How I Made It: Ryan Heuser

Los Angeles Times Staff Writer

The gig: President and co-founder of Paul Frank Industries Inc., a clothing and accessories company based in a former school building in Costa Mesa. The private company, which has about 100 employees, puts a host of eccentric characters on products as varied as baby bibs and bicycles. It has 37 of its own stores and sells its wares in thousands of other locations across more than 50 countries.

Personal: Heuser, 35, lives in Corona del Mar with his French bulldog and his fiancee, who is pregnant with their first child. The marathoner, who also surfs, plays drums and restores homes, is training for a triathlon.

Education: After attending Huntington High, he graduated from Chapman University in 1994 with a degree in business communication.

Got the idea: In college, Heuser met Paul Frank Sunich, who made him a wallet as a token of friendship. The pair brainstormed ideas in Heuser's garage, Sunich executed them, and Heuser sold the products to local stores. In 1997, Heuser incorporated the company along with Sunich and Chief Executive John Oswald. "It's pretty close to my dream job," Heuser said. "What we're making is genuine, cool stuff, and not some corporate scheme to get kids' money."

First job: At 13, Heuser washed dishes and bused tables at a pizza and sandwich shop. "Not very glamorous," he said. He eventually landed a job at clothing company Mossimo Inc. in public relations for the men's department, but was known as the "hookup guy" for the company's celebrity clients. He then sold his Mossimo shares, bought a condo and quit in 1997 to launch Paul Frank.

On the path: In the early days, Heuser was living off instant noodles and withdrawals from his 401(k) fund. He recalls sneaking into a trade show with a handmade booth built with materials from a friend's woodworking studio and line sheets with design mock-ups that Oswald's mother volunteered to print.

Bumps in the road: In 2005, Sunich was fired from his design post by Heuser and Oswald. The founding trio descended into a legal battle over rights to the Paul Frank brand and the popular Julius monkey character and Sunich's allegations that he was let go without cause. The dispute was resolved in 2007, with rights going to the company.

Office culture: The atmosphere at Paul Frank is pretty relaxed: Bad Religion members pop in for jam sessions in the band room, and employees have mustache-growing contests and bring their pets to work. Heuser's office has a low-fi vibe, with an old Polaroid camera, an orange rotary phone and a Gibson Les Paul guitar with the Paul Frank logo.

Monkey business: When Sunich created Julius in 1995, Heuser was less than enamored. "People went crazy," he said. "But I can't understand the psychology behind why one monkey works and another doesn't." He understood that he shouldn't walk away from a good thing, and said the company was now trying to keep Julius relevant while making him an icon like Hello Kitty or the Lacoste alligator.

Advice: "You've got to have thick skin and jump off the ledge for anything to happen," Heuser said. "It's about trusting your gut and staying true to your original vision."

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