How Vans Inc. remains your very own personal megabrand
The Man Who Would Be Jeff Spicoli-these Days, that would be Gary Schoenfeld, the president and CEO of Vans Inc.-is nesting in the second-floor corner office of a glistening business complex in Santa Fe Springs, rhapsodizing on the true purpose and underlying beauty of the soon-to-open Vans Skate Park at the Block in Orange.
And the Vans Triple Crown of Skateboarding.
And the Vans Amateur Skateboarding Series.
And the Vans Triple Crown of Surfing.
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And the Vans Wakeboarding Championships.
And the Vans Triple Crown of Snowboarding.
And the Vans Warped Concert Tour.
And every one of the Vans-shoes-and-clothing-wearing characters in the PlayStation game Psybadek.
Which is to say that Schoenfeld, who actually is the Man Who Would Be Mistaken for a Young Michael Milken-about the time the notorious business whiz started contemplating a toupee-is extolling the delicate, profitable art of cross-promotion and corporate sponsorship. And from the length of the list, it looks as though he probably will be extolling for a while. Suddenly, however, Schoenfeld's face brightens with the warm memory of what he considers the perfect way to distill the glory of the whole, wide Vans-scape into one exquisite personal anecdote.
"It's like when I went to the Celine Dion concert at the Arrowhead Pond last night," Schoenfeld gushes, "and Ericsson, the cellular-phone company, was the big sponsor. I thought: 'Good for Ericsson! What a great connection! What a smart combination of sponsor to event!' You know, the whole message of clarity-of their phones and of Celine Dion's voice. It's a great association. And similarly for Celine Dion-it doesn't tarnish her image whatsoever."
And when Schoenfeld puts it that way, well, yeah, it is impossible to miss the point: Vans, the company with the longest and truest, blackest and bluest pedigree in skateboarding's authenticity-is-everything culture, is headed by a CEO who is a fan of Celine Dion, the emaciated French poodle of over-the-top divas.
Schoenfeld's expression is already beginning to crumple, perhaps because he realizes how far he has placed himself outside Vans' meticulously rough-around-the edges philosophy.
It's certainly a long way from Vans' first pop-culture cross-reference. In 1982, Vans' checkerboard slip-on deck shoes became an alternative-fashion rage because they were featured in the movie Fast Times at Ridgemont High; they were worn throughout the flick by Sean Penn, who played a burned-out surfer named Jeff Spicoli. Despite the endorsement of hundreds of real-life professional skate- and snowboarders, the fictional Spicoli-earnestly deadpan and good-naturedly subversive-is probably still the most accurate poster boy for the suburban-rebel values of Vans' typical young customer. He's practically their Buster Brown.
But now someone in Schoenfeld's office is wondering, jokingly, whether Dion might replace NOFX or the Cherry Poppin' Daddies on next year's Warped Tour. The flustered CEO can't let the wisecrack pass. "No. Oh, no. Nothing like that," he says quickly, smiling weakly. "See, it's my wife. My wife likes Celine Dion. She made me take her to that concert."
This rare chink in Vans' X-treme armor would be beside the point-the point being that last fiscal year, Vans sold $174.5 million worth of what it calls "alternative-lifestyle and sport" shoes, clothing and equipment-except that Vans' armor, its image, is what its profits are all about. This is a huge, international, publicly held, 32-year-old company that has used the magic of deft marketing to remain emblematic of a healthy adolescent insubordination and an edgy street credibility. It's a delicate balancing act. Vans' youthful customers have been raised-and jaded-by advertising. The high profile and megabucks the company requires to reach the huge market of self-anointed individualists who ride skateboards and snowboards could easily become the very things that turn that market against the company.
"The kids-they do like authenticity," allows Schoenfeld, who tried skateboarding for the first time early this year at the urging of his 5-year-old son, "and I think that's the way Vans is perceived."
That's where the brand-new Vans Skate Park comes in. When its 46,000 square feet of vert ramps, cement pools and street courses open Saturday at the Block in Orange, the Vans Skate Park will be the first such facility ever positioned as an anchor of a shopping mall. It's down the walkway from the Saks Fifth Avenue outlet and next door to Borders Books. The irony is obvious. Typically, skateboarders have been chased away from shopping centers; the idea here, however, is to lure young, renegade daredevils off the streets and steer them-along with the disposable income of their had-it-up-to-here parents-into the cash flow of the retail mainstream. No, skateboarding is not a crime anymore. It's a cross-promotion.
"The kids see the skate park, and they see Vans, and they know that it cost the company a few bucks to build this thing," says Schoenfeld. "They know we've been making shoes for 30 years. They realize we're sharing our success with them, and a lot of them would like us to keep doing it for another 30 years. It's a win-win situation."
And it's a position that Schoenfeld believes Vans is uniquely qualified to occupy. "A new company that doesn't have the heritage we have, that just wants to tap into that market? Well, these young consumers are pretty smart," Schoenfeld says. "They'll tell 'em to go tap somewhere else."
He's right. Among the popular promotional decals that circulated at the Action Sports Retailers convention in San Diego last summer was one that savagely denigrated K2, a ski company that recently introduced a line of skateboard shoes. "FucK2: You can't buy your way in," the stickers read. Similarly, megabrands like Nike and Reebok have been unable to penetrate the market.
No wonder the expansion of Vans is a success story that Schoenfeld would prefer you refrain from calling a burgeoning empire, even through sales have soared from $80 million in 1994 to $117.5 million in 1996 to $174.5 in the 1998 fiscal year. He gets uncomfortable when you mention Nike and Vans in the same breath.
"The reality is that Nike has reached a 46 percent market share in the United States. Vans is at 1 percent," says Schoenfeld, who seems to keep such statistics on the tip of his tongue. "So we've got a long, long way to go before we get to that scale." He pauses. "And we don't aspire to get to that scale."
Vans stockholders may eventually have a different opinion about that. For now, however, there's no reason for them to quibble about how small Vans says it is, so long as the company keeps growing the way it has. "I think we can grow our market share," allows Schoenfeld, who in other published interviews has permitted himself to savor not-too-distant annual sales of a half-billion dollars. "If we can hit 3 percent to 5 percent, we could have a lot of fun."
Meanwhile, Vans' company line is one of unwavering loyalty to the so-called small niche market that its surveys and focus groups-and rising sales-indicate is still striking a nerve with its young customers. "Every day, we are focused on the 10- to 24-year-old customers, on being a part of their lifestyle," Schoenfeld emphasizes. "They know what's going on. They're smart. Let's face it: this generation is a lot smarter than any of us were. The thing about Vans being 32 years old is we are kind of the umbrella that has been a part of this from before any of these kids were born."
However, the Vans heritage and tradition that Schoenfeld touts aren't quite as pure and authentic as they sound. The Van Doren Rubber Company, the factory that Paul Van Doren and his family established in Orange in 1966, was acquired by the Menlo Park-based venture-capital firm of McCown DeLeeuw & Co. in 1988. These days, Vans answers to quarterly reports and the quick-profit pressure of stockholders on the NASDAQ exchange rather than the enduring business ethics of its founder. Van Doren's original dream was to manufacture shoes and sell them directly to the public, rather than going through a middleman. But in the 1990s, Vans has positioned itself squarely in the middle, opting to be a marketer rather than a manufacturer.
During the past 10 years, Vans has restructured its operation in the style of just about every other shoe giant, following dance steps almost identical to those Nike invented to waltz to the top of the world. During the past five years, Vans has gradually subcontracted more and more of its production to foreign countries, primarily South Korea and southern China, because of cheaper labor and because Benzene, an environmentally hazardous solvent used to produce the shoes in Asia, is intensely-and expensively-regulated in the United States.
Vans' fight against a union-organizing effort in 1994 and 1995-the average employee earned $5.75 per hour and could not afford the required co-payments for the company-sponsored healthy insurance-was so zealous that it racked up numerous charges of federal labor-law violations from the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB). In May 1995, a month before a second NLRB-ordered organizing election, Vans closed the original factory in Orange, which at one point had 1,500 workers and was still-with about 400 employees remaining-the single-largest manufacturing employer in Orange County.
Three months ago, Vans closed its other U.S. factory, in the northern San Diego County city of Vista, where 300 people worked. The company moved production to Mexico and Spain.
"It was the right thing to do," says Schoenfeld, who insists that this restructuring is consistent with Vans' legacy. "It has freed us up even more to make a commitment to our customers, to concentrate on what they want."
For all his talk about the company bloodline, however, Schoenfeld has only been with Vans since 1995. Since joining the company, he has been quickly promoted from chief operating officer to executive vice president to CEO; he inherited the company presidency from his father, Walter, in 1996. But even the richest company bloodlines aren't very impressive if they are bleeding, which Vans did for several years as it fluctuated in and out of bankruptcy in the mid-'80s, finally emerging out of it in December 1986. During his watch, Schoenfeld has concentrated on Vans' bottom line, which has gotten blacker and blacker as sales have quadrupled. And by recycling those profits into marketing, he insists Vans' customers have become truer and bluer than ever.
"We're just going to stay close to these kids, just keep doing things better. And as we grow, we'll make sure they feel they're benefitting," Schoenfeld says. "It's working. I think the feelings about Vans today have probably never been more positive in 32 years."
There was reverence in the early autumn air-along with the usual dense swirl of dust and noise-on the day that workers at the Vans Skate Park construction site began to pour the cement that would make the Combi Pool. Many members of the crew were skateboarders, and some were old enough to remember skating at the original Combi Pool at the long-gone Pipeline Skate Park in Upland. One wore an old Pipeline T-shirt. But others had only heard of the brief era when skate parks flourished. To them, this was like reconstructing a dinosaur skeleton. Or erecting a temple.
"It is. It really is," says Brett Hickman of Huntington Beach, a compact man of 27 who has owned a skateboard since he was 5; he has spent this year building the Vans Skate Park. "I would almost do it for free because this is going to be one of the biggest skate parks in the world-and because we are re-creating a pool that used to be pretty much legendary."
It's been 22 years since the first skate park opened in Carlsbad in 1976. One year later, there were 133 of them across the country. But a slew of injuries and the subsequent difficulty of getting insurance nearly drove the parks to extinction. Pipeline expired in 1987. But a state law passed this year officially categorized skateboarding as a hazardous sport, shrinking the grounds for lawsuits, consequently reducing insurance premiums and making it possible for skate parks to re-emerge. In homage to those who came and went before it, the Vans Skate Park is re-creating the Combi Pool-so named because it combined square and circular segments-to almost the exact dimensions of the venerable old pit at Pipeline. If there is a spiritual center to the new skate park, this is it.
"We dug out the old Pipeline blueprints from 1985," says Neal Lyon, a Vans senior vice president who oversees the skate-park construction in consultation with several skating greats. "The only difference is that the drop in the vert is not as bold because [top pro skater] Steve Caballero said to change it. Otherwise, we remained true to the original Combi Pool. And we put a plaque in the cement to commemorate it."
The pool and its plaque are also expected to be the cornerstones for a new era of acceptance for skateboarding and an expanding empire of skate parks.
"The fact that this park is an anchor of a major mall tells you that this sport is becoming mainstream," says Lyon. "Skateboarding is becoming known, not for its negativity, not for being a crime, but for being a positive activity that kids and their parents can be proud of. We are legitimizing the sport for parents. The kids already knew it was legitimate. But now skateboarding is going to be parent-friendly."
Vans already has plans for skate parks in Orlando, Florida, and Arlington, Virginia, and the company is looking into the possibility of building one in Rio de Janeiro. Meanwhile, other parks are popping up across the country.
"All of a sudden, the skate-park era is back," says 32-year-old Rick Carje of Westminster, a 24-year skater whose masonry company is building the new Combi Pool and is swamped with work for the next couple of years. "I just did one on Long Island. I'm working on one in Boulder. It's great. I used to work on custom homes, but now I can work on projects that are really close to my heart and passion."
Lyon is unabashedly enthused about the benefits for Vans. "Promotionally, it's one of the biggest things ever," he says. "But it better make some money, too. Bottom line: we're a publicly held company, and we can't do anything if we're not making money. We're not gonna get rich on skate parks, but as marketing tools, I do think they will make us some long-term friends. Our goal is to get 6-year-olds to skate for a long time-and hopefully, to wear Vans."
Others wonder about what the corporate appropriation of skateboarding will do to skate culture, which has for so long defined itself outside the mainstream. Even those who are benefitting most express some concern.
"You know how big-business can get," says Carje. "It would be terrible if there was overkill, if people lost track of what skating is all about. It's about individual accomplishment, rather than the collective effort that goes into team sports. But a part of that satisfaction is also the bond that skaters have among one another. At its best, all this corporate support would just be part of that bond. The way Vans is doing it-being true to the roots of skating and not trying to ride its coattails-is great."
Hickman shrugs. "Hey, there's no place to skate," he says. "What else are we going to do? The positive of having a place to skate outweighs the negative of having to go to the mall to do it. It's just where we have to go, just like when we have to do it on curbs and benches. Skateboarding is always going to have that outsider image."
Lyon is shrugging, too. "Sure, skateboarders like to think of themselves as being out of the mainstream," he says. "Then again, if everybody's doing it, are they? I think the sport will always be more edgy than not, and we're sensitive to that-we won't duplicate the Combi Pool anywhere else."
Steve Van Doren, son of founding-father Paul, is the last authentic link between the Vans family and corporate tradition, the closest thing the company has to a Colonel Sanders.
"The name of the company is Vans, and my name is Van Doren," he says with grand solemnity. "Even though the company is not ours, if you cut my veins open, Vans blood comes out."
Don't look for his likeness on shoe boxes any time soon, however. Van Doren is a middle-aged man with a thinning thatch of tousled hair, an ample waistline, a foghorn voice and an even foggier sense of fashion.
It's hard enough to find his office at Vans headquarters. It doesn't have a window. This is the room where Vans' assorted images collide-the street-cred kamikaze, the adroit corporate player and the noble family traditionalist. Better yet, it's where these images evaporate.
Van Doren is holding court and trying to get a little work done, although it's hard to tell which is which. He is submerged in three conversations at once. He is surrounded by paraphernalia-from posters to a chair made of skateboards-and lots of people who are laughing. He is wearing a Cosby-era pullover sweater featuring a pattern that looks as though he has puked his gregarious personality all over it.
Van Doren grew up tending the equipment and painting the walls of the old Vans factory on Batavia Street and organizing outlet stores all over Southern California, depending on his father's orders. Now he is Vans' vice president of promotions. He loves it.
"When it was a family business, I was always involved in manufacturing and retail. I think my father did that on purpose," says Van Doren. "But my forte has always been being in front of the public."
Van Doren is the guy who translates Vans to the world one-on-one. He travels to promotional events-the skateboard and snowboard competitions, the bicycle motocross races, the spring-break parties and the convention exhibits-shaking hands and saying his name and handing out key chains and socks and caps. He throws barbecues and hangs big signs and generates good will.
"My dad didn't believe in advertising. Word of mouth is all he cared about," says Van Doren, who worked for minimum wage most of the time he worked for his father. "Our budget for promotion was me passing out fliers. 'Tell a Friend About Vans' was our little motto. We did the Pomona Fair for 20 years."
Van Doren has just returned from his third stint accompanying the Vans Warped Tour, which this year encompassed 76 alterna-punk concerts in eight countries on four continents and which has drastically expanded his view of the music and activities that make the world go 'round.
"Like when I was in Dallas at a Vans Wakeboarding event, and I saw a flier that said Blink 182 was playing with somebody on the Poo-Poo Pee-Pee Tour," he recounts. "A 42-year-old guy should have no idea what they're talking about, but I jumped in my car, ran over there and saw the guys. They wear our shoes, you know. And my name is on every shoe. I might not be the top-top person, but the Vans heritage is right there."
Perhaps nobody is more sensitive than Van Doren to the changes the company has undergone during the past decade.
"Sometimes I have to put blinders on because there are different philosophies in retail," he says. "I did certain things, and they do them differently. The No. 1 thing for me is people. The numbers and the computer systems and the boxes and whatever-they are all secondary to me. The person is the most important thing."
Vans was shelled with criticism when it shuttered its Batavia Street manufacturing plant in 1995, charged with contradicting not only its long history but also its new image.
"I think Vans' big shout about being rowdy, rebellious and anti-establishment is just a fucking marketing ruse," says Patrick Kelly, a local Teamsters union official who closely followed the failed union-organizing effort. "They didn't hesitate to throw away a lot of jobs around here when their own employees kinda rebelled."
The subject is evidently a painful one for Van Doren. "I stayed away from people for a couple of days, and that's far from my m.o.," he recalls. "I knew those 1,500 people by name. I talked to them every day. I still have a little difference of opinion about closing Batavia. I know business-wise, with marketing and stuff, it's better. But there were other mistakes made that were a drain on the company. We could still be making shoes in this country."
It's startling to hear a corporate vice president speak so frankly. Worrisome, in a way. You wonder whether Van Doren is talking himself into trouble with his bosses. You're amazed he's survived this long without fluency in Speak No Evil or Doubletalk, the preferred lexicons of so many executives and spokespeople. But Van Doren goes on and on, entertaining and inspiring those who lean into his office with his bombastic dedication to the ethics that built the family business, even though the business isn't in the family anymore.
"I handed in my resignation a few years ago when we had a CEO who I definitely thought was taking the company in the wrong direction," he confides. "The next day, I got a call from the chairman of the board, who told me that the CEO was let go. I think what happened is they had heard a lot of things about this guy, but when they heard that I was, you know, throwing in the towel, they made a change.
"So, you see, if I couldn't be me, I wouldn't be here. If someone said, 'Here are the corporate rules and regulations,' and they didn't fit my m.o., I'd be gone."
As he fends off another phone call and waves away some display makers waiting outside his office, Van Doren doesn't look as though he's going anywhere except back to work as soon as you let him go. And that's perhaps the best indication that there truly is something special about Vans' tradition, although you have to search beneath the T-shirts and baggy shorts, the suits and the ties, the press releases and the stock reports-and whatever event Vans is latching onto this week-to find it. Same as it ever was, says Van Doren.
"My dad was a tyrant," he says, guffawing like a grenade launcher. "I always had to get up early the next day and work the warehouse and open stores. I guess I had good training. It came from a maniac, but it stuck with me."
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