Dragon Founder Will Howard Passes Away
Dragon rose to prominence in the highly competitive eyewear industry through grit and determination, led by Howard. He steered the business down a path that included a time under the ownership of Oakley, a move back to being privately held, and a sale to Marchon Eyewear.
Along the way, Howard built a lasting reputation in the industry for loyalty and mentorship that helped guide the founders of start-ups such as Stance, along with inspiring the career and life paths of many others.
Starting in the Garage
Howard, employee No. 8 at Oakley, struck out on his own to start Dragon in 1993 out of his Capo Beach garage, beginning with sunglasses and then expanding to goggles. Along the way, he built an enviable team of surfers and snowboarders that included Rob Machado, Mick Fanning, Jamie Lynn, Donavon Frankenreiter, Shane Dorian, and many more.
“Will was completely dedicated to his family and community, a brilliant intellectual mind and business strategist,” said Aaron Hennings, Stance Socks co-founder and chief brand officer. “As a spiritual leader, he set an example for those around him to live to a higher standard and level of self-mastery. He has been a friend and business mentor to me since age 15 and influenced me to be a better person in every area of life.”
Howard took Hennings to Hennings’ very first ASR show, sharing plans for Dragon with him on the train ride from San Clemente to San Diego.
“I distinctly recall the day Will called me over to his house to show me the first pair of Dragon glasses prototypes,” Hennings recalled. “They were sitting on his kitchen table covered in a kitchen towel, waiting to be revealed. He was so stoked on the future of his company.”
The brand definitely had a future – Dragon is celebrating its 30-year anniversary this year.
Chuy Reyna, a former pro surfer, was repping for Santa Cruz snowboards and Sessions clothing in the early ’90s, when he made the decision to join Dragon as employee No. 1.
“I met Will on a Friday,” recalled Reyna, who currently works at Firewire in sales and R&D. “He told me his vision. It was a very small garage business and I felt adamant from the interview, ‘Let’s do this. It sounds like a great adventure.’ So, we got busy producing sunglasses and shipping them out to the stores. At the time it was a very competitive landscape.”
Recruiting strong distributors, while also hiring the best athletes at the time, helped, Reyna said.
“He had a lot of history coming out of Oakley and knew the concept of sports marketing inside and out,” Reyna said. “We were able to start a brand with very little funding and just a lot of connections.”
Howard’s passion and vision is what wooed Reyna to come work for the fledgling business. It was a passion that was palpable to many others.
“He worked really hard. He invested a lot of time into people and went the extra mile for whoever walked in the building to discover what they were about,” Reyna said. “He didn’t wear a huge hat in the sense that he didn’t have a big ego. His word was his word.”
Playing the Long Game
Howard grew Dragon to roughly $25 million in sales before Oakley entered the picture and bought the business. However, when the Luxottica Group bought Oakley in 2007, it was decided Dragon would spin off on its own and become privately held once again.
Aaron Behle, Dragon’s former COO and current CEO of Salt Optics, became Howard’s business partner in 2008 when the company was taken private.
“He had approached me because he was looking for a COO/general manager, which to his credit would be a challenge for any founder/owner,” Behle said. “I had only been at the company for three months and he just said, ‘Hey, I’m going to let you really get under the hood here and ask questions, and I’m going to Indonesia for two weeks. I’ll see you later.’ So, he did. It was great. Most owners, founders would be protective of their business. Our partnership was very open.”
After the business spun off from Oakley, the country and world were hit with the Great Recession. Howard decided it was the time to re-examine all aspects of the business.
“He was very autodidactic and was really able to peel things back fundamentally and rebuild,” Behle said. “He was open to resetting the business and not holding onto legacy things that were antiquated in terms of what the business and brand had become. Will was very much a long-arc player; he wasn’t short-term. A lot of times when you’re in business and pressured, you sometimes get forced to make short-term decisions. He played the long arc.”
Howard and the rest of the management team were able to steer Dragon through the rocky economic stretch of 2008 to 2010, and in 2012 sold the business to current owner Marchon.
“Will was a pioneer, creating Dragon Alliance on his passion for action sports,” Marchon Eyewear President Thomas Burkhardt said in a statement to SES. “Dragon joined the Marchon family in 2012 and we will be forever grateful to Will for his vision for this amazing brand beloved by many. Our heartfelt condolences go out to his family, friends, and all those he touched.”
Even with the global brand and business that Dragon grew up to be, Howard was very much invested in the athletes and employees that were part of the team. That dedication left a lasting impression on many.
“He genuinely cared about the athletes that he supported,” said Rick Irons, Dragon’s former global brand manager. “People would always say, ‘Wow, you have such a big team. Why do you pay these surfers and snowboarders and motorcross guys? You’re wasting your money.’ But he never wanted to cut back spending on the athletes and ambassadors because he really believed in the sports. You see companies these days dropping guys. He was loyal to those people he brought into the company. I was in the industry a long time, and I hadn’t seen a company that was that loyal to their athletes and ambassadors. He just genuinely loved the action sports world.”
That love for sports may have been what led Howard to train and compete in a number of triathlons after he left Dragon.
Behind the Scenes Mentor
Mike Tobia was a pro snowboarder for Dragon, who became team manager when he was 24 after breaking his back in a snowboarding accident. He stayed with the company until 2016, taking on many other roles and eventually working his way to being global head of marketing and product development and a company shareholder.
“When I got a job there at this brand that was so special to me, I wanted to be a part of it,” Tobia said. “Will gave me tons of opportunities to learn and grow within the company.”
That included inventing several patents (including one for frameless goggles), flying up to Nike headquarters with Howard to convince them Dragon was the right partner for the Nike Vision eyewear licensing program, and then the sale to Marchon.
“What was different about Will than some others in the industry was that he was more reserved and behind the scenes,” Tobia said. “He didn’t want to be the face of the brand, on every press release. And that resonated with me and I respected him for that.”
That stuck out to Irons as well.
“His family was his priority. He could care less about accolades or attention,” Irons said. “He was happiest with his family and doing his own thing. He didn’t seek attention or notoriety and had a really tight circle and strong loyalty.”
When it was time to start Stance, Hennings remembered going to Howard for advice on all the ups and downs of running a start-up. The lessons he learned while working at the Dragon warehouse as a teen, including Howard’s determination in the early days of the brand, stick with Hennings to this day.
“I really learned from him about believing in your company and brand mission. Not being afraid of the competition and fiercely believing that you had a place in the market and in the world,” he said. “That you should fight and compete until you made it.”
A celebration of life service is scheduled for April 21 at 11 a.m. at the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in San Clemente. The family has asked, in lieu of flowers, donations be made in Will’s honor to City of Hope, here.