Quiksilver C.E.O. & Co-Founder Bob McKnight Builds An Empire from an Envelope
Maybe it wasn’t a message in a bottle, but it was the next best thing for an entrepreneur sailing the seas of post-college life…
Quiksilver C.E.O. and co-founder Bob McKnight architected an empire from the contents of a manila envelope he received back in 1976. The sender was Torquay, Australia native Alan Green—the original designer of the flagship Quiksilver boardshorts. The addressees were recent USC graduate McKnight and his partner professional surfer Jeff Hakman. The contents were nothing more than one logo patch, a small piece of Velcro, one snap, a piece of fabric, one pair of wax paper pattern sized 32-waist, and a handwritten note reading, “Here you go boys! Good luck to you. Best from your mate, Greenie!’”
“I looked at Jeff like, ‘Are you kidding me?’,” laughs McKnight. “We’d been anxiously checking the mail to get this kit for months. At the time, it didn’t seem like a lot, but it was actually everything we needed. It was the impetus to find these items and start building boardshorts.”
As part of his graduate school program, McKnight had to accrue “real life” business experience. So, his plan was to license the popular boardshorts from Green and sell them stateside with Hakman. By the mid-seventies, the boardshorts had become an underground phenomenon. Every surfer who participated in Torquay surf competitions left with a pair of the handmade custom boardshorts courtesy of Green, and they had popped up in magazines everywhere.
As a fan of the brand, McKnight remained determined to bring it worldwide.
“These guys would be surfing around the world, and pictures of them would come out in magazines,” he recalls. “You could tell the shorts apart from the rest, because they were a different color wide waistband. They also had the big black patch—from the envelope. Everybody knew the shorts from the pictures. It was like modern Instagram.”
With a small investment from a friend, McKnight and Hakman produced the shorts in Orange County, California with the pro surfer even doubling as an ironer—“Could you imagine Tom Brady sewing his own jerseys?” he laughs. “That’s what Jeff did though.”
McKnight and Hakman drove up and down the California coast, building a rapport with local surf shops and selling out each run of boardshorts. As action sports took off in the eighties, Quiksilver found itself at ground zero. Slowly but surely, the brand infiltrated the mainstream during the era most noticeably with Mel Gibson rocking a Quiksilver jacket purchased from a local surf shop in L.A. while shooting Lethal Weapon.
“It was hardcore product, hardcore distribution, and a hardcore customer,” McKnight goes on. “It was a perfect alignment. Once we incubated all of the surf shops, we became famous in that world. Action sports started growing five years later. All of a sudden, there were was a legit growing ASP Professional Surfing Tour, an industry Association (SIMA), and trade shows. The whole thing got going on our watch. It’s fascinating. That catches up to where we first started.”
Today, Quiksilver remains one of the most ubiquitous, undeniable, and unique brands in the world. Comprised of subsidiaries Roxy and DC Shoes, its influence can be felt in nearly every corner of apparel and the world for that matter.
However, it all started with that manila envelope. It’s proof that good things come in small packages.
These days, not only is McKnight still actively involved in Quiksilver, but he’s also an investor in Opkix and a trusted advisor, of course. Although he still hasn’t graduated business school…