No to flimsy flip-flops

The gig: Founder and chief executive of Rainbow Sandals of San Clemente, maker of high-end flip-flops sold in surf shops beginning in the 1970s and now available throughout the U.S. and in Canada, Europe and Australia. Retailers include Nordstrom, Dillard’s and PacSun.

Education: Newport Harbor High School, Newport Beach. Self-taught expert in glues, leather and rubber, developed tough-rubber sandals with leather tops and layered-in arch supports that last for years. “I’m really an experimental laminator.”

Background: Growing up in Corona del Mar, Longley, 64, says he inherited his work ethic and community commitment from his father, a doctor who provided free care for indigent patients one day a week. A longtime board-sports enthusiast, he opened a ski shop in Newport Beach in 1964, when he was 20, one of a number of early, short-lived gigs that included less-than-happy stints as a dishwasher and busboy. “I knew I didn’t want to work for other people.”

Goal in business: “To make a product that lasted, and to be a good boss to work for.” Donates sandals, money and avocados from a ranch he owns to wounded Marines, soup kitchens and a drug rehabilitation center.

Earliest efforts: Working from home in South Laguna, he enlisted a parking lot attendant in 1974 to hawk sandals outside Laguna Beach’s Sawdust Festival. Booted out by the art show’s landlord after three months, he found a corrugated metal shack in San Clemente but couldn’t afford the $250 monthly rent, so he talked the owner into subdividing the space and renting him half for $125. The shack, with additions, remains a factory and Tiki-themed outlet store.


Big break: In 1975, surf-retailing pioneer Dick Metz at Hobie Sports accepted on consignment half a dozen black sandals striped green or pink -- “butt ugly,” Longley says, but the only colors available in the durable rubber that Longley liked. “I told him those things would never sell,” Metz recalls, but the new look caught on. Conventional flip-flops lasted just a few months. “Sparky’s held up way better, so all the beach guys said this is the way to go.”

Wipeouts: The early-1990s recession forced Rainbow to shut down for six months. Tighter smog rules in the late 1990s required Rainbow to install an emissions scrubber and cap its production just as Nordstrom wanted huge orders. “I said I can’t make enough. I’m producing 800 to 1,000 pairs a day here, and I sell them all.” Most sandals are now produced in China, with the San Clemente facility handling supplemental orders.

Marketing: Early on, Longley hired a “hippie salesman in a Volkswagen bus” to sell sandals to surf shops up and down the coast. “I’d get, like, $500 back” at a time. “Man, I was cooking.” He advertises in the Surfer’s Journal but mostly relies on word of mouth. He refuses to sell to discounters. Rainbow sponsored Battle of the Paddle, a paddle-boarding race, at Doheny Beach in October.

Product facts: Straps are reinforced with nylon tested to support 2,000 pounds, anchored between layers of the sandal. Arch-support inserts are made of top-quality Malaysian rubber. “That’s the bomb right there -- and I’m the only guy who has it.” Many colors and styles are available, including a hemp-topped version for wearers who shun leather, but plain brown sandals remain by far the best sellers.

Financials: In 2007, profit of $12 million on $37 million in sales. This year a profit of $10 million is expected on sales of $34 million. Citing the economy’s woes, Longley declines to project 2009 earnings. “I remember when our sales for the year were $700,000 and our expenses were $700,000.”

Current headache: Weak sales at Rainbow Sandals retail stores opened recently in New York’s SoHo district and on Melrose Avenue in Los Angeles. One recent Saturday, sales were $10,000 at the outlet shack in San Clemente, $333 at the L.A. store and $315 in New York.

Personal: Met his wife, Chanya, in 1980 in South Laguna. Owns a contemporary oceanfront home on the sand in Dana Point, an avocado ranch in Temecula and a getaway at the surf break at San Jose del Cabo in Baja California. Pilots his own turboprop jet. Recently attended a 10-day retreat at a Vipassana meditation center near Yosemite. Meditation “makes me unattached to the daily hassles. When you go through the day unaffected, you go home and you’re not tired.”