Have you ever wondered who the people are who are making the real shit happen when it comes to producing blading products? I’m not talking about your mate's clothing company …or the pro-skate which claims it’s "designed by [insert pro skater's name]". There are some hidden faces in our industry who have risked it all by putting in thousands of Dollars, even more work hours and in some cases a creative genius to bring you innovative products. Some names spring to mind when I think of the faceless heroes of product development; Mattias Knoll (Powerslide), Sebastien Laffarge (Seba), Pieter Wijnant (Adapt), Mike Powell (K2), Kenneth Dedeu (Powerslide), more recently Xavier Raimbault (Trigger), even Tom Hyser (Rollerblade)… but none more than the ultimate blade industry mogul Andy Wegener.
Andy’s reputation precedes him. Not afraid to invest and even less afraid to party. It’s fair to say he’s allowed more skaters’ the opportunity to make a living out of pro-blading than anyone. Ironically at times, at the cost of disrespect from a cut-throat participant-base largely obsessed with ‘skater-run’. His main creations; Razors skates and Ground Control frames (under the Sunshine Distribution umbrella). They are both the number one selling brands in their fields (by quite a long way as far as I can make out) and Razors have surely sold more numbers than any other aggressive skate brand in the history of the sport. For good reason too. The business model is as solid as the skates themselves: Make a product that works well and keep producing it.
For a brand with such kudos, I've often been curious about its unsung history. In actuality, Andy may not be the man in a suit you speculated him to be. I managed to pin him down and put some questions to him so you can make your own mind up:
Interview by Jake Eley
Photos by Geoff Acres, Laura Hemming, Jonathan Thorpe & Jake Eley.
How old are you?
I feel a lot younger than I actually am, but I prefer not to talk about it.
You are fully German but living in California? Is that correct? How long for now?
Yes. I started my business and lived in Germany until 1994. That year I opened a branch in the US, went back and forth between the two countries for the next five years until I permanently moved to California in 1999.
What’s the history behind Razors skates? Could you tell us when it started, how it started and any other interesting info about the story of Razors?
I started my business during college in 1982 when I met a friend through hang gliding who manufactured windsurfing parts, which was my other big hobby at that time. He allowed me to distribute his products and I expanded the business into the distribution of brands from the US and Hawaii (I became the distributor of Da Kine for Germany at that time). Eventually, I started developing my own parts under the Sunshine name. The brand became so popular that all sudden T-shirts and other fan items were the best selling products and Sunshine evolved into a fairly big clothing company. In 1988 I got into snowboarding and mountain biking and started making clothing for these sports too. During a visit to San Diego in the spring of 1989 I ran into rollerblades and got so excited that I decided to bring these to Germany. I realized that most boots were made in Europe by ice skating manufacturers, frames were available on the open market in Taiwan and I already did business with Kryptonics wheels. So I decided to create my own brand and a few months later I was the first company to introduce inline skates at the ISPO trade show in Munich. However, as recreational skate business got very competitive I soon decided to focus on aggressive skates and opened an office in the US.
What other companies do you own or part-own in Rollerblading? …and which companies have you part-owned in the past? What’s your share in each of those companies?
I own GC and half of Jug and Remz.
What other companies do you own outside of rollerblading?
Elyts Footwear, AO Scooters, and Titen bearings.
Have you ever kept your involvement in a product secret? A silent partner if you will?
No. I’m a straight forward guy and I think hiding this is shady business.
How much of your time, percentage-wise, is dedicated to rollerblading products/industry?
I have very good people working for me around the world who are all enthusiastic bladers and are holding it down for blading. They are taking care of marketing and social media which allows me to focus more on new projects. But I’m still involved, do product development, purchasing, and the pro team. Many of my best friends are bladers and I enjoy hanging out with them and attending events. I probably dedicate 40 % of my time to blading.
Are you involved in the creative process behind the development of products or do you have a team creating for you? (name names if you can). For example, what was the development process behind the SL skate or the Big frame? Who is behind the scenes working on that?
Product development is actually a big community effort. My job is to listen and to put the bits and pieces together. This is a crucial point and one of the reasons I moved to Cali as it’s important that I have a close relationship to my riders so that they are not afraid to tell me everything. I need to hear what’s wrong with our products and what can be improved. I consider claims as gifts as I can incorporate the fix in the next product - which will be a new sales feature in the next new skate. I also get a lot of feedback from sales reps and quite a bit from retailers. The inspiration for the SL skate actually came from the Xsjado skate as riders told me (might have been Damien) that they love the direct feeling and close touch to the ground. That made sense and I tried to figure out a way to reduce a traditional skate to only one layer too. That was probably one of my biggest challenges as it was impossible to predict if the tongue and groove system of the SL boot would be strong and sturdy enough to withstand the forces in skating. It did and the riders love the way the SL skates (as expected).
We were already working on making frames for 80 mm wheels but then Glowicki told me that 72 mm would be the way to go as we might still be able to incorporate a decent center groove. I got my CAD designer on it and a few days later he came up with the solution. My CAD designer is actually the one who makes my life easy. He is really good with lines, has all products and dimensions on file and all I have to tell him is what I want to change and he does the rest.
Would you like to comment on the current position of the rollerblading industry? How have you adapted to changes in demand over the years and more interestingly what are you doing currently to make the best of the industry?
The blading industry is currently not in good shape. The problem is we barely have new kids coming into the sport and the ones that are left are skating less and have less disposable income as they got jobs, their own place, and starting families. They are not buying every new skate and are not getting $300 Christmas gifts from their parents anymore. The effect is that no one is making money in blading and companies have almost no budget for marketing and riders left. Pretty much everybody has to take on a main job to make a living. Even we had to get into another business (scooters) which helps us pay our overheads and stay in blading.
I’m still positive about skating. The last boom was over 20 years ago and today’s 20-year olds don’t know anything about inline. Rollerblading is too much fun for it not to come back. If you ever skated with 80mm wheels you know what an amazing feeling and experience it is. But just like in the mid-nineties when blading was at its peak and everybody skated, it will come back through recreational skating. Kids got into it through their parents but got bored fast and wanted to do more -- and invented aggressive skating.
What do you like about the rollerblading industry?
I love watching it as I’ve been an action sports athlete all my life (hang gliding, windsurfing, snowboarding, mountain biking) and I feel very connected to my riders, shops, distributors and many of them are my best friends. Another positive is that wherever you travel you meet likeminded people, have a great time and never feel like a tourist.
Is there anything you dislike about the industry?
Some people are too narrow-minded and only want to do their own thing. Also what I don’t understand is why pants and music style is more important for some riders than the actual performance and quality of a skate when it comes to picking a skate.
Sometimes skaters will pass comment about the people at the top who are essentially financing the industry, like yourself, as if you are the head of a massive corporation or a fat cat. It’s sometimes implied that those people are less deserving of success than an active skater. After everything you have done for the industry do you hold any resentment for that?
Hahaha, massive corporation! Sunshine only has 3 employees plus me.
No, I’m not holding any resentment. This reaction is fairly common, especially if people never met or talked to me. Once they get to know me they usually change their view 180 degrees, many of them even apologize. Time is on my side and I keep doing my thing: treat people how I want to be treated.
I’ve heard various rumors over the years involving Razor SCOOTERS and Razors SKATES and a dispute and legal settlement between the two companies? Any truth in that?
Yes. It was a bit of an awkward situation as everybody thought that we are the company making scooters. I at first tolerated it but once they got into skateboards and their logo resembled ours more and more, I told them they can’t do that. I eventually sold them the rights to the Razor name for anything but inline skates which means that I would never be able to sell scooters or skateboards under the Razors name. Not that I ever would want (I never quite understood why Rollerblade started selling skateboards under their name instead of creating a new brand).
People are forever speculating which skate companies have sued which skate companies over the years in relation to certain patented designs (usually back in the late nineties). Can you set everybody straight? Have any of your companies ever attempted to sue another company or had another company attempt to sue you?
K2 went after us and other companies regarding their H-block patent and I think them and Salomon were fighting quite a bit. But none of the current players ever sued anybody. This is just not cool and every company has too much pride and respect to not to copy each other too blatantly. At the end of the day, each company has to have a distinctive product.
A few years back Razors and Ground Control’s marketing had a very Hip Hop style image. Now it seems to have taken a turn into something a bit more neutral or even a bit more grunge. Was that a strategic marketing decision or just a natural evolution?
I originally thought my job was to make the best skates and frames possible. Only much later I realized that I also had to pay attention to the pant size and music my riders were into. For a long time it was fairly balanced, but once Shima and Elliott left and started Nimh the rock n roll side took a hit and the balance shifted towards hip hop. I never wanted to get pushed into either one direction and started to correct course again.
Where’s Brian Aragon?
He’s in Denver, CO and making a career in sales. Brian is a smart guy, comes from a good family and went to college. He realized, and we talked openly about it, that he would not be able to make anywhere close as much in blading as what he could earn elsewhere with his degree. But he did it right: he lived his life to the fullest, skated and partied hard, travelled the world like no other and most importantly never lost sight that there will be life after skating. We had and still have a great relationship, I helped him and he helped me. I only wished he would have filmed an edit for his last skate. But I do understand that his career was already taking off, he got promoted and didn’t want to risk getting hurt.
You have individuals managing your ‘teams’ for each brand and bringing their own marketing/promotional spin? I noticed that Keaton Newsome seemed to be involved a lot with Ground Control more recently. How does that set-up work? Do you just leave those skaters to their own devices or do you sometimes have to assert your authority and make sure the marketing is in line with the way you want it?
Geoff Acers runs the team for Razors, Kato for Remz and Keaton is in charge of marketing and the team for GC. I’m helping out with the worldwide team as I’m familiar with most international markets. For Razors, it’s the team that makes the decision as any new rider has to fit into the family and his skating has to be on their level. The team riders are my best consultants and I’m more than happy to follow their recommendations.
I would never use my authority to force someone onto the team. If I sense a team manager has doubts about a rider that I feel strongly about I rather fly him e. g. to Europe so that he gets to know him. If he sees him skating in person that usually takes care of it.
Have you got any new products in development you’d like to talk about or hint at? Have you got a plan for the direction you are heading?
I’m actually working on a whole new skate. If it works it will be pretty revolutionary. But just like with the SL, I don’t know if it works and can’t talk about it yet.
I'd like to extend my thanks to Andy for taking the time... and for making skates that don't destroy my ankles. JE