Core Careers: Big Tony Alvarez
Big Tony Alvarez, most recently Volcom’s Global VP of Supply Chain and Responsible Manufacturing, has one of those classic action sports careers that started in the warehouse and ended up in the senior management ranks.
His career experiences, however, have been even more varied and diverse than most. They include providing security on an early professional surf tour, learning the ropes in production from the ground up, getting a master’s degree in supply chain management, becoming one of the industry’s leading experts on sustainability, and teaching women in extremely remote villages in India skills to empower them to improve their lives.
Big Tony ended up at Volcom, where he worked for 19 years until his job was eliminated during the COVID-19 crisis.
When we heard we had left the company, we reached out to find out more about his path in the industry and what he plans to do next.
We also asked Big Tony what he thinks of the state of the industry, and how he would change it if he could.
In your early years in the industry, you worked at Billabong. What did you do there?
Big Tony: I started in the warehouse pulling orders and stocking shelves just like everyone else. I met my first real mentor in the industry then, Mark Machado, who was in charge of wetsuits and accessories.
He asked if I was interested in becoming his assistant. I wasn’t sure what it entailed, so I requested a meeting with the production guru Joe Knoernschild and asked him what my options were within the company.
Joe K. told me there were three things you could do in the company at that time. One, was in sales and marketing. Those employees made the most money and had the most fun, but they had to ride the wave of the economy being up or down.
The second was in product design. The people were fun, too, but had their bubble and their longevity for designing into a specific demographic wasn’t that long.
The third was production, which was considered the bastard child because it was always production’s fault when things were wrong, the quality was poor, or product was late.
However, if you were a good production person you could have a long and prosperous career, because you knew how the product was made and where to make it.
Based on this, I took the position with Mark in wetsuits and accessories and learned the business!
I moved to Hurley after Bob Hurley gave up the U.S. Billabong license and started his own brand, and then worked at C&C Traders, which held the master licenses for Rusty, Redsand and Sanuk.
How did you end up at Volcom?
Big Tony: I came on board officially in 2001 but had been affiliated with the brand since 1993 doing security for their various parties and events.
This is around the time that my relationships with Richard “Wooly” Woolcott, Jason “JDog” Steris, Troy Eckert, and Ryan Immegart began – that’s 27 years ago.
I ended up there as an employee after getting a call from John Fearnley, Volcom’s Senior Director and eventually VP of Production and Design. John asked me to come over as the Production Manager for Accessories and Footwear. John and I worked together there for 13 years. We remain very close friends to this day and I appreciate his friendship greatly.
What jobs did you have along the way during your career at Volcom? What was your favorite job?
Big Tony: I was promoted over time to Director then Senior Director of Accessories, Footwear & Sourcing, and eventually became Global VP of Supply Chain & Responsible Manufacturing.
One of my favorite roles was when I was in production and compliance between the period of 2001-2010. Jason “Slims” Graham and I worked hand-in-hand on the accessories and footwear program and ran a tight ship. We were a great team and had the same vision, passion and work ethic and were fortunate to have teams surrounding us that followed suit.
It wasn’t out of the ordinary to find us working well into the night there, not because we were behind, but because we had the attitude of “whatever it takes,” “it’s for the brand,” and “it’s our brand.”
Another favorite time was co-founding the Compliance Program in 2008 with Diana Braden. I took that program over in 2011 after receiving my master’s degree in supply chain management. Diana guided me towards this as she had recently received a master’s and we were both lucky enough to have Volcom pay for us to go back to school.
The compliance program officially became the P.A.S.S. (Product and Social Safety Program) and has maintained the mantra of “protect the brand/protect the STONE” ever since. I hope it stays that way!
What are some of your best memories at Volcom?
Big Tony: Definitely working with Jason Graham as mentioned above. I would go to battle with him at my side any day of the week.
Another would have to be during the 2012 and 2013 Volcom Fiji Pro years. Those two years saw some of the biggest surf ever ridden and documented at Cloudbreak and was coined “the best surf contest ever” by many. It was a logistical nightmare, but the interaction with our global teams and our Tavarua family and the Fijian people was so special, it is forever engrained in my memory as some of the best times in my life.
I was the Boat Marshall during the events, and my office was a 50-foot Super Cat that had me positioned front and center to watch the best CT and Big Wave surfers in the world.
Finally, it would be my work with the Fair Labor Association (FLA) and Cotton Connect from 2014-2020.
Volcom had the opportunity to become an affiliated member of the Fair Labor Association through the urging of Kering, our previous parent company. It was a long and arduous process for my team and me, but after 3.5 years Volcom became the first boardsports company to be voted in as an accredited member of the FLA. This was a milestone and opened the door for us to take the brand into a whole other direction and to make actual change in people’s lives through our organic cotton program in India, Farm to Yarn.
We were able to help fund a Farmer Business School which assisted the cotton farmers with instruction in better business practices, more sustainable farming methods and smart banking and transparency. These farmers were constantly being taken advantage of until this program was put into place.
At the same time, we created a Women’s Empowerment Program that was an expansion of an original Kering program. This program brought the women in these rural villages, deep in Central India, out of the cotton fields and into this setting where they were taught basic skills in different areas to help them provide better lives for their families.
Helping people that want to be helped, and want opportunity in life without entitlement, who are willing to work their asses off for it, fills my cup and they will always have my respect and support.
How would you describe the state of the industry right now?
Big Tony: Completely upside down!
Aside from the current situation and the COVID-19 pandemic devastation, I feel the industry lost its way and has been sailing with a broken compass since the 2008 financial crisis.
During this time, we saw a large influx of outside industry people and groups start to circle the waters like sharks circling weaker prey in the food chain. These groups bought up companies and completely changed the mindset of the industry, making us think that the core retailer was done, and we needed to focus elsewhere to expand business or even remain in business.
This brought a major identity loss to the industry to the point where we are still seeing brands trying to be something completely different from what they were founded on.
If you could wave a magic wand, what would you like to see happen in the industry?
Big Tony: More and more, I’m seeing and hearing, “buy local, support local, support small business.” I believe that it’s these mantras that are being driven by core consumers and businesses that feel they have been left behind or overrun by larger business models that have been catering to everyone but them.
I would like nothing more than to see our industry regroup, resize, get healthy and focus on stronger business models.
Prior to the COVID pandemic, most brands have lacked the strategic planning needed to be prepared for a crisis of any kind and or have leveraged themselves to the point where they were unable to maintain their business and people during a downturn.
Many have used the COVID-19 situation to reduce head counts at alarming levels. This is evident by the amount of people across the industry that are now out of work and collecting unemployment!
I see a handful of brands that are holding strong and sticking to their beliefs of who they are and what they stand for, while maintaining their mission statement and foundations. I like that!
I don’t know if that’s possible for everyone but do know that there is a great deal that can be learned from the outdoor industry in some of their approaches to how they do business.
If I could change anything in our industry, it would be to get our people back to work or find them new jobs so they are able to continue their careers as they choose.
What would you like to do next?
Big Tony: Luckily, I’m doing most of it now.
I’ve gone into a semi-retired model that will allow me to surf way more, spend more time on my boat in remote locations looking for surf, spend more time with my wife and spend much more time in Fiji once things open back up.
I’m working on a private cattle ranch on the Central Coast doing security and safety. That is allowing me to work outdoors again which is refreshing. I’ve spent a great deal of time up there over the years surfing and boating, and it’s a place I see myself for the long term.
Also, I’m focusing on my security and firearms training business that I have maintained for over 30 years. These have always been more of a side hustle, passion type projects that I have never let go of. Thankfully, these businesses have allowed me to be in the position that I am.
There have been inquiries from some regarding potential consulting projects for brands around sourcing, sustainability and social responsibility. This, along with my continued lecturing opportunities assisting brands in making the right decisions for manufacturing responsibly, would be something I may do in the future. For now, I’m where I want to be!
Thanks, my friends, and remember, always KNOW YOUR ROOTZ!!!