Remembering Dave Hollander of Becker Surfboards
Hollander, along with Phil Becker and Steve Mangiagli, built a surfboard manufacturing and retail business that was early to e-commerce, growing to a chain of seven stores and roughly 100 employees at its peak before its 2010 acquisition by what was then Billabong International Ltd.
“We never could have imagined it would have evolved into what it did,” Mangiagli said of the Becker business. “We never thought it would get as big as it did and the reason it did was because of Dave. He was such a driving force, pushing things forward.”
The story of Becker begins with the precursor business, Rick Surfboards, where the three were employees in the ‘70s. When the business went up for sale, Becker and Mangiagli jumped at the chance to buy it and continued making boards under what is now Mangiagli Manufacturing. Retail was added in late 1979 and named Becker Surfboards.
“We had a slow, tough time in the beginning with our store in Hermosa. It was a very small place,” Mangiagli recalled.
Becker took up about 1,200 square feet in a former laundromat, located in a block-long strip center on Pier Avenue. As the business grew, the three absorbed the real estate next door and then the door next to that, continuing to expand until Becker occupied about 6,500 square feet across all five buildings on the block.
“When we opened up the store, we didn’t know if it was going to fly or not, especially moving off of Coast Highway, but it worked out,” said John Leininger, who worked with Hollander on the retail side of the business from day one.
Leininger was the long-time manager of the Hermosa Beach store, which closed this summer, and also did the buying with Hollander in the early days of the business.
“[Dave] was a character. He loved to joke with people and was just a livewire, sort of hyper and was always thinking of stuff to do to make the shop better,” Leininger said. “His work ethic was unbelievable. He was all about Becker, 24/7, and he was always coming up with new ideas.”
An Eclectic Look
Locals and employees appreciated the family atmosphere at Becker Surfboards where work was fun and store associates took pride in what they sold.
Becker stores also had their own unique look that stood out from competitors.
“When they created Becker, they had great people there. It was edgier than a lot of the shops,” remembered Tom Holbrook, a Quiksilver veteran and one of its first sales reps. “Dave’s energy was unique, and he was just a great guy. He was excited about the surf industry. He was excited about the business, and he was always going to come up with wacky ideas. That’s just how he was.”
Holbrook credited Becker with breathing a new kind of energy into the Hermosa specialty retail landscape.
“He clearly left his mark on the industry and was always upbeat,” Holbrook said. “It was entertaining to go visit him. You never knew what was going to happen, but it was always going to be fun. He was bigger than life and what he created in the stores was really impactful and very fresh.”
Brian Bent, the multi-disciplinary artist who is credited with defining that Becker store look, first met Dave in the business’ surfboard airbrush room as a teen when his uncle, pro-surfer Rocky Sabo, was riding for Becker. Bent would later go on to work at Becker’s Mission Viejo store and began adding art to the clothing displays, redoing sections of the store little by little with his artistic touch.
“Dave caught wind of that, and he and the other owners came down to check it out and they were stoked and said, ‘Hey, would you do that for our L.A. stores?’” Bent recalled. “I was working as a display guy and fixture guy and art guy. The stores became 3D canvases.”
Hanging aquariums, oil lamps, hot rods, poems scrawled on the dressing room walls and countless other props and décor became the Becker Surf look and calling card.
“Dave gave me my shot, let me go carte blanche. We used to call it ‘artistic maintenance,’” Bent said of his work. “We would just do sections of the stores. We always fed off each other artistically. He would just let me go, and I always wanted to please him. I wanted to stoke him out first.”
The art later turned the head of a North Hollywood gallery owner, who visited the Malibu store, and Bent’s art career took off from there.
“He’d allow people to express themselves and their roles in the company,” Bent said.
That trust in other people’s abilities is what helped Becker grow to be more than a single door, mom-and-pop shop over the years.
John Vance, the former president and COO of Sanuk, called out Hollander’s prowess in helping navigate and steer the Becker business through the years.
“Dave Hollander was the real deal,” Vance said in an email. “Smart, witty and always entertaining, being with Dave was always a pleasure. Our trips to the East Cape of Cabo were incredibly fun as well as educational. Always ahead of his time, he was a savvy retailer who was extremely successful in a hyper competitive environment. He was the guy who was always first on your target account list. A who’s who of retailing and an all-around great person. Rest in peace buddy!”
In the late ’90s, Hollander pushed to incorporate e-commerce into the business. Employees snapped photos of product and it was uploaded to the site. A developer created software that integrated the inventories of all the stores and warehouses to service the online shop, and sales took off.
Tony Casella, a long-time industry sales rep who worked with Hollander for many years, remembers the online business well, particularly from when he was a sales manager at Sanuk.
“Dave was really early [to the internet],” Casella said. “The brands didn’t understand the internet and how they could monetize it, so there was no direct-to-consumer business at all. Becker was one of the first in Southern California to accept it. I know with Sanuk we saw our business grow in a matter of months. Becker was really at the forefront. He really knew what that could develop into, and he mastered it.”
Becker A “Well-Oiled Machine”
Women’s was another area of the business Becker excelled at.
Some 40 years ago, Carol Nielsen was a buyer at Pacific Sunwear, when it was still a relatively small business owned by Randy Blumer and Tom Moore. At the time, she ordered “Life’s a Beach” T-shirts from Becker, which is how she came to know Hollander.
He would later ask Nielsen during a trip they were on with their spouses and several other industry couples to start the women’s program for Becker. Nielsen accepted the position and went on to build that business over the next 23 years.
“[Becker] was a well-oiled machine,” Nielsen said. “It was a time in the world where things seemed easier. It was a really good period in the surf industry. It was just a non-complicated time.”
Part of that had to do with Dave’s leadership and how well the company treated its employees. Becker is one of the few specialty retailers that implemented a profit-sharing program for the executive team, store bonuses for managers and even Christmas cards from Hollander himself – all incentives and signs of appreciation remembered to this day by employees and sales reps alike.
“[Dave] just had total confidence in what I and pretty much all of his employees did,” Nielsen said. “He systematically went around hiring people that he trusted. It was really talented people there. Nobody dropped the ball. Everybody knew what they had to do, and they just did it. That’s because everybody respected Dave so much.”
Work Hard, Play Hard
Although Hollander’s work ethic is remembered by many, so too was his sense of humor and “work hard, play hard” mentality.
“Dave was always one of those guys who had a smile on his face and was as giddy as if he just got a bonus,” recalled John Gothard, vice president of sales at Pura Vida and long-time industry sales manager. “I was a young, green guy at the time, and I’d go up to L.A. and wonder, ‘How am I going to get the gas to go back home?’ and he’d laugh like a big brother and take you under his arm and say, ‘This is what you need to do.’ He would do that day in and day out for everybody.’
He was also a good surfer, who was going to Costa Rica before it became a popular surf spot, Leininger said.
“Dave was such a good buddy who always referred to me as ‘little buddy’ and was such a kick to be around,” said Val Surf’s Mark Richards. “He was one of the funniest guys on the planet.”
Val Surf was a dealer of Becker boards, but Richards and Hollander developed a friendship outside of the business, with their families often traveling together over the years.
Richards remembered a particular trip with Hollander to the Tavarua Rights surf break on the island’s southwest side. While Richards said the surf session was great, the two later faced trade winds that made for an uncomfortable journey back.
“We leashed together and somehow battled back continually exchanging humorous and ‘nervous’ comments about this experience, which we were fortunately and thankfully then able to share with the rest…. Dave will be missed by so many, all with their own stories to tell,” Richards said. “He had that charismatic personality and was always so much fun to be around. We are so fortunate to have known him and been able to call him ‘friend.’”
Kari Hamanaka can be reached at email@example.com.