Joe Surf: Taking a jump into small business

Dean Quinn was living the dream.

He had turned pro, was living in Hawaii and surfing the North Shore every day. He was about to turn 20, so he went back home to Huntington Beach to celebrate his birthday with his buddies, when it happened.

Quinn and six of his friends decided to go for an afternoon hike up Saddleback Mountain in Cleveland National Forest. They reached the peak but it was starting to get dark, so the fellas started running down the trail.

The trail, though, was long and winding, so one of Quinn's friends suggested a shortcut, getting off the trail and going down a steep embankment.

Bad idea.

The friend slipped in the loose gravel and got wedged next to a rock, so Quinn went to help.

"I'm sliding on my butt, and the gravel gives way, I started tumbling, and I went right off the cliff," Quinn recalled. "It was like 1,500 feet straight down, but I was lucky because there was a ledge sticking out about 200 feet down, and I landed on it. It felt like I broke every bone in my body."

As it was, Quinn broke both legs and one of his arms. He said one of his ankles was turned completely around so that his foot pointed backward. And he had "gnarly" cuts and gashes all over his body.

It took hours for rescue teams to eventually find and get to Quinn, giving him plenty of time to reflect on his life. But unlike so many who use a brush with death to make big changes in their lives, Quinn simply wasn't going to allow it to change anything.

Quinn, now 52, is the owner, operator — bossman — of O'Quinn, a premium surf lifestyle brand based in Huntington Beach and whose apparel can be found locally in stores like Jacks and Tilly's, and at OQuinnclothing.com. No shortcut here — it has been the path Quinn began when he and his family first moved from "the 'hood" (Torrance) to Huntington Beach when he was in the second grade.

It took a year of rehab after the hiking accident, but he was able to resume his professional surfing career, which continued for another two years when Quinn, then 22, began to think ahead.

"I was always into clothes," said Quinn, a graduate of Marina High. "My dad used to make fun of me because I would change clothes three times before going to school. I knew at an early age clothing was something that was going to happen for me."

And so it began.

Quinn used his contacts in the surfing world to work his way into the surf apparel business. He got the advice to work for a small company and do everything — production, design, sales — and he did. He did it all for Team Gear for seven years — "a great learning experience, like college," he called it — then was working for Gotcha when Bob Hurley brought him to Billabong as a sales rep. A few years later, Hurley was about to lose his license with Billabong, so he branched out on his own to form "Hurley," and Quinn went with him as vice president of sales, starting in 1999.

"It was a big decision (to leave Billabong and go with Hurley)," Quinn said. "I was a loyal person. For me, it's not about the name of the company, it's about the people."

Quinn lived the good life with Hurley, which has grown into a surfwear powerhouse. It got so big that Nike wanted in. Bob Hurley decided to sell to Nike to help finance the business, but Quinn didn't like it when the Nike suits rolled in.

"It was a huge difference for us," Quinn said. "People were not stoked."

So that's when Quinn decided to jump off the cliff — figuratively speaking, of course.

He decided to start his own business, but he had to wait about two years because of a non-compete clause in his contract with Hurley. He waited it out while working for Rip Curl, and then made the jump.

O'Quinn was born.

Oh, and by the way, Quinn says his true Irish name is O'Quinn, that his ancestors dropped the "O" when they emigrated to the U.S. from Ireland. So don't call him a sellout.

O'Quinn's been in business now four years and has hooked up with retailers like Pacific Sunwear, Tilly's and Macy's, as well as Fred Segal and other high-end boutiques.

O'Quinn focuses on board shorts and T-shirts, but these aren't your everyday board shorts and T-shirts. Fit and fabric are the key, Quinn says, and that makes his clothing stand out.

"We didn't want to have the same T-shirt as everybody else," said Quinn, who partnered with a factory in Central America, which manufactures the T-shirts. "Now we've defined ourselves as having the best T-shirts on the market. It's a big deal."

As big as O'Quinn might become someday, Quinn says his focus is, and always will be, the local community.

O'Quinn sponsors Huntington Beach professional skater Tosh Townend and Huntington Beach surfer Ryan Carlson. O'Quinn donates T-shirts to local schools like Dwyer Middle School and Huntington Beach High, and is even giving the Huntington Beach Police Department's SWAT team board shorts they can use when they train for water rescues.

But O'Quinn is still like any other small business in this economic environment, fighting to stay alive, fighting to grow. Accounts with big retailers would bring in some much-needed money, but the surfwear industry can be a bit tricky.

"The action sports community is sensitive to outsiders coming in," Quinn said. "The term 'core' is thrown around a lot in our industry. You can't be in department stores or chain stores, you have to be in mom and pop stores. But the reality is you'll never make it if you're just in those mom and pop stores.

"To me, what makes you 'core' is not who you sponsor or who you sell to, but who you are, who your people are. I surf. I live the lifestyle. I think I'm core by who I am and what we do. I also think core is what you give back to the community. And the bigger you are, the bigger your responsibility is to give back to the community."

Quinn and his wife, Shurla, are raising their three children — Summer, 15, Delanie, 12, and Chase, 8 — in Huntington Beach, just living the dream.

JOE HAAKENSON is an Orange County-based sports writer and editor. He may be reached at joe@juvecreative.com.

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