Steve O’Connell, the owner of Clairemont Surf Shop in San Diego, is retiring and a party will held in his honor on Saturday.
His son, Danny, who has worked at the store for over 20 years, is taking over the business with help from his wife.
We spoke with Steve and Danny about how Clairemont has been able to stay in business for so long, and also about some of the innovative employee incentives Steve implemented over the years.
Lots of industry executives started their careers at Clairemont, including John Wilson, Jimmy Schulte, Tim Kirkpatrick, Rob Chalfant, Ryan Mangan, Nick Kovack, Yvonne Campbell, Courtney Kincaid, Ryan Quinn, Melanie Quinn, Joel Barrie, and Troy Carniglia.
Steve, can you share how you got started?
Clairemont Surf Owner Steve O’Connell: I grew up in Hawaii. My dad was in the Navy, and he was supposed to get a four-year duty over there, and it got extended to eight years. So, I spent a good portion of my childhood over in Hawaii. And my dad, being a surfer, obviously dragged me into it.
When I moved back to San Diego in 1969, I worked for my brother, who had opened a tropical fish store. And I learned the ropes of business through him.
And then I went to work for Gordon and Smith Surfboards, which was a really big San Diego operation. I worked for them from ’74 to about early ’77, and that’s when I opened my Clairemont store.
My brother and my dad helped finance the opening. We opened on a shoestring. My wife was working at the time, so she kind of financed the early stages.
And we just grew it over time. After the first five years, we actually were turning a little bit of a profit, and the store took off from there.
Why do you think you’ve been able to last this long?
Steve O’Connell: We’ve had great employees. A lot of them have gone on to do really good things in the industry
And obviously, my son, who has worked at the store starting when he was in high school, received a good background in the business. He’s obviously carrying the torch now. It’s worked out really well.
I heard that you have had some very unusual incentives for surf shop employees. Can you talk to me a little bit about what those were? And about your philosophy on how you treat the staff?
Steve O’Connell: We always tried to make them feel a part of it, and have responsibilities. So I think everybody felt like they weren’t just employees, they were actually part of the business.
We tried to do summer bonuses and Christmas bonuses to reward them for their efforts. That brought out the best in their work, because they knew that as the shop went, they were going to be rewarded for that.
And we did start up profit sharing plans for the managers back in the mid-1980’s. Some managers were able to roll it into a nice IRA when they left.
Over time, I think we’ve just tried to reward everybody for good effort.
How did you approach the business during the really good times, and then how did you approach business in the bad times?
Steve O’Connell: Fortunately, through the good times I was smart enough to put some capital aside. I figured the good times couldn’t last forever. So, we always had a little bit of a cushion.
And I set up an equity line through the bank when the times were good, because that’s usually when you can get that sort of thing offered to you. That came in handy, especially during the 2008 recession.
Having the extra reserves got us through the rough times.
What did you love about the business?
Steve O’Connell: Growing up in Hawaii, I have saltwater running through my veins. Once you surf, it never leaves you, it’s always a passion, and I think any surfer would tell you that.
I think when you have a passion for something, and you’re in that business, it hopefully translates into success.
Did you ever dream of having a retail chain?
Steve: No. What I’ve learned is that having one good location is the key. If you can have one really good location, you can put 100% effort into that and make it really work well.
When you’re spread too thin, you have to worry about managerial responsibilities and it gets complicated and stressful.
Danny, why did you want to stay in the business? So many people are pessimistic about retail these days.
Danny O’Connell: The business is still going pretty well for us. I’ve been working there for the past 20 years now. I’m comfortable with the business. We live a pretty simple lifestyle. I have three kids, and my wife. She’s helping out, and the business is healthy enough to pay for our lifestyle and I still enjoy it.
I surf all the time, and making a business out of that lifestyle is pretty appealing to me. As much as it is work, we’re still paying the bills and hopefully there are still enough people that want to support a small, family business.
I’m hoping that we can make it through for the long haul and be one of the few that can succeed in today’s business climate.
Steve, do you have any advice for other retailers?
Steve O’Connell: Treat your employees well, and reward them for good effort.
We also try to offer competitive prices on everything we carry.
Gosh, I don’t think it is rocket science. I think you just need to be nice to people and treat them right.
Danny: I think the people have made a difference. Compared to a lot of other shops, we have very low employee turnover. That goes back to building that relationship with the community, and customers. There’s pretty much always somebody working here who’s been here for several years.
I think the people part of it is what stands out to me as what has definitely made the store successful.
Speaking of the importance of people, we asked a few industry executives about what they learned while working for Steve at Clairemont Surf Shop and why the shop is special.
Stance President John Wilson
“I think Steve’s ability to attract amazing talent over a forty year period of time is one of his best qualities. That’s not an easy thing to do in retail.
“I would attribute that to a combination of things. His compensation strategy has always made people feel as if they had ownership in the business. He would pay better than market wages plus bonuses connected to key holiday periods.
“In addition, the employees that were there for three years or more were able to participate in the pension plan. And three times a year he would host events at his house – a Fourth of July party, Christmas party and an end of the summer barbecue.
“Beyond that, he always makes everyone feel special and part of the family. He’s a great teacher who always takes the time to develop his people and make them better at their craft. He’s mentored so many over the years and his employees have gone on to be teachers, doctors, fire fighters, industry reps, entrepreneurs, shapers, retailers, missionaries and much more.”
Jimmy Shulte, O’Neill and Smith Sales Rep
“Stevo created a special culture. He made every customer feel super welcomed, which wasn’t all that common in the surf shop world at that time. He created an environment of inclusion, rather than exclusion.
“So often people would feel intimidated walking into a surf shop, and learning about boards, wetsuits, and skateboards. Not at Clairemont Surf Shop. He built his shop around the community, and it still shows today, 40 years later. They have some of the most loyal customers in the world, and it is awesome when I am in the store today and I see old familiar faces of customers still walking through the door.
“It is a testament to what he has created, and now passed on to his son, Danny.
“Stevo is also one of the most humble men I know, and his commitment to his family is something we all learned from him, and now apply to our own. He is one of the most core surfers I have ever been around, and to this day, surfs as well as he did 25 years ago.
“He is the reason why a lot of us stayed in this lane. He proved that it is possible to carve out a career doing what you love to do.”
Ryan Mangan, Head of Sales at Hurley
Ryan essentially grew up at the store. He started shopping there when he was five, became a team rider at 12, and started working at the shop at 17. He worked there for seven years, and then left to become a sales rep.
“Steve O is an innovator,” Ryan said. “He created a membership program that keeps customers loyal and a part of the Clairemont Surf Shop family.
“He also created an incredible family environment with a friendly and knowledgeable staff. That’s why Steve O and Clairemont Surf Shop have been part of the fabric of the San Diego Surf community for over 40 years.”
Other Industry Comments
Bob McKnight, Quiksilver
"Steve-O embodied a true surf shop owner. He was honest, hard working and he ran his shop with real integrity. On top of all that, he still surfs almost every day.
"That culture permeated down into his shop crew, where he spawned countless surf industry presidents, sales reps, sales and marketing managers, and other surf shop owners. That is still evident today with Clairemont Surf boasting a very loyal current group of shop employees.
"You can pull up to countless surf spots in San Diego and see Clairemont stickers on the backs of cars and trucks. Steve-O and Clairemont Surf have become one and the same with his customers and the surf community."
Mark Weber, Men's Global Merchandising & Design Vice President
"When I think of Steve O, his rich history and an incredibly long list of accomplishments come immediately to mind.
"But the most remarkable thing about Steve is his unwavering character and how that impacts everyone around him. Rarely do you get the opportunity to spend time with someone who is equal parts passion, humility and kindness.
"He has quietly changed the course of so many lives, and in doing so, impacted the entire industry. He inspires everyone around him to be better, and we're all grateful to have him in our lives!
"While I never actually worked at the shop, Steve O had a significant influence on my career and how I try to model my approach to those around me."