If you want to teach your kid about life and how to be successful, you may want to buy them a skateboard so they can join the other 6.63 million people in the U.S. that enjoy the sport.
Comedian Jerry Seinfeld once observed, “To learn to do a skateboard trick, many times you’ve got to get something wrong until you get it right. And you hurt yourself. You learn to do that trick, now you got a life lesson. Whenever I see those skateboard kids, I think, Those kids will be all right.”
Seinfeld may be on to something. The UBS/PwC 2015 Billionaire Report released Tuesday identifies three common patterns among the most successful people in the world, one of which is the ability to see failure as a necessary step toward success—just like in skateboarding.
Gregg Chapman understands firsthand. He’s the founder and president of Chapman Skateboards, a Deer Park, New York, company that has been producing American-made skateboards since 1991. Today it employs 25 people and racks up more than $1 million in sales.
“It’s something that you just can’t download and take, you know? You’ve got to kind of bleed for it a little bit,” said Chapman.
And Chapman has bled—not just at the skate park learning tricks but fighting to keep his company competitive in an industry that has seen so much production move to Mexico and China.
“We’ve fought so hard to combat, you know, losing so much to the offshore manufacturers and Mexico that … the passion is really what keeps you going.”
Chapman launched his eponymous skateboard company out of a passion for the sport and a little bit of paranoia. He grew up on Long Island and was part of the East Coast skateboarding scene when most of the industry was based in California. At the time, there was a fierce East Coast vs. West Coast rivalry among skaters.
As Chapman’s East Coast friends started competing on a national level, he noticed the boards they were ordering from the West Coast were arriving late or with imperfections. “I thought they were getting sabotaged,” Chapman said.
So Chapman started making wood boards for his friends out of a two-car garage in Bay Shore, Long Island. The company grew organically until Chapman hooked up with New York City upstart Zoo York. As Zoo York became a major player in the skateboarding industry, Chapman, who made all of their boards, grew as well.
Pretty soon, most of the East Coast skate brands, like Supreme and Shut, were getting their boards from Chapman. At the height of their production, in 2000, Chapman was making 10,000 boards a month. Then the industry started to change.
Brands like Zoo York were bought by publicly traded corporations such as ICONIX. The sport and industry that was created in America had started outsourcing most of its production.
“Most of the established skateboard factories in southern California, such as PS Stix and Bareback, kind of unplugged and moved to Mexico for that labor environment. And a lot of the biggest marketing companies that were utilizing these huge skateboard factories that evolved over the years basically broke rank and went offshore.”
Chapman said that when one of his biggest accounts was moving everything to China, he jumped on a plane to see what he was up against. After being courted by agents who showed him factories where he could make the same boards and net bigger margins, Chapman thought about the family business he built at home.
“If you start doing the math, you know, it’s just this big number. But for me, Chapman’s my name. It’s my family. It’s this legacy. And that means more to me than a few extra bucks.”
That’s when Chapman pulled off a new trick—he couldn’t compete with the cheap labor of China or Mexico, but he did have the benefit of being close to the most important natural resource: the wood to make the boards. Chapman opened a second factory, in Oxford, Maine, right in the middle of the forest.
But Chapman seems to compete more with himself than a foreign factory. As he explained, it’s really pushed him to go for it. “No one’s going to stop me,” he said.
Today, Chapman is making less boards than he used to but says his are the best you can buy and all of them have a mark of distinction that he’s very proud of: a “Made in the U.S.A.” sticker.
“I feel it’s really important for people to be conscious of what they’re investing in. It’s not just the skateboard. It’s the people behind the skateboard. When you put that purchase outside of our country, it’s probably unlikely that the money’s going to make it back to your community.”
This is why Jerry Seinfeld doesn’t worry about guys like Gregg Chapman. Just as he realized when learning to skate, Chapman’s business is a constant learning process, and he keeps pushing himself to learn new tricks and never settles for mediocrity.
“Not everybody gets to do something that they’re passionate about for a living. So for me, you know—making a living doing something that you’re passionate about would be the greatest trick you ever landed.”