The other day, I’m at my local comic book store, and I tell my friend, Mick, that I just got back from visiting Oakley headquarters in California. There’s a U.S. Army soldier standing there waiting to buy some things, and he listens to me talk about how Oakley tests all their eyewear, and how they shoot BBs and drop spikes and all these other crazy things, just to prove that the glasses are safe to wear in a variety of circumstances.
The soldier, I note, is wearing Oakley eyeglasses, but then he says to us:
” I know. The swelling on my face finally just went down after four weeks. Everything but right here was trashed.” (“Right here” was where his sunglasses protected him.)
The first picture isn’t that soldier. It’s another soldier, one Lance Corporal Daniel Picketts. You see, while I was touring the facilities, I tweeted where I was, and I got a message from @PixieStevenson:
@chrisbrogan Oakley sunglasses? Tell them thanks for making shatter-proof, combat sunglasses. My Marine son in Afghanistan wears them.
Pixie later went on to blog about it herself, but here we were again, with a story of how Oakley made a difference to her Marine son.
Design Is In Their Blood
From the moment you arrive at Oakley headquarters, you know things are going to be different. I rolled up with Bryan Elliott, who arranged the tour and a meeting with Pat McIlvain, VP of Global Sports Marketing, as well as with Ken Loh from Oakley’s web team (no idea your real title, Ken). The inside of the place looked a bit like the set of Batman ( see here and here), and everyone we met there was so very passionate about what they do.
When Pat showed us the various types of eyewear and apparel Oakley was making, it was interesting enough, but it wasn’t until later, when I went on a tour, that I started to understand what the quality of their design really meant overall. I appreciated everything I saw in the store, but saying that would be way too surface. It wasn’t until I was educated on the process, and when I saw what went into quality testing these products that things became more clear.
Oakley is Made in the USA
One detail that struck me right away: customer service, manufacturing, shipping, and pretty much everything they do is done right there in Orange County, California. I’m from the world of software. We tend to outsource everything. It was neat to see the entire food chain in one place. During the tour of the quality labs, it was quickly evident why that mattered. Every little change designers make in their products (I saw eyewear being tested) resulted in a battery of grueling tests.
I saw a guy firing steel balls at several pairs of sunglasses, several times in a row, to simulate lens and frame impact. There was a test where they dropped a five pound spike six or so feet onto the glasses to demonstrate that they were shatterproof. (They also showed several competitors’ products and how they fared in the shatter tests. Hint: not very well.)
This goes right back to the start of my post: these glasses don’t just look good, they save your eyes from serious situations.
Oakley Designs Stuff for Movies
Okay, I knew that Oakley equipped athletes and things like that, but I forgot (or didn’t know) that they supplied the eyewear for Cyclops for the X-Men movies. The top pair were what he wore in X-Men 1 and 3, and the bottom pair were what he wore for X-Men 2. How cool is that? Well, if you think it ends there, I’ve got more. (Believe me, this is just geeking out at that point, but it goes with what else I learned about the company.)
Oakley also designed the visors for Snake Eyes in the upcoming GI-Joe movie. Is that not the coolest? If you look in the background, you’ll also recognize the Predator helmet from the movie Predator. Yep, Oakley designers were behind that. It turns out that they’re just as often hanging out in Hollywood as they are in the skate parks and BMX trails, and all the other places they equip athletes. As a geek, it was really cool to see their design ethics move from functional athletic performance gear into fictional superhero stuff. Does your company do that?
Oakley is People-Driven
Pat McIlvain told me that his sales staff sticks around an average of eight years. That’s a pretty decent longevity, given the state of things everywhere, and given the rigorous life of salespeople. It spoke to me of being well cared for, as well as having a lot of opportunity in front of them. When I had lunch in their cafeteria (Thursdays are chicken wrap day, by the way), everyone was happy, full of energy, and really excited. Sure, every day there can’t be amazing and delightful, but folks looked pretty darned excited.
Another point worth mentioning: when I asked Pat what it was like supporting all these various athletic professionals (they sponsor several different professionals in several different sports verticals), Pat mentioned that it was great to be there to give a guy a pat on the back when things didn’t really work out, and double fun to be there to celebrate their victories. He really saw the company as being in the experience with the athletes, and not just suppliers, and it’s clear to me (there was a snowboarding professional visiting when I was there) that their athletes seem to feel the same way back.
In fact, I left there thinking that Oakley was every bit as much in the athlete promotions business as they were in the apparel manufacturing space.
Wrapping it All Up
There are many great companies out there worth exploring. I felt privileged to take a tour of Oakley, and to speak with the people there, and to come away with a sense of what they had been doing for the last three decades. It was exciting seeing how they touched people’s lives, how they participated in various communities, and what their company culture meant to the people I saw there, not to mention the people who love their products.
It got me thinking that there’s lots more to Colin Browning’s American Innovator’s Roadtrip project (part of what we do with New Marketing Labs), and that exploring companies and learning some of the story behind the brands is important and interesting work. I saw firsthand how Oakley touched people’s lives (two soldiers with two different stories), and got to see what went into their products.
It makes me wonder just how much we could stand to learn about some of the remarkable companies that are out there.
What do you think?