Selling Gear, Not Selling Out

March 22, 2004

Your first clues that this is not a normal ski resort are the lift
guidelines posted near the rope tow, which include:

NO LONG HAIR EXPOSED. (I.E. MULLETS)

IF YOU SEE A MOOSE, DON'T TRY TO PET IT.

DON'T DROP IN ON KEN BLOCK.

Block is the 36-year-old president of DC Shoes. He is also, on
this February afternoon, the whooping, black-clad snowboarder
emerging from a stand of scrub pine well up the mountain, then
launching himself 30 feet off a fair-sized cliff.

"I can't believe the guy who owns the company just hit the
biggest jump on the mountain," marveled Nate Bozung, a member of
DC's snowboarding team. "Usually, the president of the company is
some fat businessman. Ken's got more runs today than I do."

This took place not at a resort at all but at DC's Mountain Lab
in Utah's Wasatch Range. This facility, the first of its kind,
DC's spokespeople assure us, is where the team's 'boarders go to
conceive and practice new tricks. While there--when they aren't
on their sticks, or scouring the backcountry on the Lab's
snowmobiles for untracked powder, or shooting skeet with Block's
shotguns--they provide DC's designers with feedback on what works
and what doesn't.

These days everything seems to be working for Block, a former
Southern California skate rat who got his start in the apparel
business by designing T-shirt logos on the computers at his local
community college. Ten years ago Block and his business partner,
Damon Way--brother of skateboarding demigod Danny Way--founded DC
Shoes, for the simple reason that the skateboarding kicks they
were using fell apart too quickly. Last year sales of DC products
(which now include snowboard boots and outerwear) topped $100
million. Last week Block and Way flew off a kind of figurative
cliff: DC was acquired for $87 million by Quiksilver, the action
sports apparel colossus.

Block vowed that the new arrangement would not prevent DC from
maintaining "the integrity and spirit" of its "roots." There
would be, in other words, no net loss of street cred. Like DC
rider Todd Richards hovering upside-down on the lip of the Lab's
quarter-pipe as he nails a handplant, the company has so far made
a difficult balancing act look easy. It has earned broad appeal
while maintaining credibility with the core athletes who first
put it on the map. That feat is unusual--but, then, so is Bozung,
a cigarette-smoking Mormon.

Block and Way have always been cautious about placing their wares
in malls. Booking orders from the so-called big-box stores is
often viewed as selling out by hard-core riders, who may then
abandon that brand en masse. Block cites the example of onetime
rival Airwalk, which "pretty much abandoned the core market, and
the core market said, 'Well, screw you guys.'"

What will the company's teenage patrons have to say to DC now
that it's part of a billion-dollar-a-year conglomerate?
(Quiksilver had $975 million in sales last year.) The consensus
seems to be that they'll say, "Cool."

"It isn't going to damage" DC's credibility, says Adam Sullivan,
editor of SKATEBOARDING BUSINESS magazine. "They've established
themselves time and time again."

It helps that the product is highly regarded, that the president
is the kind of guy who likes to ride rails and get big air, and
that DC has signed some of the world's most talented, fearless
athletes. "At the end of the day," insists Block, "we make such a
good product, and market so well, that kids still want us."

The Mountain Lab is more than an R&D center where team rider
Eddie Wall can dream up a trick at breakfast--"Let's put the
C-rail on top of the quarter-pipe!"--and be on that rail, atop
that quarter-pipe, by lunchtime. It's a kind of credibility
factory. "You bet kids who are into snowboarding know that DC has
a Mountain Lab, that its owner rides, and which products are
rider-developed," says Ryan Mitchell, who manages a
skate-and-snowboarding shop in Salt Lake City. "Everything is
about who rides."

Here, the boss does. While presiding over a nocturnal photo shoot
near the jump he'd gone off that afternoon, Block started
fidgeting, then said, "I need to make some turns." Seconds later,
he'd disappeared over the cliff.

The next SI Adventure will appear in the April 19 issue.

COLOR PHOTO: ADAM CLARK BLOCK RULES DC's boss runs the unique Utah testing site.

DC Shoes hangs on to its street cred with a 'board-riding
president WHO LIKES TO GO OFF CLIFFS.

HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
OUT
HOLE YARDS PAR R1 R2 R3 R4
IN
Eagle (-2)
Birdie (-1)
Bogey (+1)
Double Bogey (+2)