The Genius That Was Michael Tomson
Here at SES, we’ve heard about the brilliance of the Gotcha years and Michael Tomson’s groundbreaking approach during that time.
We wanted to find out more, so reached out to several of his former colleagues and friends and asked about his approach to business and life, including his impact on the industry.
We have some incredible stories from Shaheen Sadeghi, Mark Price, Paul Naude, Shaun Tomson and Charlie Setzler, who worked with him more recently, below.
Michael passed away Thursday at the age of 66.
Shaheen Sadeghi, CEO of LAB Holdings, owner of The Lab, The Camp and Anaheim Packing District, among other properties
Shaheen was an Executive Vice President at Gotcha for four years during Gotcha’s high-growth period.
In life, if we are lucky, we will bump into only one or two people that may have a profound and a powerful impact in our lives. For me, Michael was one of those people.
My journey with MT started back in the 80s. At the time, I had spent nearly a decade with Jantzen sportswear, a division of VF, number one in swim, golf, and tennis with a small surf line called Zuma Beach.
Weeks before I was to start in a new, senior position, Steve Levine, who repped for a key vendor, called to explain that two South Africans were doing something really different in surf apparel and needed help in getting the brand to the next level. Levine was convincing and I agreed to meet with MT. The Gotcha office was on Airport Loop, Costa Mesa, just a few blocks from my office today.
Jantzen was an amazing company as was VF. Traditional and very corporate but high integrity. I wore a suit and tie and polished my wingtips each day. It was the IBM of the sports industry.
Arriving at Gotcha, I was ushered into MT’s office by his assistant Robin. Looking around, I knew I was in trouble. MT’s aura, charisma and vibe were so powerful and engaging, not to mention all the cool shit in his office – a pair of leopard skin shoes on the floor, lots of insane surf shots, lots of surfboards that had obviously seen water time and been ridden hard.
After a long talk, we walked to the back parking lot, where there were dozens of neon color boardshorts laying on the asphalt. A young surfer was spray painting the trunks like Jackson Pollock at work. The graphics looked insane! By the way, I later realized the mad man with the spray can was Jack Denny, who eventually founded World Jungle.
I recall asking MT, “What are you doing”? He said, “This is the new collection.” In amusement, I asked, “How will the spray paint react in the water?” MT responded, “It will be rad, it will give it a patina look in time.” He boasted how each piece would be different and could never be repeated.
His answer to my question on quality control amazed and transformed me, “Let me tell you how this works: I make the shorts and take them to the surf shops and give a bunch to the best surfers in Laguna. When they blow out of the shops in two days, we will get a big order. I will go to production and quality control and tell them to figure it out and don’t f*** it up. That is how it works around here.”
It only took 15 minutes with MT to transform me from the corporate guy to the head of product for Gotcha and MT’s right hand man.
Looking back, that day had such a profound impact on me, and Michael had a life-changing influence on me as a person.
There are so many layers and complexities with MT He was a genius of product and marketing, a prolific writer, an avid reader with a vocabulary and writing skills well beyond his years.
In 1989, the Berlin Wall went down the same year Martin Potter won the World Championship. Soon after our celebration in Hawaii, Michael sent Pottz to Berlin to represent surf globally. Pottz brought back a chunk of the Berlin Wall with him, to symbolize freedom. That was so far from anything the surf industry had ever done. I was blown away!
MT had his own management style. He had the magic to get people to do what needed to get done and feel good about themselves. My favorite, and his signature move, was when he said, “Wait here. I will be right back.” Then of course, he would never show up or show up hours later. He would bring all the highly paid executives into a room for a meeting and say, “You guys wait here. I will be right back.” After sitting around for 20 minutes, we realized he wanted us to start the meeting and by the time he came back, if he ever did, we had solved most of the issues. That was his management style and he got away with it each and every time.
He had the ability to get people to do what he wanted and always delivered on generosity.
For example, one time, I had spent about six months working on a visa to visit Russia on an exploring trip. A week into my vacation, MT tracks me down in Moscow. He convinced me to drop everything and meet him in Paris, without delay, for an emergency meeting with Kenny Jacobs, Gotcha’s licensee in France.
We had dinner that night in Paris with Kenny and planned to meet again in the morning to discuss other issues in France.
In the morning, my message light was on. It was MT “Dream (that was his nickname for me), Hawaii is pumping right now, so I had to go.” The freaking guy got on a Concord and somehow got to Hawaii, and I got stiffed in Paris! I was on vacation in Russia, came to Paris for a bullshit dinner meeting, then MT bailed without notice!
Next thing I know, the concierge contacts me and tells me I have a package. MT had purchased two first class tickets for my wife, Linda, and I to fly to St. Tropez and he put us up in the hotel. Next thing I know, I am sitting on a beach in St. Tropez thinking what the f*** just happened? I was supposed to be in Russia. That was a classic MT move!
MT was so generous with so many people and helped so many both financially and emotionally. I saw it every day at the office, so many people relied on him. He singlehandedly helped many talented, young South Africans break free from the politics of apartheid and helped them build a new life in the surf industry in California.
MT was my neighbor, living three houses down the hill on Diamond Street in Laguna. His favorite time to get creative was always in the wee hours of the night. He typically would call and ask, “Dream, are you up?” And, of course, I was always asleep. “You want to meet up really quick? Can you come over to the house?” Although it was the wee hours, his charisma would win me over and shortly I would show up at his door. We would have late night meetings and they were always about culture, people, surf, music, London fashion magazines, fashion, future, art and any other ideas he was dreaming up.
I recall one night in particular, he said, “Can I show you something? When you were out of town, I had the sewing ladies in the back make something for me.” He pulled out a vintage Hawaiian shirt and an ethnic African printed fabric covered with portraits. He had cut out all the faces and had them sewn onto the Hawaiian shirt. It was an insane piece of art. He handed it to me and said, “Can you do something with this?” That was a classic way he and I began to design a collection.
Another time, he flew me to the Ivory Coast. My mission was to find the villages where ethnic wristbands were made. Nick Bower and I were on the mission together. We brought back a suitcase of handmade peace bracelets. That was the beginning of the Rhythm Division, a very successful Gotcha collection.
Michael had assembled a global team of talented designers, including Nick Bower, who is still one of my favorite designers. Before Gotcha, Nick designed for Valentino. Neville Clipston was a jewelry and textile designer from Zimbabwe. Jack Denny was a raw, local Laguna artist. Lorin Fleming, an amazing painter. Mark Price led marketing, and was on top of his game, and an amazing surfer. Joel Cooper, Michael’s business partner who supported every decision and always made it happen. Our team was absolutely world class and unlike any other. We never hired fashion designers, we hired artists, the core of the vision Michael had for Gotcha.
What Michael accomplished, can never be repeated. He changed the surfing industry forever. As Frankie would say, “ I did it my way” – and Michael always did.
Mark Price, CEO, Firewire
Gotcha sponsored Mark on the surfing tour, and then Mark worked his way up from customer service to VP of Global Marketing, a job he held during Gotcha’s explosive growth years.
It’s so easy to talk about MT’s accomplishments in a general sense. Words like charismatic, innovative, transformative, and brilliant easily come to mind. But there are plenty of charismatic, innovative, transformative, and brilliant people out there.
What is extraordinarily difficult to do is to place MT’s impact on our lives in the proper context. Here’s my take:
Even if you only want to measure the change in purely visual terms, everyone will agree that there was the action sports industry BG (before Gotcha) and AG (after Gotcha). And like the punk music onslaught that buried disco in the late 70s, there were other companies that played very important roles in that transformation, but Gotcha was the CLASH!!
Gotcha was a company that embraced change with a passion, pushed the boundaries of what was considered appropriate, pulled ideas and inspiration from all manner of places and challenged competitors to be more creative. Gotcha reinvented itself constantly along the way, while always staying true to its renegade spirit. Sounds like someone I knew and loved.
And the company that lead this sea change in how an entire industry thought and acted was led by a guy in his late 20’s at that time. A guy with an incredibly creative vision of where he wanted to go, the intellect to get there, and let’s face it, the swagger to pull it off. MT was our MICK JAGGER!!
And like Jagger, he was unafraid to puncture the social norms and court controversy, but he never lost his sense of humor about all of it.
Sure, he lived hard and sadly for too long on that path. And that is part of the bittersweetness associated with his legacy. That someone whose shadow looms so large over all of us is perhaps somewhat unknown to the current generation, and probably even less so to the next.
Because he burned too bright, but not for long enough. I can only imagine his stature today if he remained a vibrant part of our body politic.
“Hey hey, my my, rock and roll can never die”
We’ll never forget you MT – for all the right reasons.
Paul Naude, owner of Vissla, Amuse Society and Sisstrevolution
Paul and Michael went to the same high school in South Africa, and Michael is responsible for Paul immigrating to the United States when Michael asked Paul to move to California and work at Gotcha.
I first met Michael when I was 12 and started surfing at the world renowned Bay of Plenty beach in Durban, South Africa. Shaun and Michael were already well entrenched and at the top of the next generation of young, hot surfers. We attended the same all-boys high school. He was a year ahead of me and a school monitor so he got me out of trouble more than once.
We competed through all the stages of our surfing careers, and we were on the same South African surfing team that competed against the USA in Santa Cruz in 1976.
In 1975, I made my first pilgrimage to the North Shore. Michael and I lived with Randy Rarick at Sunset Beach, sleeping in the living room for over three months. Michael was a great mentor to me not just during that winter but through most of my surfing and industry career.
In the 70s, the surfboard company I owned with a partner sponsored Michael with a monthly paycheck, which was a first for our country.
When Mark Richards came out with his revolutionary twin fin design, we scrambled to make one for Michael. Michael’s standing in the shaping bay with top shaper Mike Larmont, my business partner. Michael says, “I want something different to MR, why can’t we invert the swallow tail and make it a bat tail?” So we went with it and it worked! We sold countless boards with that tail.
In 1981, I had just moved on from the surfboard business. Michael and Joel Cooper were already living in Laguna Beach, getting Gotcha off the ground and Michael talked me into heading up Gotcha, South Africa. We worked closely through all those crazy, fun times in the 80s. In 1992, he was on the phone again and talked me into coming to work for the company in California.
So Michael’s impact on my family’s life has been immense and I am eternally indebted to him for that. I know so many people feel the same way.
Michael was outgoing at times and very private at other times. He was very competitive. He also had a great sense of humor. He was very eloquent, even during his teens.
He was always looking ahead. Always delving, asking, searching for what was next. His ability to see detail and really “look under the hood” was astounding. He was a great writer in his younger years, being published in most of the global surf media as well as in the New York Times and other leading general interest publications. His influences in this field were Hunter S. Thompson and Tom Wolfe among others.
Michael was a fearless risk taker and most times, it was successful. He focused on being different and was a visionary. For example, in the 70s, he and I coincidentally started surf magazines in South Africa. Mine, called “ZigZag,” was surf cover to cover. Michael’s, “Down the Line,” pushed the envelope with avant-garde content and had an artistic image of Elvis Presley’s hairstyle on the cover! Who does that? No one even questioned it! The mag was great.
During the Gotcha hey days of the 80s, Michael led the renaissance of surf style and surf culture. He was obsessed with newness. He would come into design meetings and turn things on its head and then the creativity would start. It wouldn’t stop there. He would then head over to marketing and do the same thing. The results most of the time were new and groundbreaking.
His influence has spanned five decades and some of his ideas are now still followed. He was protective over surf culture and the importance of keeping it real and defending its borders. He coined the phrase “size is the enemy of cool.” How many times have we heard that being used over the past decade?
Michael will be remembered as a great surfer, a generous man who mentored so many, and a pillar of the surf industry. He will be remembered for “going big” in whatever he did.
He will be remembered as a legend.
Shaun Tomson, 1977 World Surfing Champion
Many people play a part in forming our lives – Mom and Dad and friends and teachers are often the biggest influences.
My cousin played a huge part in the trajectory of my life. We were born three days apart – Mike a year older. We caught our first waves together on the same type of surfboard, on the same day, at the Bay of Plenty in Durban, South Africa where we were born.
We surfed in our first contests together, went to Jeffreys Bay on our first surfari, to Hawaii on the same pilgrimage – on an early trip in the ‘70s while teenagers, we shared a pop-up caravan together on the North Shore.
In the surf, Mike was the most courageous surfer I had ever seen – Bay of Plenty, Cave Rock, Sunset Beach and Pipeline. At Pipeline, he was a gladiator throwing himself over the edge into horrendous double up tubes. He carved his own path. Like he said, “No one took off deeper.”
That is how he lived his life – full on – maxed out. In his early 20s he wrote an op ed in the New York Times about apartheid in sport that created a firestorm in his homeland of South Africa.
He did honors in business at Natal University, studied Peter Drucker with the same fervor he read Norman Mailer and Hunter Thompson. He created South Africa’s first Rolling Stone-type magazine out of his bedroom – Down the Line – and employed the country’s best writers and photographers.
He was the youngest brand manager ever for Unilever in his first job and then after the pro tour, a writer and editor at Surfing Magazine. Until Jordy Smith, he was the only other South African to win a major professional event, placing #5 on the IPS World Tour in 1976.
He started Gotcha with Joel Cooper while on the tour – Joel became his best friend and the company grew into the hottest, most creative surf company ever, employing the world’s best designers and world’s best surfers.
He hired the best and brightest from across the planet changing the lives of thousands with his boundless creativity and force of will. If there was a trend bubbling up in Tokyo or New York or London, Mike knew about it before it bubbled over.
Gotcha soared in the stratosphere, got too big, so he started MCD – More Core Division and assembled the greatest, hippest, coolest, edgiest surf team on the planet – Martin Potter, Cheyne Horan, Gerry Lopez, Mike Stewart, Sunny Garcia, Brock Little, Rob Machado, Ho brothers, Dino Andino, Matt Archbold and yes – Andy Irons, too.
He had influences – Jann Wenner for one – but nothing was derivative – he was a font of creativity and originality and if there was an envelope to be pushed, Mike bashed it down.
Then he started the Gotcha Pro at Sandy Beach – surfing’s first rock and roll pro surfing event. And then followed it up with the first ever event at Teahupoo.
And then he made “Surfers,” one of surfing’s top documentary films – even getting Miki Dora to finally go on screen in an unforgettable scene.
I co-produced a film a few years back – Bustin’ Down the Door. It chronicled the drama associated with the birth of pro surfing.
The best line in the movie is Mike’s – more core division to the max:
“I will surf until I die.”
Our love and prayers go out to his wife Kimberly, son Oliver and sisters Jennifer and Mandy.
Mike, I’ll miss you – we spent some of the best times of our life together.
Charlie Setzler, former O’Neill and Rusty executive and Michael’s former business partner
After thinking about our relationship, I realized Michael and I pretty much talked or met every day for eight years (2008 to 2016).
I officially met MT around 2008 when he was a consultant for the La Jolla Group. The company had just brought Rusty into the group and asked me to be the President – I had just spent the last 10 years at O’Neill. MT came over to my office, walked in, no introduction, and just started talking about what we were going to do like we had been working together for years. It was classic!
We hit it off considering we couldn’t have been more different. I’m pretty conservative and reserved. MT was definitely none of those. He was a force of nature. I think we got along because he either appreciated or respected that I didn’t back down to him (he could be a bit of a bully) and I often pushed back. We would debate and philosophize for hours on everything about the brand, the industry, fashion, the future and more.
It was an incredible experience for a kid that grew up in Pasadena wearing Gotcha and reading about MT (and his cousin, Shaun, who also happened to be my first boss) in the mags.
We built a strong enough relationship to continue as business partners in Rusty North America for three years (2013-2016).
This is where I truly saw the magic of MT. While MT will be forever remembered for his creative genius, he also had a spectacular business mind. He was great with numbers and was a fantastic salesperson. I don’t think any of MT’s creativity rubbed off on me, but I learned so much about business from him in those three years.
Unfortunately, the business did not work out and we went our separate ways. I miss those conversations with MT. The pearls of wisdom and unique perspective, his brutal honesty and bright smile. The industry has lost an icon.