Michael Tomson Passes Away
Michael Tomson, the co-founder of Gotcha and former professional surfer who was one of most creative marketers and designers in the industry, passed away Thursday after a battle with throat cancer. He was 66.
Michael and partner Joel Cooper, a friend from college in Durban, South Africa, started Gotcha out of a small house in Laguna in 1978 using the garage as a warehouse. Michael handled design and marketing while Joel ran the back end.
They went from zero to $120 million in revenue in seven years, Michael told SES in previous interviews, and created some ground-breaking styles, marketing and product categories for surf clothes in the process.
Gotcha was the first to sell long, Madras walk shorts. It introduced denim and jackets to the surf market. It ditched the typical advertising campaign showing a guy surfing for more creative images. It was also one of the first to expand its distribution beyond the core and into department stores around the country. All this happened before the rise of PacSun.
The company grew too fast for Michael and Joel, who remained best friends throughout Michael’s life, to keep up. The aggressive sales force sold into accounts that hurt the brand later, Michael once told SES. While the company eventually reached about $150 million in sales, it lost its way in the 1990s after the recession and outside investors got involved.
Many industry executives honed their craft at Gotcha, including Mark Price, Paul Naude, Shaheen Sadeghi, Kelly Gibson, and Nick Bower. Joel and Michael sold the company in 1997.
Michael, who battled personal demons, was an original thinker and incisive observer of the industry. He believed the industry has lost its way by growing too big and playing it too safe. Michael coined the phrase “size is the enemy of cool,” which has been used by many over the years to describe the industry’s struggles.
It drove him crazy that industry companies no longer took fashion risks.
Everybody copies everyone else, Michael told SES in an interview, and each season brands offer slight tweaks to last season’s styles instead of breaking out in a new direction.
“It’s rear view mirror,” he said. “They’ve got to take chances. Throw it out there. Run the risk of looking silly. For each one that’s a dud, two will hit.”
For the publication of the book “Going Big: Gotcha and the Evolution of Modern Surf Style,” I asked Michael about the business lessons he learned during the Gotcha era.
Take chances: “The bottom line is we created a culture at Gotcha, a culture of adventure and experimentation. We took chances and we made good on them. We were not afraid.”
The price issue: “Somebody will always beat your price and only one brand can be the cheapest, the rest compete on the strength of their brand.”
Hard work: “There are no free rides, no shortcuts, and no overnight sensations because nothing of value comes easily – behind every success is pain, sacrifice and a long road trip.”
Control sales: “Nurture the brand and never allow the sales force to pressure you on distribution decisions. You have to grow from the roots up, which is to say specialty stores first.”
Michael is survived by his wife, Kimberly, and his son Oliver, who Michael once described to us as his proudest achievement.