Veeco: A Volcom Filmmaking Documentary takes a journey through the Volcom film library and goes behind the scenes with the filmmakers and riders as they share tales of blood, sweat and debacle from Veeco Productions inception to the present day. Right now, you can watch the film for free for the next 48 hours here.
We interviewed Volcom co-founder, Richard Woolcott (aka Wooly) in issue #42 of MC. Read his interview below to gain some insights from the hugely successful entrepreneur.
Jason Crombie: Hi Richard! Where are you right now?
Richard Woolcott: I’m in Hawaii getting ready for the Volcom Pipe Pro.
And what are you wearing?
Black Volcom sweats and my grey Baldface sweatshirt… It’s raining right now and a little cold.
Bummer. So when you began Volcom what were your hopes for the company?
I always felt that Volcom was going to be the greatest company in the world, even when no one knew about it. It was this dream I lived in and had great visions of. But as things progressed, I realised how hard it was to actually build a company and be successful, so my hope was then to just operate in a consistent manner, turn a profit and not go out of business.
Were you worried about starting a company that catered to skate, surf and snow?
Not at all.
I would’ve thought that’d be a dicey move.
Well, at that time it was seen as a fresh approach. Snowboarding really brought surfing and skating together. There was this exciting movement happening in Southern California with boarding and we were stuck in the middle of it. Plus, I could see that retailers were beginning to tap into this new energy too. It was just a natural part of our lifestyle… so we went with it. How have you remained true to the original vision while the company has become so massive? Generally when things get too big they suck. The key for us is we have worked hard to remain true to who we are over the years. It’s been a challenge at times, especially when experiencing spurts of growth. However, when we would start to wobble or feel like things were getting off course, we would just ask ourselves, ‘Who are we and what do we stand for?’ and it would always come back to: ‘We are a riding company that caters to skaters, snowboarders and surfers.’ I’ve always felt that if we stick to that and don’t try and be something we aren’t, we’ll be okay. The other thing is that there have always been athletes in key executive positions running the company; guys that know the sports and are good at them. I think that means a lot. Either you get it or you don’t.
The dudes who started Monster Children used credit cards to get the first issue out. How did you get Volcom up and running?
Volcom started out of my bedroom and Tucker Hall did all the sales out of his bedroom, so we started off slowly and we didn’t need that much capital at first. Our initial funding came from family and friends, which is normally the case with a grassroots start-up. We took our time and kept our overheads low. No one took big salaries or anything like that. It wasn’t an instant company that had everything overnight. Volcom grew very slowly, like a fine wine.
Like a 1964 Chateau Lafite Bordeaux?
What were some of the mistakes you made starting out?
None of us really knew how to run an apparel company or how to make clothes, so we learned a lot by error. We made all the typical mistakes: overpaid for production, didn’t deliver on time, too much inventory at the end of a season, lots of uncollected receivables, etc. You name it, and we probably did it. But over time we figured it out and got our act together. We had to, or we would have gone out of business. The advantage we did have was that as we began to grow, my dad became closer to the business and really helped us out with how to manage and operate the company. He has been a great coach over the years, and we’ve been lucky to have him by our side.
What was your proudest moment as CEO?
That’s a great question…
…but it’s hard to pick just one moment in time. I’m most proud that we were able to build a global company from nothing, take it public, then manage it as a public company for six years, steer it through a major recession, come out of the downturn still intact, then partner with a company like Kering, work through that transition, and then get it ready for another ten-year run.
That’s pretty amazing.
In my opinion, it’s what a company does over the long term that really matters. It’s easy to become hot and the flavour of the month, but the real test is whether you can maintain a desirable position over a long period of time without screwing up your business and brand reputation. I think we have done a pretty good job at that. We definitely have had our issues, but overall we’ve held it together for the most part.
What did you do with all the loot you got when you sold the company, and can I have a Jaguar? And by Jaguar I mean the car, not the cat, but I’ll take one of those too if you’re giving them away.
My first goal when I had enough money was to take care of my mom. I bought her a car and then a house a little later. Other than that, I just save my money and make sure my family are taken care of. I’m not a flashy guy. All I really need are good surfboards and snowboards and some shred trips throughout the year. When I’m riding, I’m happy. As far as the Jaguar is concerned, I’ve got a Bengal cat that pretty much drives me nuts. You can have him, but you’d have to ask my wife about that and she’ll probably say the cat isn’t going anywhere.
Being the wealthiest person I’ve ever met, are you on the waiting list for the Virgin Galactic?
No. I just had a conversation about this with some friends and we came to the conclusion that it’s too risky. What if you got stuck floating in outer space for the rest of your life?
Yeah, that’d suck pretty bad.
It’s really not a big priority for me. I just want some good powder right now.
Is being CEO a stressful gig?
Yup… At first it’s all fun and games but after a while the pressure starts to settle in, and the bigger you get, the more gnarly that pressure becomes. The old saying ‘it’s lonely at the top’ is true, because at the end of the day, the CEO is ultimately responsible. The real test comes when you go public, when you’re really on the line, in the spotlight and have to answer to shareholders while trying to make decisions that are good for the company long term. But I’ve always found that as long as you work hard, keep a clear mind and surround yourself with good people, you’ll be okay. Just give it your best effort and that’s all you can do. One of the keys is you have to really like what you’re doing and you have to be passionate about it. If it’s coming from your heart, it doesn’t really feel like a job. I’ve always enjoyed what I do. If I didn’t, I wouldn’t do it. I was CEO for over twenty years and I just recently turned that role over to Jason Steris. I’m now the Chairman of Volcom and stoked to keep charging forward.
Is being CEO of a company that deals with skaters, surfers and snowboards—possibly the most difficult people in the world—a struggle?
Not at all, if you are one of them and understand them. I came from the boarding world, so it’s in my DNA. I started surfing and skating at age seven, learnt to ski at age ten, was serious about being a professional skateboarder around the age of twelve and finally settled into competitive surfing by the age of fifteen. So for me, it has never been an issue working with these guys. It’s actually the driving force behind my motivation. I love working with the athletes and all the marketing projects. That’s where the magic happens!
When was the last time you lost your temper and threw your Brand of the Year trophy at someone?
I try not to lose my temper, especially in front of my team. But every now and then I get pissed and have to vent. As far as throwing a trophy at someone, I haven’t done that, but I have thrown a slipper or two at my loud cat when he’s screaming at me.
How has the action sports industry changed for the better over the years?
Well, I think the industry has been through some very challenging times over the last five years, and one thing that’s come out of it is we have all learned some valuable lessons on what works and what doesn’t when managing a growing company. So I think we are a smarter industry now than, say, ten years ago.
How has it changed for the worse?
Over the past ten years, our industry has made some good decisions and some bad decisions and we are now paying the price for the bad ones. I think the industry became greedy and grew too fast, wanting too much when the global markets were booming. It’s like we bit off more than we could chew. Whether it was poor distribution, discounting, cheaper product or trying to be something we’re not, it caught up to us and we are all working to recover from what I call a bad hangover. Everyone and their brother wanted a piece of action sports, and in the end there really wasn’t enough to go around. Our industry is special and we have to treat it that way.
Here’s the question everyone wants to ask you but have never had the balls: do you like the Smiths?
I used to listen to them in college but not anymore. I’m pretty much a classic-rock guy. Led Zeppelin, Pink Floyd, Jethro Tull, Pearl Jam, Rolling Stones, Neil Young and Black Mountain. That’s a good line-up for a rockin’ session.
Okay. What about this: if Kate Bush knocked on your door and asked to use the toilet, would you turn her away or would you say, ‘Come on in, Kate! Pisser’s just up the hall’?
I’m not too familiar with Kate Bush, but if she needed to use the rest room, I’d let her in.
How’s the new park at the office?
The new park is sick. It’s been getting a lot of good use, from company meetings, sales meetings and rock shows to daily skate sessions by the team riders and company employees.
If I came to visit you guys would I have to sign a waiver before I skated the park? Because I would totally sue your arse if I hurt myself… and I would totally, totally hurt myself because I can’t skate for shit anymore.
Yup… Everyone has to sign the waiver before they skate. It’s the number one park rule.
Volcom hasn’t made a video since Alive We Ride in ’93. Why did it take twenty years to make the new video, True to This?
Well, we haven’t made a full-length surf/skate/snow movie since Alive We Ride but we have made many other movies in the last twenty years, focusing on the individual sports, rider profiles, etc. When we started Volcom, we made Alive We Ride to showcase the team, our vibe, lifestyle and company direction. It was a way to communicate who we were and what we stood for. So twenty years later, when we were looking at ourselves in the mirror and asking ourselves who are we now, and what do we stand for today, we went right back to the fundamentals of our DNA as a riding company. We then decided that making a new riding film, showcasing our current team, would be a great way to strengthen our roots and communicate our brand message. The making of the movie has been a rewarding experience for us. It’s helped us refocus our company vision and has shown us what’s important to Volcom and what’s not.
What are your retirement plans?
I have no plans to retire at this time. I like my new position at Volcom, I’m still having fun working, and I really want to help Volcom become the best it can be. There is a lot of opportunity for our brand right now, so it’s a great time to attack the possibilities. It’s on!
Finally, what advice would you give to young entrepreneurs who might be reading this—how can they succeed and buy exotic pets too?
There are a lot of factors that can contribute to a successful company. But in the end, I think it comes down to a few key points. First, you have to be passionate about what you are doing, you really have to love it and it has to come from the heart. Next, you have to commit to your company for the long term. You have to work hard and keep a clear mind. Nothing comes for free and if you’re not willing to give 110%, year after year, you’re probably not going to make it. It’s also important to stay humble and keep your feet on the ground. Nobody likes a show-off. Financing is critical at numerous stages of your lifecycle, so always keep planning your cash flow needs and remember the saying ‘banks will only loan you an umbrella when it’s not raining’, meaning it’s hard to get money when you really need it, so be prepared at all times. Surround yourself with good people, people that are better than you. And finally, remember to enjoy yourself and have fun because that’s the reason you got into this industry in the first place.