World Industries Rules

Steve Rocco has built an empire from recycled rubbish.

When Steve Rocco founded World Industries in 1988, he had no idea what he was doing. He also had no idea what he was doing meant. In the corporate-dominated environment of the late-80s skateboard marketplace, a seemingly insignificant start-up with an unfittingly bold name seemed destined for the dust bin. But World Industries’ incredibly industrious and unflinching leader, former pro freestyler Steve Rocco, charted a course that no company had ever tried. He offered something new, and he attracted a lot of attention.

Some would argue that World Industries attracted too much attention. The original name, SMA Rocco Division, was in part–like many of the company’s early board graphics–borrowed but not lent. Other boards, some of them under the Blind and 101 brand names, served as canvases for the most offensive and controversial graphics ever conceived; nudity, blatant satanism, and racist stereotypes were all depicted. While shops worldwide couldn’t keep the boards in stock–or just refused to stock them in the first place–World Industries and its sister brands were earning a reputation as troublemakers. They were stirring up the industry. They were challenging the status quo.

Steve Rocco challenged, adjusted, and has now become the status quo. World Industries is on top of the game, but if there’s anything consistent in skateboarding, it’s change. You can’t hope to stay on top without reinventing yourself every so often.

Steve Rocco is a master at creating new brands, frequently in conjunction with some of skateboarding’s most creative individuals, and the World Industries stable continues in that vein with its flagship brand, Blind, A-Team, All City, and the new Shaolin Wood Company. Rocco reinvents himself by creating new brands.

He continues to work with a creative and talented group of partners and employees to push the company further. It’s been said that when you’re at the bottom, there’s nowhere to go but up. But what about when you’re at the top? Where do you go from there?

World Industries has come a long way. The fact that you’re still here ten years later is one thing. But when you started the company did you imagine you’d be in your present position?

Steve Rocco: We never thought we’d get past the first year–that was amazing. Even just getting into the early 90s.

In the late 80s the skateboard industry was dominated by the big five, and you were working with Vision at the time. What made you want to start your own company?

Rocco: We just wanted to do stuff and have fun with it. It was never a goal to be number one, to be the biggest distributor–to be anything. We wanted to do graphics nobody else had done, ads nobody else would do–just things that you accumulate from years of being a pro skater. You always just walk around going, “Man, if I had a company, I would do that.” A lot of people always say that, but very few people actually follow through with it and actually do the stuff they said they would do if they had a chance.

Or sometimes they try, but they just don’t know how to get it done. That seems like the real trick.

Rodney Mullen: Even the name itself, was sarcasm–World Industries sounded so big. It was a joke.

Rocco: It was a total joke. We were so small. At the time, you gotta remember, we were about a million-dollar company and Vision was a 60-million-dollar company. At that time it was inconceivable that anything we did would amount to any significance at all. So we could just joke about everything. I don’t think there was much forethought to anything.

How very uncorporate. It’s interesting, though, because it seems the only constant in skateboarding is change–what’s in is out, what’s up is down.

Rocco: Right.

What do you attribute your company’s long-lasting dinance in this fickle market to?

Rocco: It comes down to one very simple thing–we do more smart things than dumb things. It doesn’t get any easier than that. Everybody who runs a company every day is faced with a lot of decisions. I hear the top managers in America only make the right decision 60 percent of the time. That’s like a grade D. We have an incredible group of people here. Everybody here, right down the list from Rodney Mullen, Frank Messman, Scott Drouillard, Vince Krause, J.T. John Thomas, Marc McKee–these guys are all geniuses. Everybody has an IQ of at least a 140. It’s just amazing when you work with a bunch of talented people like that, you don’t do too many stupid things.

As big as World Industries is, you still contract your board manufacturing through a separate woodshop. Some people in the industry say, “You need to have your own woodshop to really be a legitimate company.” Other people say, “We don’t need the headache.”

Rocco: The funny thing is that the second and third biggest companies–Foundation and Birdhouse–don’t have their own woodshops. That theory is a little invalid.

It just backs up the idea that skateboarding is 90-percent marketing.

Rocco: Well, as long as the woodshop does what you tell them to do, then you’re fine.

In the 80s you were pro for a while, then you evolved into the team manager at Vision. At what point did you decide you were going to break free and do something on your own?

Rocco: I think pretty much when Brad Dorfman fired me from my job and kicked me off the team, and I was out in the streets. I figured that was a good chance to break free laughter.

Mullen: After that it was crazy. I remember being on Powell; I would come out, and Steve was living on Natas’ Kaupas floor. He didn’t have money to eat. He would go into Vons and eat out of the bulk bin food section–he’d call it grazing for a meal. That was meal to meal.

At that time you invited friends and talented people with positions at other companies to come and join you?

Rocco: It wasn’t so much that. That would almost imply it was planned, and it wasn’t. There was no premeditation to anything we did. Like I said, a lot of it just came to be. When I started with Jesse Martinez, he went and got Jeff Hartsel. Then Rodney came with Mike Vallely. At the time, these guys, I think more than anything, just wanted freedom. They wanted freedom to do whatever they wanted to do. Then Mark Gonzales came to me, then Natas, then Mike Ternasky, even Tod Swank. Tod was with us for quite a while, then Rodney kicked his ass out. But I’m stoked, Tod is doing really well. I’m totally proud of him. I knew he always had it, and I knew he would pull through eventually. He’s done an incredible job.

Mullen: I remember when Mike Vallely and I made the decision to join World Industries. Steve was in another room, he came in, and we were just sitting there straight-faced. We told him it was going to happen, and he got more scared than anything.

Rocco: Yeah, I was like, “Oh man, now we have responsibility.”

Mullen: I remember the look on his face. I thought he would be overjoyed, jumping around, and it was almost like …

Rocco: “Oh shit. Now we gotta go borrow more money.” That was the second year, 1989.

It seems like at the time all the big companies had fairly rigid systems, and you offered a sort of freedom to these guys, and that’s what attracted them.

Rocco: Mike just wanted to put a damn elephant on his skateboard, and we let him do it. It was as simple as that. I said, “You want an elephant? We can do that.”

Was your philosophy at the time to pretty much let them do what they wanted to do?

Rocco: Absolutely. Like you were saying earlier: What are you willing to do when you enter the skateboarding industry? What’s going to make you different? Well, at the time skaters were not allowed to have any input whatsoever, so the basis of our company was, “Let the skaters have input on what’s going to be on their boards.” That was that.

That was the crack that broke everything open.

Scott Drouillard: And you paid them, too.

Rocco: Oh yeah, we doubled it. A lot of people don’t realize that, but we were the first company to pay two-dollars-a-board royalty.

Were you able to afford that because it was a small operation?

Rocco: No. It was just because we were stupid. We didn’t know any better.

There are all kinds of theories about where you borrowed the money to start the company. One story goes that you basically put your life on the line for this company to succeed.

Drouillard: At least his legs. Probably his fingers.

Rocco: We borrowed money from someone who wouldn’t look upon it very kindly if we didn’t pay him back.

Short-term/high interest?

Rocco: I borrowed 20,000 dollars, and I had to pay back 30,000 the first year.

That’s short-term/high interest.

Rocco: Whatever kind of interest that is, it was paid in a paper bag–cash every month. Usually by Rodney.

Mullen: He’d the loan guy come in the same day every month, and when we didn’t have it, Steve would take off and leave me. For the first couple of months I didn’t quite catch on.

Rocco: The funny thing is, the guy that we’re talking about actually became a good friend, and now he’s a partner in our hat factory.

He’s gone legit?

Rocco: Oh, he’s totally legit–now.

Yeah, thanks to you guys. Well, I think I would be your friend if you gave me 10,000-dollars interest in a year.

Rocco: I think you have to charge a lot of interest just to make up for all the people who don’t pay you back. I mean, breakin’ legs is fun, but it doesn’t put money in the bank. At one point I had to borrow more money just to make the payments on the money I borrowed. I think I had to do that three times. My first business venture was to take a 6,000-dollar cash advance–that’s all the cash advance I had on my credit card. I bought all these skateboards, and Skip Engblom showed me where I could sell them all. So I was stoked, I had 6,000 dollars, and I turned it into 10,000 dollars almost instantly–within two weeks. I’d never seen that much money in my life, I grew up pretty poor.

So being the incredible, super-genius businessman that I was, I took my 10,000 dollars and spent it all on T-shirts. Because I figured, “Boy, we’ve gotta get some T-shirts to go with these boards.” I called up the people who bought the boards, and they go, “Oh no, we don’t want any T-shirts.” All of a sudden I was broke again. That’s why we never had distributors when we started. I was so pissed off that all these guys wanted boards, but when it came to T-shirts or stickers or whatever else I made, they just told me no. I pretty much told them all to drop dead, and that’s when we started our own distribution.

Which was a new idea at the time.

Rocco: Oh, totally new.

You were really painting yourself into a corner back then.

Rocco: That’s when I had to go out and borrow money. Rodney loaned me a hundred bucks, and it wasn’t enough.

Tell me about your association with Skip Engblom–at first I guess he gave you some advice.

Rocco: Skip drove me right to the woodshop. He goes, “This is where you get boards.” He drove me to the screeners and said, “This is how you get them screened.” He drove me to the distributor and goes, “This is where you sell ’em.” That was it. It was a simple three-step plan to being in business. I was going, “God, this is pretty easy.”

So it seemed.

Rocco: So it seemed at the timeustry? What’s going to make you different? Well, at the time skaters were not allowed to have any input whatsoever, so the basis of our company was, “Let the skaters have input on what’s going to be on their boards.” That was that.

That was the crack that broke everything open.

Scott Drouillard: And you paid them, too.

Rocco: Oh yeah, we doubled it. A lot of people don’t realize that, but we were the first company to pay two-dollars-a-board royalty.

Were you able to afford that because it was a small operation?

Rocco: No. It was just because we were stupid. We didn’t know any better.

There are all kinds of theories about where you borrowed the money to start the company. One story goes that you basically put your life on the line for this company to succeed.

Drouillard: At least his legs. Probably his fingers.

Rocco: We borrowed money from someone who wouldn’t look upon it very kindly if we didn’t pay him back.

Short-term/high interest?

Rocco: I borrowed 20,000 dollars, and I had to pay back 30,000 the first year.

That’s short-term/high interest.

Rocco: Whatever kind of interest that is, it was paid in a paper bag–cash every month. Usually by Rodney.

Mullen: He’d the loan guy come in the same day every month, and when we didn’t have it, Steve would take off and leave me. For the first couple of months I didn’t quite catch on.

Rocco: The funny thing is, the guy that we’re talking about actually became a good friend, and now he’s a partner in our hat factory.

He’s gone legit?

Rocco: Oh, he’s totally legit–now.

Yeah, thanks to you guys. Well, I think I would be your friend if you gave me 10,000-dollars interest in a year.

Rocco: I think you have to charge a lot of interest just to make up for all the people who don’t pay you back. I mean, breakin’ legs is fun, but it doesn’t put money in the bank. At one point I had to borrow more money just to make the payments on the money I borrowed. I think I had to do that three times. My first business venture was to take a 6,000-dollar cash advance–that’s all the cash advance I had on my credit card. I bought all these skateboards, and Skip Engblom showed me where I could sell them all. So I was stoked, I had 6,000 dollars, and I turned it into 10,000 dollars almost instantly–within two weeks. I’d never seen that much money in my life, I grew up pretty poor.

So being the incredible, super-genius businessman that I was, I took my 10,000 dollars and spent it all on T-shirts. Because I figured, “Boy, we’ve gotta get some T-shirts to go with these boards.” I called up the people who bought the boards, and they go, “Oh no, we don’t want any T-shirts.” All of a sudden I was broke again. That’s why we never had distributors when we started. I was so pissed off that all these guys wanted boards, but when it came to T-shirts or stickers or whatever else I made, they just told me no. I pretty much told them all to drop dead, and that’s when we started our own distribution.

Which was a new idea at the time.

Rocco: Oh, totally new.

You were really painting yourself into a corner back then.

Rocco: That’s when I had to go out and borrow money. Rodney loaned me a hundred bucks, and it wasn’t enough.

Tell me about your association with Skip Engblom–at first I guess he gave you some advice.

Rocco: Skip drove me right to the woodshop. He goes, “This is where you get boards.” He drove me to the screeners and said, “This is how you get them screened.” He drove me to the distributor and goes, “This is where you sell ’em.” That was it. It was a simple three-step plan to being in business. I was going, “God, this is pretty easy.”

So it seemed.

Rocco: So it seemed at the time, until you start making incredibly dumb mistakes. The first boards we made almost all came back. Almost every one of them delaminated. Jesse Martinez was ready to kill me. That’s a pretty scary thing, too. I had a guy who, if I didn’t pay him back, would kill me. And I had a rider who would …

Would kill you if his boards delaminated.

Rocco: Yeah, but he didn’t need a good reason.

When you hooked up with Skip Engblom, he gave you some advice, and you also borrowed the Santa Monica Airlines name at first, correct?

Rocco: He told me I could use it.

So it was like a handshake deal, and you just made your boards under the SMA name?

Rocco: Oh, totally.

But NHS was manufacturing SMA boards at the time.

Rocco: I think Skip forgot to tell NHS owner Rich Novak he did that. Actually, I think at the time Skip didn’t even have the right to do that, since Novak held the license on the name.

So at first it was SMA, but you only used that for a short time, right?

Rocco: No. It was Santa Monica Airlines Rocco Division. Then it was SMA World Industries. Then it was World Industries.

So the evolution of the name was the result of a conflict of interest?

Rocco: Oh yeah, Novak was gonna shut our ass down. He had mercy on us.

One of your biggest legacies is your early ad campaign. Like you were saying, at first you just did whatever came to mind. Were all the ads those first couple of years that way, or did you eventually develop a strategy or a plan?

Rocco: I think in our early ads we just wanted to say what needed to be said. It goes back to what you were saying, “What are you willing to do differently? What makes your company so different?” I just don’t think like Brad Dorfman or George Powell, so even if I tried I couldn’t do an ad like them. My ads–being that I wasn’t a businessman and I had no background in anything–were so completely different, they just came straight from my brain, right to the paper, and right into the magazine. That was it. Most people do ads when they want to try to sell a product. We did ads just to make statements, I think.

Public service announcements.

Rocco: Exactly. Yeah, public service announcements–that’s all they were.

Eventually they started addressing not just topics or ideas, but other companies. There was the Dear George letter, and when Mike Vallely left the company there was an ad about him. Was that something that seemed to get a good response as far as sales went? Or was that just a reaction?

Rocco: The George thing was a phenomenal sales success. I don’t think we ever sold boards faster than those three boards when they came out. But you gotta understand that everyone just sees the ad, but we never did anything unprovoked. George also did an ad that ran before where he made fun of small companies. We were the only small skater-owned company, and it was aimed so blatantly at us that I just got pissed.

I went into this business completely naive, “We could all be friends, it’s cool, no big thing.” But when George started doing stuff like that, I just went, “Okay, you want war? That’s fine. What do I have to lose? I’m already poor. I can’t get any poorer. You’ve got more to lose than me.”

On the surface it seems like some of your early ads were attack ads. Then recently there was the Woodstock ad that featured a likeness of you, and you went after Simon Woodstock and Rich Metiver for that. Again, on the surface it seems kind of hypocritical, like, “Wait, didn’t he do all that stuff to these other people?” But when someone does it to you, you go after them.

Rocco: We never did anything making fun of Woodstock or Metiver in ads–we never did anything. I mean, the only thing we did to them was sue the shit out of them and take more money than they probably had. That was that. T