“It was incredibly dangerous,” Robbie Meistrell laughed. “But back then, people didn’t really understand just how dangerous it was.”
Bob and Bill went on to open Dive n’ Surf, a retail store in Redondo Beach in Southern California, where they developed the first functional wetsuit and helped their partner Bev Morgan develop of the first recreational dive manual in early 1953. In the early 1960s, they designed a wetsuit specifically for surfing they named the Body Glove, which inspired them to found the Body Glove company and sell all their wetsuits under that brand name.
In 1990, the twins were inducted into the Scuba Diving Hall of Fame and have been recognized in a number of diving, surfing, and watersports halls of fame, but Meistrell said his father and uncle weren’t overly ambitious.
“This company has always been about the lifestyle,” he said. “My father and uncle were pioneers in diving and surfing because they loved the sports and they loved the ocean, and that love has always come first at Body Glove.”
Meistrell said he grew up spending every other week of the summer sailing out to Catalina Island to dive or surfing in Redondo Bay. As he, his two brothers, and their two cousins grew, they got the chance to dive and surf all over the world. When he graduated high school in the 1970s, he spent almost a year backpacking around the world surfing on his own.
The Meistrell family still owns 95% of Body Glove; the last 5% is owned by long-time family friend and company president Russ Lesser. And although Meistrell and his team have received numerous offers to buy the company, they’ve always turned them down.
“My dad used to say he didn’t go to work, he went to play,” he said. “We love what we do, and we think the hard-working but casual atmosphere we have here, and our very laid back, non-corporate attitude, is exactly the way a watersports brand should be operated.”
Protect the core
Meistrell attributes much of Body Glove’s success to its culture, saying from the beginning the company has operated on a tight budget. All of its money was invested year after year into its products and furthering the sports they are used for, making guerilla marketing the name of the game.
“We’ve put more bumper stickers on cars than anyone else,” he said, adding that the company spent most of its marketing budget in the 1980s financing the Professional Surfing Association of America tour, which was sponsored by Budweiser and broadcast nationally for nine years.
For 2012, Body Glove’s big promotion centers around a foam or blown-up black hand featuring the company’s signature yellow bones. Surfers and divers that take a picture of themselves wearing the hand can send the photo to the company get a chance to win an ultimate surfing and diving trip to Hawaii. It’s all about the sport, Meistrell reiterated.
Body Glove has routinely been listed in the top 50 list of most recognizable sporting good brands, beating out companies 10 times its size. That recognition began in earnest in 1985, when the company launched its licensing arm after starting the decade’s obsession with neon colors, especially bathing suits. Back then, the company was making less than $2 million in global sales, but six years later, it was making $80 million in sales, almost exclusively in the US market.
“Licensing catapulted us into the mainstream, and though that growth was challenging to cope with, it’s allowed us to reach watersports enthusiasts all over the world with our great products,” said Meistrell.
Body Glove continues to manage its growth through very careful marketing of its brand; Meistrell said the company tag line, Protect the Core, applies to he and his team’s process of evaluating all potential licensees: does this licensing project protect and enhance our core values and strengths?
One of the biggest marketing tools Body Glove uses today is its entertainment department, which has so far produced three feature-length films. The films, which are produced inhouse, follow the company’s sponsored athletes on watersports adventures around the world, highlighting not just the hardcore tricks and adventures they have, but also interviewing them about the experiences and their love of the sports. Meistrell said the films are devoted to Body Glove’s core consumers, who are passionate lovers of the ocean and watersports.
Keep oceans blue
Body Glove’s success shows no signs of slowing, thanks to its rich culture and careful planning. Besides its dominance in the surfing and diving sectors, the company is very active in the whitewater, kayaking, windsurfing, and wakeboarding sectors as well. It’s growing fast in Asia, where it began to grow a chain of 106 retail stores in Thailand in 1985. In the next few years, Meistrell expects to open offices in China and India to complement its footprint in Japan, Thailand, and Malaysia.
This year, the company is relaunching its European presence, and Meistrell’s cousin Bill is attending an event in Dubai that the team plans to use as a kick off for a Middle Eastern division.
But protecting the environment watersports enthusiasts like the Meistrell’s enjoy so much important is as protecting its core culture and brand through all this growth.
“We had a campaign back in the 1960’s where we created a bumper sticker that said Keep Our Oceans Blue,” said Meistrell. “We held the first beach and harbor clean ups in Redondo Bay, too. We love the ocean, and we want to protect it for future generations to enjoy.”
That’s why Body Glove launched its Eco line of “smarter, greener, cleaner” watersports products. It created one of the first wetsuits that’s not made out of neoprene, but of a corn-based product and is biodegradable. According to the company’s website, its aim is to incorporate as much renewable, recycled, sustainable, and organic materials into its products while maintaining exceptional performance standards.
The company also continues to support local and international environmental organizations like Reef check, the Surfrider Foundation, and Heal the Bay.
“My dad and uncle founded Body Glove because of their love of the ocean, and giving back and working to protect that will always be a part of our mission,” Meistrell said.