It's a bit of a David-and-Goliath story. Rider-owned and operated since 1992, Mike West's snowboard-apparel company, 686 Enterprises, is massively outgunned by the Columbias, Burtons, and Adidas of the world. But with a single-minded attention to every aspect of his business and a belief in the do-what-you-say, say-what-you-do approach to business, West is succeeding in a very tough marketplace.
The surprising thing, however, is that he never expected to be in the position he's in.
Born In The Classroom In 1984, Mike West was a Manhattan Beach, California, skate rat. “I grew up on a skateboard,” says West. “That was my thing. I was one of those grommets who spent his days street skating.”
He was also a sharp kid, with ambitions to go into banking or law school. Running a snowboard-apparel brand never was part of his game plan. But in the middle of high school he discovered snowboarding, and as the cliché goes, it changed his life.
By the time West went off to USC's business administration entrepreneurial program in 1990, he was also snowboard instructor at Bear Mountain. “It helped me keep my perspective,” says West.
West says the primary skill the USC program gave him was the ability to self-motivate–to initiate a project and see it through to completion. The program has also seen its share of snowboard-industry players. “Steve Klassen from Wave Rave and the founder of Club Sports also went through the entrepreneurial program,” says West.
In 1992 West wrote up a business plan as part of a class assignment. He got a B-plus. That assignment eventually became 686 Enterprises, but back in those first few months, it was a seat-of-the-pants operation run out of West's dorm room.
The brand was originally known as Jib 686. “Jib was a nickname a relative gave me when I was a kid–it had nothing to do with the whole jib-bonk thing. In fact, when the word jib got popular, we dropped it from our name.”
As for the number 686, West says it's a date, but becomes suspiciously vague when asked about its importance. “Mum's the word, but it wasn't when I lost my virginity,” he laughs.
During these early years, West's mentor was Mike Maceda of Plain Sane Accessories. “He really took me under his wing,” he says. “He's a very cool and talented guy.”
After moving out of the dorm and later the apartment of West's dad, 686 moved into the downtown Los Angeles warehouse where Plain Sane was located. “That was in 1994,” he recalls. “We stayed there until Plain Sane went out of business.”
The brand is now located in Torrance and employs the same staff it's had since the beginning. “All seven employees have been here the whole time,” says West.
Far East Financing Like many in the board business, 686 got off the ground in those early years through Japanese letters of credit. “686 was completely self-financed. That is, it was financed through my savings account. But the Japanese orders really got me going. Back in 1992, Japanese distributors were lining up to buy anything you had.”
So why didn't 686 cave into insolvency when the Japanese LC bubble burst? West claims he doesn't really have a single answer, but adds that he's always had a hands-on attitude: “I'm the type of person who always wants to know the answer to everything and get my hands in everything. I'm still learning. It's just in my nature.” In fact, West is still in school, getting his MBA through a Pepperdine program designed for working executives.
This desire to learn came in handy when West was getting started. “I started from scratch,” he says. “I had no experience in grading or pattern cutting, and we didn't have some backroom guru teelling us what to do. It was a real schooling for me.”
Part of this schooling was finding the right factory. “You can't produce in the U.S. and make it cost effective.” Instead, West hooked up with a factory in China and began making the frequent trans-Pacific hauls to keep an eye on production.
“We were approached by some people three years ago,” recalls West. “It was the same factory SMP and Sessions was using at the time. It went well and then it didn't go so well. We would ask for product A and they would give us product B.
“Now we're working with one manufacturer that has offices in Taiwan and a factory in China, and everything seems to be working well,” says West.
This is also the first year when West has been able to concentrate solely on design and managing the company–leaving production management to another in-house employee.
A Low-Key Approach A primary contributor to 686's success–besides solid product at good prices–is rooted in the company's business philosophy. “I don't believe in burning bridges,” says West. “What we've done since the beginning is to leave the strong-arm tactics at home. Our products speak for themselves. We disclose everything to our retailers. We say, 'This is who we are,' and leave it at that. If they're not interested then, they'll often call us back a month or a year later and place an order.”
What West is grappling with now is how to compete with the 110-day dating offered by some of the big boys.
“Honestly, we're still super small. It's really stressful right now because we have the opportunity to grow a lot faster. But I want to be in the snowboarding industry for many years, supporting it, and helping it grow. The last thing I want is to hype 686, grow beyond our means, and be out of business a few years later.
“We only make winter snowboard outerwear,” continues West. “Our customers are mostly mom-and-pop stores, and that's our distribution strategy. We're not backed by a big-daddy parent company. We're still independently run, and that's pretty cool.”––––––––––––––––––––––
To find out more about 686 and other companies in the snowboarding industry, log on to transworldsnowboarding.com