Matt Niswonger

Jack O’Neill in his beloved 1956 Jag XK140, checking the surf at Steamer Lane, Santa Cruz.

O’Neill Celebrates Sixty Years

By Matt Niswonger • Photos Courtesy of O’Neill

When Jack O’Neill opened Northern California’s first surf shop on San Francisco’s Great Highway in 1952, could he have possibly known what the next few decades would bring?

His motivations at the time were pretty simple. He loved spending time in the ocean, but the coastal waters of Northern California were just too cold. As he put it, “Without a wetsuit you could only last about an hour on the best of days. Still, your teeth would start to rattle after about 20 minutes.”

On the 60-year anniversary of the company that O’Neill founded on the premise of selling wetsuits, one can only sit back and marvel. The wetsuit was a game-changer for an obscure outdoor pursuit called surfing, and over the next 60 years, surfing became an iconic lifestyle-driven sport with deep cultural influence all over the world.

From a business perspective, Jack O’Neill hit a home run by refining and marketing a “second skin” for cold-water activities, and he eventually became a millionaire many times over. He was helped by the growing popularity of surfing in Northern California, no doubt, but rarely mentioned is the fact that Jack was a marketing genius and a former salesman by trade.

1950’s surf shop.

Moving his surf shop to Cowell’s Beach in Santa Cruz in 1959, Jack’s marketing efforts forced the hand of every would-be NorCal surfer in the 1960s and 1970s. If you wanted to call yourself a “real surfer,” then you pretty much had to own an O’Neill wetsuit.

A master of guerilla marketing before the term was coined; Jack O’Neill helped make Santa Cruz a very exciting place to live in the 1970s. Every Santa Cruz lifer remembers seeing the company logo everywhere during that wild decade.
The flowing lines of a curving wave and an arching surfer represented something dynamic and exciting, and Jack’s marketing techniques did not disappoint. For a generation of children running around on the Boardwalk Beach, O’Neill’s hot air balloon floating over the ocean remains a poignant childhood memory.

Dominating the Santa Cruz market first, and radiating outward from there, the 1970s saw the company making wetsuit booties and the first functional surfboard leash. It was while prototyping this latter technology that Jack lost his eye in a surfing accident near Pleasure Point. This event was simultaneously a great personal loss for Jack, and a marketing jackpot for the company. With his pirate eye-patch and flowing gray beard, Jack made the transition from hardworking entrepreneur to iconic leader of what was becoming one of the most exciting outdoor brands in the world.

By 1980, O,Neill’s Surf Shop had become the leader in wetsuit manufacturing, dominating the American, Japanese, Australian, and European markets. With typically impressive foresight, the company also aligned itself with snowboarding in the mid-‘80s, and as a result the credibility of the brand was further enhanced in the coming decades among Jack’s core market of outdoor sports enthusiasts.

Making superior wetsuits remained the key component of the company’s mission, however. As the company’s bottom line soared by expanding into apparel and outdoor lifestyle products, the wetsuit remained the spark that energized everything. In this way, Jack pioneered more than just the wetsuit. As a business pioneer, he was remarkably effective in using a reputation built on technology (the neoprene wetsuit) to open other, more lucrative avenues in apparel.

The other iconic CEO that mastered this tactic was Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia. In the 1960’s he hand-forged the only piton that penetrated the hard granite of Yosemite’s walls, opening Half Dome and El Capitan to a generation of big wall climbers. Chouinard leveraged his persona as a climbing technology pioneer to create possibly the only other California-born outdoor brand to rival the O’Neill masthead in cult status.

In the 1990s many companies entered the beach apparel game, but the competition didn’t hurt the O’Neill brand as Europe experienced an explosion in action sports popularity and revenue continued to skyrocket.

For his part, Jack took a step back from the company to create the Sea Odyssey, a floating classroom dedicated to promoting environmental awareness. In the coming decades this 65-foot catamaran became a fixture on Monterey Bay. To date the Sea Odyssey has taken over 60,000 children out onto the ocean. “The Sea Odyssey is a way of putting things back. Once kids learn about the sea, they never forget,” O’Neill told ASJ in a 2004 article.

For the company, global expansion brought opportunity as well as the inevitable headaches associated with rapid growth. Recognizing this, O’Neill sought to keep its Santa Cruz roots intact with the continuation of the Cold Water Classic surf contest; showcasing world-class talent at one of the best coldwater breaks in the world—Steamer’s Lane.

The 2000s have brought big changes to the company. As Jack, who is now nearing his 90th birthday, continued to pursue his philanthropic efforts, O’Neill’s economic center of gravity shifted towards Europe as surfing and snowboarding experienced rapid growth there and globally. In 2007, the Dutch fashion company Logo International B.V. acquired and consolidated the brand into a portfolio of European apparel holdings. O’Neill was now a truly global brand, headquartered thousands of miles away from where Jack developed his first wetsuit prototypes.

At the time, many locals bemoaned the merger as the inevitable industrialization of a once coveted homegrown company. Lesser known was the fact that the O’Neill family held on to the wetsuit division, and also the O’Neill surf shops located in Santa Cruz. From a business perspective, this move brings the O’Neill family full circle, back to its roots.

In an industry that had become a victim of its own success, to focus on the continued development of the wetsuit was yet another in a long line of prescient business moves. After all, as any second-generation surfer will explain, the magic of the surfing lifestyle is not about buying yet another pair of $60 board shorts. The real magic is about having the skill, stamina, and equipment to stay out in the ocean a little bit longer.

In a press conference shortly after the acquisition, Jack had this to say: “For the last half-century our family has taken great pride in designing and manufacturing the world’s best wetsuits and related products. Nothing will change on that front. The sale of the worldwide trademarks will allow our team to focus exclusively on our core business and we will continue to support the independent dealer base that has supported us since the beginning.”

Today, a visit to Santa Cruz proves that Jack has fulfilled his promise. Driving down 41st avenue towards Pleasure Point, the O’Neill Surf Shop comes into view on the right. It is a nice brick building, but not ostentatious. A little further down the road some generic office buildings come into view. There is no sign out front. Very few locals even know that these are the worldwide headquarters for O’Neill Wetsuits, LLC. The colorful marketing stunts of the 1970s are gone, but the runaway success of the O’Neill brand in the last 60 years has allowed the company to quietly stay true to Jack’s original vision—making and selling the highest quality wetsuits possible.