Richard McWilliam, hailed for revolutionizing the trading card and sports memorabilia industry as a co-founder and chief executive officer of Carlsbad-based Upper Deck Co., has died. He was 59.
McWilliam died Saturday at his home in Rancho Santa Fe. While no cause of death has been announced, the company noted that McWilliam had a history of heart disease and had undergone heart surgery in 2008.
McWilliam co-founded Upper Deck in 1989 and immediately set about challenging the leaders of an industry whose origins date to the late 19th century, when cards with pictures of baseball players were sold in packs of chewing tobacco.
Starting with the company's initial set of baseball cards, Upper Deck used higher-grade paper stock, better photographs and sharper, more eye-catching graphics than its competitors. It also charged more for its cards, upgrading the sense of cards as something to treasure.
"We try to make the perfect cards, from color separation to the packaging," McWilliam told The Times in 1990. "We try to make cards that people will want to keep forever."
In rapid-fire order, Upper Deck expanded into football, basketball and hockey cards, and instituted tamper-proof packaging and holograms to prevent counterfeiting of cards.
Within a few years, Upper Deck was boasting that it had surpassed the venerable Topps Co. Inc. In 1993, readers of Sports Card Trader voted Upper Deck "the card of the year."
Upper Deck expanded into the memorabilia market, offering bats and balls and autographed pictures and jerseys. A bat used by Babe Ruth was sliced into slivers and sold with special "piece of history" cards.
Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, LeBron James, Ken Griffey Jr. and Albert Pujols signed exclusive agreements with Upper Deck to provide memorabilia.
Not all of the ventures were successful: Bugs Bunny and Daffy Duck cards flopped.
In more recent years, Upper Deck has offered Marvel Super Hero cards, and a 2008 Yankee Stadium Legacy Collection featured 6,742 cards chronicling every game ever played at the original Yankee Stadium.
But no business bubble lasts forever. In recent years the card industry has seen sales decline, possibly due to over-production, over-pricing, or just a change in consumer preferences. Investment potential for buying cards dropped, and card stores closed.
An industry that once thrived on attracting youthful customers now fell back to depending on nostalgia-minded adult males. For men of a certain age, a Topps executive explained, sports cards are a "Proustian experience" opening up golden memories.
At Upper Deck, the loss of the Major League Baseball trademark agreement in 2009 compounded the problem. The privately-held company was forced to lay off dozens of employees.
Throughout his career, McWilliam faced criticism for some of his business tactics. The Japanese manufacturer of Yu-Gi-Oh! cards sued Upper Deck over allegations that the company produced and sold cards without the company's permission. After Major League Baseball ended its licensing agreement with Upper Deck, it sued for trademark infringement. The players association claimed Upper Deck had refused to pay royalties; a similar claim, which resulted in a lawsuit, was made by NFL players.
Born Oct. 20, 1953, in El Monte, Richard Patrick McWilliam earned a degree in accounting and economics from Cal State Fullerton and became a certified public accountant. Before co-founding Upper Deck, he was chief operating officer of a medical clinic in Orange County.
For someone who changed the face and economic fortunes of sports cards, McWilliam admitted that, unlike millions of boys of his generation, he was not a collector.
"I never had a passion for cards, just a passion for doing something perfectly," he told the New York Times in 1993.
In addition to Upper Deck, he was founder and CEO of Jet Source, an aircraft charter and maintenance company at McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad. An avid fisherman, he was a financial supporter of the trout-stocking program in Bishop, Calif. He also supported programs at Rady Children's Hospital in San Diego and programs for military veterans.
McWilliam is survived by his wife, Vivianne, and three children.