More than 50 years ago, riders in California first put wheels on a plank, called it a skateboard and brought the sport of ocean surfing onto dry land. Then cheap foreign labor drove many builders overseas or out of business, leaving entrepreneurs such as Tod Swank wondering whether "made in California" would become a thing of the past.
In 2005, Swank got a chance to slow the exodus. The former pro skater was selling his own brands of boards manufactured by San Diego-based Watson Laminates, one of the first of the "old school" manufacturers to move into laminated products from boards carved out of solid pieces of wood. But owner Charlie Watson wanted to retire, and the thought of seeing the business close gnawed at Swank.
"Some people couldn't believe I might buy an American manufacturer at a time when the industry was moving to China or Mexico. It was like thinking about buying an American car factory," said Swank, still sounding as though he, too, didn't quite believe it. "But I studied it. I spent weeks here to see if we could make it work."
Skateboarding has been a boom or bust venture from the beginning. The fear of driving the price of the boards beyond the reach of most skaters pushed suppliers to slash construction costs.
"A lot of the old manufacturers just couldn't compete," said John Bernards, former executive director of the International Assn. of Skateboard Companies. "Watson Laminates is one of the best we have."
Even so, Swank, now 44, required a lot of persuading. No matter how he did the math, it always came out cheaper to mass produce the boards overseas.
"The wood of choice for skateboards has always been North American hard rock maple, from Canada and the eastern U.S., and it was also cheaper to ship the logs over the ocean, using up all of that fuel, than to build them here," Swank said.
He spent weeks at Watson Laminates, tucked into about 15,000 square feet of space in a modest industrial strip between the San Diego Freeway and Naval Base San Diego, right next to a manure hauler.
Watson had built a nimble workforce of about 30 cross-trained employees who could fill in wherever they were needed. They didn't do just the standard board art, heat treated designs that were, in effect, ironed on. They also knew sophisticated silkscreen techniques.
Swank said he began to see a company that could quickly retool itself to process more lucrative special orders without losing any of its traditional sources of business.
"That made me sign on the dotted line and I committed myself to the Watson Laminates cause," Swank said. "There's an art to it, a craftsmanship. We have a lot of customers who come to us because they know we can do this kind of work."
One of the smartest moves Swank said he made was to avoid making many changes in the way the company operated. And Watson hasn't left the company entirely; he still serves on its advisory board.
The work starts with thin sheets of hard rock maple, a wood that retains the springy flexibility that hardcore skaters demand. First, several of the sheets are glued together and placed into a press. Next, computer-programmed machines cut the boards into shapes, which are then sanded down and readied for graphics.
On a recent day, workers were turning out boards for Kahuna Creations, FibreFlex and several other clients, including Swank's other business, Tum Yeto Inc., which sells its own exclusive brands of skateboards, board components, clothing and shoes to skate shops and online.
Watson Laminates customers "do the design. They do the engineering and then they come to us. We make the boards. We're like their partners," Swank said. The company makes boards of all sizes and shapes using not just wood but also composite materials.
Swank is a Detroit native who came to San Diego with his mother and sister in 1979. Almost immediately, he developed an interest in skateboarding, but there wasn't much in his background that pegged him as a businessman.
He never went to college. His favorite haunts included skate parks and the downtown business district, where he would sometimes skate all night on weekends at vacant parking structures. About the only things he liked as much were photography and writing. He did both for Transworld Skateboarding magazine starting at age 17.
In 1991, after a brief pro career, Swank sold his prized 1965 Harley-Davidson XLH motorcycle to start his own company selling skateboards and other merchandise to skate shops. He took the $5,000 cashier's check to Charlie Watson, whose company had been making skateboards since the mid-1970s. He recalls the often gruff Watson being less than impressed.
"He snatched the check out of my hands, growled something at me and walked off. I remember crossing my fingers that I was actually going to get the boards," Swank said.
Watson came through. That brand, called Foundation, was selling on the Tum Yeto website for $39.95 to $60 last week. Toy Machine boards, another brand made for Tum Yeto by Watson Laminates, retail for up to $60 each.
Watson Laminates has maintained a reputation for specialized jobs involving quality work, done quickly.
One example: In 2009, with 10 days' notice, organizers of the first Skateboarding Hall of Fame ceremony turned to Watson Laminates to create custom boards for inductees Tony Hawk, Danny Way, Tony Alva and Bruce Logan. The company followed up with boards for the 2010 inductees.
Despite such high-profile jobs, Swank's $10-million operation has felt the effects of foreign competition and the recession.
Tum Yeto's workforce is down from its height, in 2000, of about 75 employees. Now there are about 13 employees and five outside representatives, Swank said, although the company still sponsors 40 professional skateboarders. Watson Laminates continues to employ 20 to 30 workers, depending on the season.
"This is the smallest we've been in years" in terms of employees, Swank said.
Skateboard sales and participation rates have yet to return to 2006 levels, according to the National Sporting Goods Assn. and market research firm Board-Trac Inc. But Swank said he thinks statistics are misleading.
"Skateboarding," Swank said, "has never been more accepted as a sport and as an activity as it is now."
And Swank thinks Watson Laminates' track record gives it an advantage over competitors.
"Not everyone can get their boards from one of the original laminated skateboard manufacturers in the world. It's quality. It's craftsmanship. It's pride," Swank said.
Some years ago, Swank got the opportunity to buy back the Harley he sold to begin his business. He said he never regretted selling it in the first place, likening his journey to one very cool, long ride.
"I decided to take a go at running a business, and that go is still going on. It hasn't stopped."