Jeff Kelley has had a number of careers, and each one began with surfing.
Kelley, the creative head and founder of the Sanuk brand, grew up in surfing epicenter Huntington Beach, Calif.
“When I was younger, my parents would take me to the beach and we’d ride those inflatable rafts. There’s something about riding a wave,” he said. “In seventh grade, I started surfing. There’s not too many things I can compare it to. Surfing helps you to be present in that moment. That’s why it’s so magical.”
Kelley’s hobby turned into something more in the mid-1980s. A new pour-on finish for surf boards had started to replace waxing, but the abrasive finish on the board irritated his skin. Frustrated, the lifelong tinkerer started exploring alternatives, eventually hitting on an EVA compound that surfers could stick on the board.
This led to his first business, Trax-Top, which he launched thanks to connections made through friend and pro surfer Peter Townend. “I had just gotten my real estate license, then I came up with this idea, so I ran it past him,” recalled Kelley. “He said, ‘You can always go back and practice real estate.’”
In 1991, Kelley sold Trax-Top, later known as Grip-Dek, to Reef for an equity stake and joined the team as head of sales and marketing, a position he held until 1996, when he decided to strike out on his own. After Kelley took a year off to travel and surf with his family, he mortgaged his house to start Sanuk.
“I just had the feeling I needed to move on, do something on my own again. I’m an entrepreneur who has ideas running through my head all the time,” he said.
Sanuk, founded in 1997, started with quirky product with fun back stories, and the brand quickly developed a passionate fanbase not only with surf shops but with climbers, outdoor enthusiasts, mall retailers and boutiques. It also caught the attention of Deckers Outdoor Corp. In May 2011, the Goleta, Calif.-based firm acquired Sanuk for roughly $120 million, retaining Kelley as creative director.
Surfing even indirectly inspired Sanuk’s signature product, the slipper-like Sidewalk Surfer style.
“Seven or eight years ago, when my office was in Cardiff-by-the-Sea, Calif., I used to run down the stairs near our office to the beach,” Kelley said. “After I went surfing, I’d run back up barefoot. I realized that sandals are much more flexible and have a closer feel to being barefoot [than regular shoes]. I headed to the factory two weeks later.”
That influence has remained even as Sanuk has grown and expanded its product line and distribution.
“The surfing world will always be the meter I [use to] gauge things,” Kelley said. “But [Sanuk] is so much more than that now. I don’t want to pigeonhole us into being just a surf brand.”
Recently, Kelley has had to cut back on the board time since tearing his Achilles tendon earlier in the spring. And though he’s still in recovery, his friends help him paddle out. “The water’s warm, and there are dolphins out there,” he said.