AZA becomes Syndrome

AZA becomes Syndrome and phases out Zorlac-branded blank program.

It’s really easy to get boards made these days. Any shop with its own line of decks can tell you that. And woodshops, like any manufacturing business, want to keep their machinery running¿to stay in business, they have to. The result has been a proliferation of brands, and the emergence of pricepoint decks¿popularly known as blanks.

Ask name-brand skateboard companies¿ones that pay their teams, send them on tours, and buy ads¿about blanks, and they can’t find enough expletives to describe them. While blanks have introduced good-quality, low-cost decks to consumers, they’ve stripped the profit out of decks and have made supporting teams more difficult.

One of the widely-acknowledged players in the blank-board kingdom was AZA, a deck-and-wheel manufacturer that three years ago began selling its Zorlac-branded blanks to compete with Powell’s popular Mini Logo line. Depending on whom you asked, Powell and AZA were either the scourge of the industry, or the saviors of shallow-pocketed shops and hype-free skateboarders.

So when AZA launched its full-graphic dNA brand last year, hired a team, and took out magazine space to promote it, many considered it just a ploy to legitimize AZA’s OEM and branded-blank-board programs. But AZA’s Mark Schmidt and Rob Mertz have something to say about that.

“Being an ex-professional, that’s what I’m most interested in¿that’s what all our employees are most interested in,” says Mertz. “That’s the way we want to go.”

That way, says Schmidt, is toward full-graphic premium product¿complete with pro teams, tours, ads, and all the creativity that makes a company interesting, and hopefully profitable. “You hit a fork in the road and go, ‘Anybody can be a bulk supplier in the skateboard industry,'” he says. “Forget it. Building name brands in the various market segments¿that’s what makes things happen.”

What made things happen a few years ago was volume sales. “We had a woodshop, and we needed to produce,” says Schmidt. “Out of economic necessity we created the Zorlac mini-logo line, and it was successful.”

At the time, the Zorlac brand had lost its appeal with younger skaters, so the gory graphics and Texan team it was once famous for were lost on the current culture. “Ninety percent of the people who bought a Zorlac mini-logo board had no idea of Zorlac’s history in the 80s,” he says. “So now it’s time to move on.”

Like most companies, AZA had carved a niche for itself. And while it did well as a full-service manufacturer and printer of OEM decks and wheels, and branded blanks, Schmidt and Mertz are now focusing on building brand names. Currently their catalog includes dNA skateboards, Status skateboards, Unit trucks, FKD bearings, and Zorlac. But under Schmidt’s new plan, AZA has become Syndrome Distribution, and Zorlac has been replaced with a new full-graphic line called Status¿that’s right, bye-bye branded blanks. “Mini logos helped bring us back into the deck market,” he says. “It’s time to step it up and create the whole marketing mix that keeps skateboarding going.”

Status is Sydrome’s new team-driven deck brand. “Zorlac’s history,” says Mertz, adding that Status will launch with a line of full-graphic decks and an amateur team of six skaters initially, adding pros later on. “Amateurs are the future of the sport. Only the top four or five ams get featured, and that’s where it all comes from¿the amateurs.”

Schmidt and Mertz say that at least part of the reason they phased out their Zorlac branded-blank program is because cheap generic product endangers the industry’s current promotional structure. “There’s probably enough production in skateboarding right now to actually kill the sport with blank wood,” says Schmidt.

“We don’t want to have anything to do with that,” adds Mertz.

Schmidt credits pricepoint decks as forcing new innovations, andd said that Syndrome will be introducing some of its own new developments with the dNA and Status lines. He hopes this will help them overcome the stigma of branded blanks and reestablish their company as a marketing and manufacturing innovator.

Schmidt believes that the loss of sales attributed to Zorlac and the additional costs of promoting brand names will be compensated by better margins. “Volume can be made up by selling branded quality product,” he says. “If it’s better quality, people will pay more for it.”

Mertz says the new dNA and Status boards will be innovative, but within reason. “It’s gonna go farther than the six-ply, seven-ply, or the nine-ply decks. We’re really excited about it,” he said, being deliberately vague about the details. Mertz is also very optimistic about new products from Unit trucks and the FKD bearing-and-griptape program.

The bottom line is that he and Schmidt are positioning Syndrome to be a premium-brand supplier. But what about their OEM board and wheel programs? “I would love nothing more than to manufacture only Status and dNA,” says Schmidt. “The volume’s not there to do that yet, but that’s ultimately our goal. We must get five to ten calls a day from guys starting their own board companies. The first question is ‘So, did you already give ASR your deposit for your booth? Have you already sent TransWorld, Thrasher, or Big Brother your check for your ad? So, how much money do you have left for decks? Oh, and you want wheels, too?’ The investment is tough, but at the same time we’re not saying, ‘Oh no, we won’t make it for you.’ Everybody’s entitled to go after their dreams.”

“If they can’t do at least 100 boards, they’re talking to the wrong people,” says Mertz. “It’s not like we don’t want new people to come into the sport¿we’ve helped quite a few small companies come up. When we look at the guys involved, and look at their company¿if we’re into it, we’ll help them out.”

Schmidt suggests that young companies with new ideas are healthy for the industry, and he hopes his own brands will revitalize his reputation as a premium-brand manufacturer. But for the moment the company will continue its OEM program¿with some restrictions. “The rule is no blanks,” says Schmidt, who also runs a screen-printing operation. “It’s gotta have paint on it.”