The Success Of Subversion

The late 80s was a pivotal time in the history of the skateboard industry. A handful of mega manufacturers sponsored the top riders, owned or controlled most skateboard-manufacturing facilities, and represented the only viable brands available to retailers. As business grew through the late 80s, their power increased, and small start-up skate companies had virtually no chance of breaking into the major distribution channels or making an 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 and most diverse manufacturers of skateboard hardgoods, softgoods, and shoes. Rocco decided to launch a small company, SMA Rocco Division, that he financed on credit cards and borrowed money. His hope was that he could coexist in the market alongside the big brands, but soon found he was up against them. “We just wanted to be friends with everyone,” says Rocco. “But then they started telling their distributors not to buy from us. So we fought back.”

Before the decade was through, Rocco had morphed his company into the ironically titled World Industries, skateboarding hit another of its famous downturns, and by the fall of 1989, skateboard companies large and small were feeling the pinch. But while most company owners were scrambling to downsize, Rocco saw an opportunity. Having recruited disillusioned top-name skaters like Rodney Mullen and Mike Vallely, he broke all conventions and began a campaign to discredit the big brands through brutal and witty advertisements, and even turned his cynicism on his own company. No one was safe from his deprecating humor, not even his own teamriders.

The companies and individuals he mocked in his campaigns may have fought back if they could, but Rocco was seemingly several steps ahead of everyone, and with the larger companies struggling with bankruptcies, layoffs, and massive downsizing, his shenanigans were the least of their worries. Another key factor in Rocco’s eventual success was the rapidly changing face of skateboarding, and his own ability, as a small company, to change with it. As boards got narrower and noses longer, as wheels shrank and their edges rounded, and as graphics became disposable and Rocco realized he could change them every two months, he did. And everyone 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 to spawn 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 growing cadre of small skater-owned companies, Rocco and staff found themselves in the position he rebelled against when he started his company. World Industries had become the industry leader, and by virtue of that was the new establishment. But what a cynical and darkly funny place that was. Long gone were the days of warm fuzzy skull graphics. The 90s was the era of cartoon characters, mischief, and the mayhem of an industry now made up of many emerging companies.

Rocco and the World staff managed the company on the fly, and in that way were able to react to the constant changes in the market, keep the brand fresh, and stay ahead of the pack. A series of limited-edition but shocking graphics kept people talking, and several cease-and-desist orders and a couple lawsuits didn’t dissuade the company from pushing the boundaries of what retailers were expected to stock.

Touring with the team in the mid 90s, Rocco made the observation that the crowds at demos had gotten younger. When he returned from that trip he initiated a plan to address this emerging preteen demographic just as it was revitalizing the skateboard market. For the millions of kids getting into skateboarding in the mid to late 90s, World Industries and its new cast of characters–Devil Man, Flame Boy, and Wet Willy–spoke their visualanguage.

Cartoon Mania

The characters and many of World’s infamous graphics are the creations of Marc McKee, whose duty it was to develop imagery not only for the formidable World pro team, but for a line of kid-oriented decks and products. Controversial and often violent material was imbedded in cartoon battles between Flame Boy and Wet Willy–akin to MAD magazine’s Spy Vs. Spy comic strip–and McKee learned to imbed subversive and questionable imagery into seemingly harmless cartoons. Case in point–Devil Man, a smiling stick-figure caricature of Satan that adorns many World skate products, has also been made into a horn-fingered Tech Deck figure sold at toy stores. Even the company’s Web site features a site map that organizes sections by rings, as Dante illustrated the various levels of Hell in his Inferno.

Diversify And Conquer

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

While the split from Dwindle was necessary to allow the World staff to focus on its formidable program, the company also had a different distribution scheme that the other Dwindle brands didn’t share. With much of World’s product appealing to preteens who spend more time at malls with their parents than they do at skate shops, it seemed natural that mall chains like PacSun should offer World products, although the company says that the vast majority of its accounts are still ‘core shops.

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

If you trust the numbers offered by some research organizations, the six-to-eleven demographic accounts for almost half of today’s skateboarders*. In that light, World seems perfectly positioned to attract and carry those kids through all of their skateboarding years–once they’re over the Wet Willy and Flame Boy battles, World pros like Chad Fernandez, Neal Mims, or Sluggo Boyce are likely teen idols.

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

Global World

In June, Australian shoe-and-apparel giant Globe International bought Kubic Marketing and all of its subsidiaries, including World. While the partnering of World with a company that can potentially help its footwear and softgoods programs isn’t too surprising, the fact that the dynamic company is now under foreign ownership raises questions about whether the World staff will continue to be able to truly direct the brand from the heart of the skateboarding world–So Cal.

Another fundamental difference for World is that Globe is publicly traded (GLB on the Australian Stock Exchange), which puts added pressure on Globe management to turn a profit any which way it can, regardless of what’s happening in the skateboard industry.

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

Sayre points to economies of scale and Globe’s ability to improve and expand World’s footwear and softgoods programs as clear benefits. “The immediate impact over the next year to eighteen months is that they’re going to help us do a much better job on apparel and footwear, which should have a great impact on all our current 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 of brand extensions that will be very positive to World’s overall growth.”

Before the Globe deal was signed, Kubic management had decided to consolidate Dwindle’s and World’s offices, although the companies will continue to operate separately. Their shipping and warehouse operations already merged, the World/Dwindle consolidation will allow both organizations to operate more efficiently, particularly in light of the Globe purchase.

Growth Mechanisms

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

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

The differences between World’s ‘core and chain accounts require that the company handle them individually and cater to their particular needs. From his experience, Sayre has observed the larger mall-based and chain accounts appeal to the company’s ‘core consumer and younger, while ‘core accounts attract that eleven- to fourteen-year-old consumer and older. “We’re making sure we have enough 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 buy into completes as much as a large chain account will. So looking at what we’re doing with the graphics, we’re really trying to hone in the business to the customer and to the type of account. A lot of the larger chain accounts don’t have people who put decks together on a daily basis. That’s a huge commitment. For that reason, the non-‘core retailers tend to carry more completes and packaged products, rather than the component-based ‘core-shop business.”

Sayre believes that the non-‘core retailers are critical to a kid’s introduction to skateboarding: “The large chain accounts are the first shops that a kid and his mom might go to, and that’s his first exposure to it. But that’s not necessarily where theer, Steve, and Matt Hill, the Australian skaters who founded and still manage Globe, understand the skate market and have been successful leading their skate-based companies into the public arena. The Hills’ Hardcore Distribution, after all, has been distributing World and Dwindle products in Australia for years, and they therefore understand the brands, their histories, and their strengths. “Globe has a very well-managed and ‘core distribution network in the United States,” he says. “Their largest national account right now is PacSun. They’re very conscientious about what the distribution should be relative to the brand and the image, and just how loyal we all are to ‘core businesses. So I really see it as a good thing.”

Sayre points to economies of scale and Globe’s ability to improve and expand World’s footwear and softgoods programs as clear benefits. “The immediate impact over the next year to eighteen months is that they’re going to help us do a much better job on apparel and footwear, which should have a great impact on all our current 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 of brand extensions that will be very positive to World’s overall growth.”

Before the Globe deal was signed, Kubic management had decided to consolidate Dwindle’s and World’s offices, although the companies will continue to operate separately. Their shipping and warehouse operations already merged, the World/Dwindle consolidation will allow both organizations to operate more efficiently, particularly in light of the Globe purchase.

Growth Mechanisms

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

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

The differences between World’s ‘core and chain accounts require that the company handle them individually and cater to their particular needs. From his experience, Sayre has observed the larger mall-based and chain accounts appeal to the company’s ‘core consumer and younger, while ‘core accounts attract that eleven- to fourteen-year-old consumer and older. “We’re making sure we have enough 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 buy into completes as much as a large chain account will. So looking at what we’re doing with the graphics, we’re really trying to hone in the business to the customer and to the type of account. A lot of the larger chain accounts don’t have people who put decks together on a daily basis. That’s a huge commitment. For that reason, the non-‘core retailers tend to carry more completes and packaged products, rather than the component-based ‘core-shop business.”

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

The World Industries scenario plays out like a feeder system, attracting kids before they actually begin skating, selling them their first board at a mall-based shop, and being the first brand they recognize when they hit up their local ?core retailer. “It’s worked out well for us because we’ve introduced a lot of kids into the sport,” says Sayre. “If they’re going to buy into the sport, then we’d like to make sure they’re getting a legitimate, quality product from a pro skate company.”

Worldwide Manufacturing

With softgoods, shoes, accessories, and truck parts manufactured in Asia, World–like other shoe and softgoods companies–sources its manufacturing wherever the company can get the quality and price it needs. Currently, its decks and wheels are all U.S.-made, and Sayre expects that to continue. “It’s not a conscious effort, it’s just whatever makes the most sense,” he says. “We’re really happy with the quality that we’re getting with all our U.S.-made products.”

“Urethanes will always be made here,” says Product Manager Evan Woodall, suggesting that the decades of refining the formulas and processes for skateboard wheels can’t be easily exported. But there have been fears among U.S. deck manufacturers that cheap Chinese boards could be attractive to companies like World 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 certain businesses 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 years we may be having a different conversation.”

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

Lights, Camera, Satan

A few years ago World dedicated staff to a new effort to place its products in television and film productions. This program had 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 like Boston Public and The Simpsons, and movies like MVP, Zoolander, and Domestic Disturbance. Even Martha Stewart magazine featured a kid in a World T-shirt in a recent “Skate Birthday” feature story. The exposure may not reach ‘core skaters, but it may create brand awareness among non-skaters who will happen upon World products at the mall.

The company has also been generating broad exposure through events like the Grand Prix Of Skateboarding contests in Lausanne, Switzerland, and the company’s own World War III contest it’s staged in So Cal for two years now. Marketing And Promotions Manager Whitney Slobodian hopes WWIII may eventually spin off into a series of events, but for now will focus on a single contest that continues to offer the most money–20,0