you know it’s a real business decision,” Birdo says. “If what you’re trying to do is get into the skateboarding industry and make money, that’s fine. We just don’t want to have anything to do with it.”
Consolidated had ideas other than making everyone rich or becoming a dominant player in the skate industry, and yet its motives had little to do with personal philosophy, reactionary politics, or capital. In fact, Consolidated seems to have few intentions other than doing whatever it damn well pleases.
It’s a strange anti-philosophy for a company, but somehow another fitting paradox for Consolidated. The company’s owners are willing to stick their necks out, calling out corporate influences like Nike (the “Don’t Do It” ad campaign) among others. They didn’t hesitate to point out when K2 bought Planet Earth a few years back, and enraged distributors by selling direct to skateboarders and skate shops-an idea that lasted about a year. They even run ads telling kids that if they don’t like how Consolidated does things, they should start their own company.Image or anti-image-whatever you want to call it, it’s attractive to skateboarders. Consolidated is an iconoclastic voice in the industry with a punk-rock, D.I.Y. ethos, willing to do whatever it can to keep doing things its own way.
“I remember being at a trade show,” says Birdo, “and our friend Mickey came by and he was like, ‘Oh, I see five lawsuits right here on the wall.’ Life so often crams you into a corner of ‘this is what you can do and this is what you can’t do.’ We’ve thought, ‘No, we can do whatever we want to do.’ And the truth is if people like it, then they’ll buy it. If they don’t, then they won’t. That’s the fairest way for me. If you have some graphic that’s offensive and it sells better than anything else, then obviously people want it. And if a graphic is offensive (to you), then don’t buy it. I mean, we’re good with that.”
But it’s that sort of irreverence that seems to make Consolidated products attractive in stores. Matt, an employee at DLXSF shop in San Francisco, says the primary factor for carrying Consolidated is just that: “It’s 80 percent of the reason why we had them in-the whole idea of nothing is too sacred. They’re one of the few companies willing to push the envelope, and we could use more irreverent companies in skateboarding.”
It’s an image that, whether Consolidated wanted it or not, creates deprecating board graphics and impish ad campaigns. The company’s ads, which are sometimes all text and show neither its riders nor any product, tend to be the biggest instigators of controversy.
“We don’t hesitate to call bullshit on stuff,” Birdo said. The ads Consolidated runs are more of a reflection of how they-the riders, Team Manager Matt Sharkey, Art Directorr Todd Bratrud, Ruano, and Birdo-see things happening in the industry or elsewhere. “People say, ‘You run this ad and it doesn’t show your products, it doesn’t show your riders-it’s just attacking companies. You’re not going to generate sales that way.’ And our thought is, ‘We don’t care,’ because if it goes that direction, then we don’t want to be in it anymore anyway. So in light of saving what’s sacred to us in the industry, we feel it’s a fight worth wasting money on or blowing sales for.”
“Birdo strongly believes in antimarketing-I don’t know if kids a lot of times know what’s going on,” says teamrider Clint Peterson. “It’s really just a funny way to be anticorporate, like a joke about how we’ll never be like that, or how people are getting to that point.”
It’s not like Consolidated (the company that can’t seem to shake the anti-everything label) forgets it’s a business-one that needs some element of success to remain operational. So it’s really not anti-business, nor anti-success-in fact, it’s not really anti-anything. Consolidated just doesn’t want to be tied down to a corporate infrastructure or red tape that would have hung up projects like the poster Birdo and company made for a recent East Coast open house.
Ruano explains, “We were like, ‘Let’s do something cool, let’s do a poster.’ Out of the blue, Birdo said, ‘How about Consolidated’s East Infection?’ Then the next day they’re practically out there screening it,” says Ruano. “The thing that’s really neat about Consolidated is how quickly things can get done. In normal corporate structures you’ve got to go through so many different people. It’s just really nice not to have that bottleneck.”
So what is Consolidated exactly, besides a close-knit skateboarding clubhouse of multiple paradoxes where doing things their own way is more important than making money? Is it possible that a company plugging along for eleven years with some of the most underrated skateboarders in the game can exist in the skateboard industry? That seems to be a question Birdo’s never asked himself, instead existing in a sort of solipsistic independence. Is it even fair to say the Consolidated “image” projects an element of dissent toward threats like Nike? “I think we don’t care, for sure, (but) I don’t think that we’re necessarily trying to,” Birdo says.
What Consolidated does seem to be is a straightforward and tight ship where everyone is on the same level. This seems the case, whether it’s amongst the riders who know they have to tour in a crappy van, or the people who work in the small warehouse and know they’re not going to get screwed if Consolidated takes off. They know where the company is headed and where it wants to be.
“There’s no real pressure here, or anyone trying to go over your head,” Peterson says. “The team seems like one big, happy family.”
Instead of an element of dissent, it might be more accurate to say Consolidated has an element of unflagging honesty-not exactly a required factor for making a killing in the industry.
“We want our cake and (want to) eat it, too, basically,” Ruano says from behind her huge wooden L-shaped desk with three computers on it. “We want to be huge, but we don’t want to sacrifice something else to get there. The premise is just that we want to make sure we’re always having fun. We know in the back of our heads there are certain things we have to do in order to stay in business, but at the same time, if Copelands comes to us, we’re not going to sell to them.”
Something Birdo stressed over and over was this five-word phrase that seems to summarize the company better than anything else: “It is what it is,” He says. “Consolidated is what it is.”