Bill Sigler, BE '88, has a business degree and years of corporate marketing and sales experience. But, when he really wants to gauge the appeal of his company's line of active wear, he heads to the marketplace-the pristine sands of Manhattan Beach, Calif., about two minutes from his office.
"When we design new products," says Sigler, cofounder, president and CEO of SMACK Authentic Sportswear, "we take them down to the beach. We let people try them on and test them out."
It's only fitting that the beach would serve as the laboratory for SMACK Sportswear, a casual clothing line, inspired by the active lifestyle of Southern California, now available in specialty shops and department stores across the country. In fact, it was the lure of the beach that convinced Sigler, an avid volleyball player, to leave his corporate job at ICI Americas in Wilmington, Del., and move west in 1990. Although he had a place to stay with his mom in Agoura, just east of Malibu, Sigler came to California seeking a new adventure, without a job or any specific career plans.
"One of the philosophies I live by is that you regret the things you didn't do more than the things you do," he says.
His gamble has paid off. After working in medical equipment sales for a few years, Sigler started SMACK with two partners as a side business in 1994. As the company grew steadily, Sigler was able to buy out his partners and develop a full line of clothing, backed by an ad campaign featuring professional volleyball players. He currently has six full-time employees, and 1998 sales are projected at $750,000.
"Starting a clothing company is about as risky as you can get; however, if you don't take risks you may never find happiness," Sigler says. " I would never have imagined that I would be designing clothes for a living. I find it to be sort of an art form and very self-fulfilling. The company still has a long way to go before we start rolling in dough, but it's great to know that people all over the world like what we are doing and want to wear our clothes. In the meantime, I am free, happy and on the beach in Southern California. It doesn't get any better than this."
For Sigler, it all started when he and an actor friend couldn't find a particular type of nylon hat with a flip-up brim to wear while playing volleyball. So, they decided to have a few dozen made to give out to friends. From these modest beginnings, SMACK was born. ("SMACK is beach lingo for talking trash," Sigler explains.)
At the time, Sigler was running a medical equipment company as his full-time gig. "I never looked at myself as a clothing designer," he recalls. "That was not my goal. I've always been an analytical person, not a creative one."
Sigler says he began to see the potential for SMACK in 1995 when a top agent for beach volleyball players approached him about setting up an endorsement deal. The company began to work with Jose Loiola, a Brazilian who had been named Rookie of the Year. As Loiola started wearing SMACK clothing to tournaments, the company gained important TV exposure, and Sigler began to rethink his goals.
"This was a pretty dynamic period," he says. "All of a sudden, things changed. I looked at making SMACK into an internationally known brand of clothing, whereas my two partners wanted to keep it a local company."
By 1996, Sigler had taken some bold steps. He bought out his partners and sold 20 percent of the company (investors included three fraternity brothers from Sigma Nu), raising $100,000. This new capital helped him to refine and expand the product line to include shorts, shirts and bathing suits, with a distinctive California look. Design elements include South Pacific-style prints, with hibiscus flowers, hula girls and palm trees, as well as colors in shades of sand and ocean blue.
"In the actual physical design, they're not that unique across the whole spectrum of active beachwear because it's tough to recreate the wheel," Sigler notes. "We do certain things differently to try to tweak it according to what we like, such as making the leg holes bigger to allow better freedom of movement."
Around this time, SMACK also began to hire independent sales representatives and increase its advertising budget. And, Sigler began to recruit pro volleyball players to endorse his products, including Albert Hanneman, a rising star on the circuit and a professional model. That year, sales hit $200,000.
The focus last year was on distribution-getting the line into new retail markets beyond typical surf or beachwear outlets. "Having the clothes in stores is the best form of advertising," Sigler says.
Two key elements helped pave the way for SMACK's entry into high-end sporting goods and specialty store chains, such as the Sport Chalet and the Spike Nashbar catalog. The company further expanded the line to include casual wear for after the beach, including pants and long-sleeve pullovers, but still with a Southern California flavor. When a major competitor went out of business, retail stores began looking for a new line to fill the niche. SMACK ended the year with more than $400,000 in sales and a new motivation for success.
For 1998, Sigler projects that sales, propelled by a new campaign, "So Cal Soul," will nearly double. "We're trying to create more than clothing," he says. "We're trying to export a lifestyle, and allow others to experience what we're experiencing here. With the help of our website <www.smacksportswear.com>, we are now exporting this lifestyle to people all over the world."
Sigler says he is thrilled with his business success, but he doesn't want to forget what drew him to California in the first place: He gives a percentage of profits to local environmental organizations, like Heal the Bay and the Surf Rider Foundation, and he makes sure he finds time to enjoy the outdoors. On Friday afternoons, for example, he might lead his employees down to the beach for some volleyball or surfing.
Of course, while there, he can't help but check out what people are wearing. Most days, he's pretty happy with what he sees.
-Robert DiGiacomo, AS '88