Skull Skates celebrates 40 years of street cred

Canada's oldest skateboard company, Skull Skates, enters its 40th year of operations as one of the few independent survivors. The key to its longevity? Staying small and flexible–and preserving that elusive "street cred"

Credit: Adam + Kev

Canada’s oldest skateboard company, Skull Skates, enters its 40th year of operations as one of the few independent survivors. The key to its longevity? Staying small and flexible–and preserving that elusive “street cred”

Peter Ducommun is not sure that he’s the best subject for a business magazine feature. “To tell you the truth, we’re kind of anti-business here,” says the 53-year-old owner of Skull Skates, Canada’s oldest skateboard company. For Ducommun, or PD as everyone calls him, being a business owner has been a way to indulge his passion—something he’s been doing since age 14 when he began selling grey market skateboard gear by mail order from his family home in Nanaimo. It’s also been a way to help build a sense of community among all the like-minded hardcore skaters and, in the process, spread the gospel about his chosen sport.

A 1986 Skull Skates ad featuring Peter Ducommun and three pro skateboarders

“We try and keep it as sincere as possible,” says Ducommun in his smooth, understated voice. “We advertise, but we’re just trying to bring people to our doors. It’s not like some companies who want to crawl inside people’s heads. We’re not trying to deceive customers. Our goal is turn people into skateboarders.”

We are talking inside the eclectic confines of Skull Skates’ Vancouver retail outlet, PD’s Hot Shop, on West 10th Avenue. Ducommun looks the part of the skater dude—albeit one who has put a few miles on the odometer. He’s wearing black-and-white skate shoes and a black shirt with an elaborate skull design snaking down one sleeve (written in capital letters at the neckline is the word SKUL). He’s also got on a pair of baggy, tan-coloured skater shorts that extend to mid-calf, exposing scars from two injuries he picked up while skateboarding. A six-inch metal plate now holds his left ankle in place, while his lower right leg is stabilized by a piece of pipe screwed into the bone that connects his shin to his ankle.

PD’s Hot Shop is very much a reflection of Ducommun’s sensibilities, jammed with a vibrant array of posters, graphics, signs and art, rows of gleaming skateboards arranged precisely on the walls like art pieces, and racks of hats and clothing, most of it black and white and emblazoned with a distinctive skull logo. The storefront itself, with its glaring Skull Skates emblem, black walls and creepy Gothic script, sits incongruously sandwiched between a children’s art studio and a French bistro. If the location in sleepy, gentrified Dunbar seems unlikely, it’s just one element in a larger business story filled with improbable details.

Skull Skates has existed far longer than any other Canadian skateboard company and longer than all but two U.S. enterprises. It’s an amazing run of longevity, especially considering that Ducommun has managed this feat in a notoriously volatile, trend-driven industry and done it while ignoring several of the standard rules for business success. He claims that the lessons he learned while skating as a teenager helped prepare him for his nearly four-decade run in the business world.

“I’m a Grade 11 dropout,” he says. “Everything I’ve learned about business I’ve learned on the job. I didn’t take any courses. It’s the same in skateboarding. You can’t just point and click. You have to pay some dues.”

Ducommun entered the business in 1976 when his older brother, Rick, who operated a T-shirt company, began bringing back skateboarding gear picked up on his California buying trips. The pair teamed up to form Great North Country Skateboards, run initially out of their parents’ house in Nanaimo and, for a year, in Regina (after Rick moved briefly to Saskatchewan). Ducommun, a compulsive tinkerer, added designer to his dossier, and they opened their first shop in 1979 near Stanley Park. (Four other Vancouver locations followed: Oak Street, West Pender Street, West Fourth Avenue and, for the last five years, West 10th Avenue.) The company name soon changed when customers started sending letters addressed to “Skull Skates,” after the skull logo on all in-house products.

PD’s Hot Shop Nanaimo store in 1986

Long associated in the popular imagination with scruffy, rebellious adolescents, skateboarding has evolved from its humble beginnings as an urban thrill sport for bored California surfers in the 1960s into a significant industry. Today, more than 11 million people ride worldwide, and in the U.S. alone the skateboard market generates $4.5 billion a year in revenue. There is an international circuit of competitions, and some pro skaters earn multimillion-dollar endorsement deals, such as 21-year-old Rastafarian Nyjah Huston, who signed a rumoured $20-million multi-year contract with Nike in 2015 to add to his annual prize money of more than a million dollars. And, this past August, the International Olympic Committee announced that skateboarding would become an official sport at the 2020 Summer Olympics in Tokyo.

Even so, in this mainstream new world—where the punks of the 1980s are driving BMWs and diversifying their investment portfolios—Ducommun still cuts an iconoclastic figure despite his advancing years. He calls everyone “Dude,” doesn’t wear a watch and hasn’t driven in a car in two decades—preferring to ride his skateboard and play with his toys (he collects Japanese robots and old bikes). Unconventional also describes Ducommun’s approach to business. In a store that serves a significant number of younger consumers, he doesn’t allow the use of cellphones (he finds them distracting), doesn’t accept credit cards and doesn’t follow a business plan with projected sales figures.

“The plus side of not having a business plan is that no matter what happens, you’re always on schedule,” he says with a grin. Although it may not be ideal for the bottom line, Ducommun is also known to walk away from lucrative deals because of ethical concerns. He cites a recent sponsorship deal with a major motorcycle manufacturer that Skull Skates rejected: “We decided that we didn’t want our brand to be associated with big, loud, fuel-guzzling combustible engines.”

To remain relevant in the world of ollies, nose grinds and bitchslaps, a brand must possess “street cred”—an elusive quality that is achieved by being cool without trying too hard. “Skull Skates has always had street cred, because PD understands skateboard culture,” says Kevin Harris, a former Canadian skateboarding champion who operates Richmond-based Ultimate Distribution, Canada’s largest action-sports distribution company. To illustrate, Harris offers an example: “If a rep from West 49 [a Canadian action sports retailer], which has more than 70 stores in Canada, came into PD’s shop with a $500,000 purchase order, he wouldn’t even pick it up. He’d have that salesman out the door in 30 seconds. Sure, he’d be able to cash a big cheque, but PD’s line would be dead inside a year.”

Ducommun learned a few lessons about the perils of overextending when Skull Skates shifted its headquarters to Los Angeles in 1983—a move sparked by Rick Ducommun’s burgeoning success in Hollywood. An aspiring actor and stand-up comic, Rick would eventually appear in a spate of films including Spaceballs, Groundhog Day and The ’Burbs. Ducommun followed in Rick’s steps and opened a retail store on Melrose Avenue and a warehouse in Van Nuys. At the same time, the brothers maintained an Oak Street outlet in Vancouver, as well as shops in North Vancouver and Nanaimo (the latter managed by Ducommun’s mother, June).

Living the fast life in the Hollywood Hills—striking promotional deals with legendary pros such as Christian Hosoi and Steve Olson and rock bands like the Red Hot Chili Peppers and Social Distortion—was heady stuff, and it raised Skull Skates’ profile, but Ducommun soon soured on Southern California and its plastic, status-conscious society. A sense of tension permeated the industry, and more than once he had a gun pulled on him. “Some of our suppliers were in rough areas—Watts, South Central. The gangsters wanted to know why you were in their territory. I’d say that I was from Canada. That always worked. It was like my Get Out of Jail Free card.”

Ducummon also felt the company was losing its way: “We were selling a lot of product but weren’t making much money. We were just spinning our wheels.” In 1988, with the skateboard industry slumping due to a sudden shift from freestyle and ramp skating to gritty “street style” skating (which utilized smaller boards and incorporated pieces of the urban landscape), Ducommun moved back to Vancouver and consolidated operations in one store.

The five-year California experiment convinced him that the key to longevity was staying small and flexible, cultivating a reputation for quality merchandise and turning out a wide variety of products in modest quantities. “Some companies will produce 80,000 boards with one design. If it doesn’t sell, they are in trouble. I might make 30 boards with one design.” In that sense just about everything Skull Skates does is a limited edition, which suits Ducommun’s mantra of never letting supply exceed demand. “Always leave people wanting a little more,” he says.

Through his T-shirt and hoody designs, posters, zines, graphics, website, online videos and brooding Village of the Damned imagery—much of which he generates himself—Ducommun has managed to create the impression that by buying Skull Skates’ gear, customers are joining a secret society. To achieve this, he maintains strict control over which type of stores carry his brand. He avoids anything located in a mall or outlets where the skateboards are little more than an afterthought to the business of selling shoes and clothing. “PD has a very unique mindset,” says Marco Feller, general manager of Supra Distribution, a North Vancouver company that handles 20 skateboard brands. “I think what he’s trying to do is quite noble, and he’s developed a loyal following.”

The only other PD’s Hot Shop, licensed to sell Skull Skates products, is in the countryside near Nagoya, Japan. Loyal customers travel from hours away and arrive by the busload

All told, Skull products are now sold in about 80 Canadian stores, with another 20 in Japan and a few more in the U.S. and Germany. The only other licensed Skull Skates shop (using the PD’s Hot Shop name and selling Skull Skates products) is in Japan. Oddly, it’s located just off a highway in the countryside outside of Nagoya and is only open from 8 to 11 p.m. “It’s in the middle of nowhere,” says Mike McKinlay, a former pro skater who has visited the shop. “You wouldn’t think they would get any customers, but people drive for hours to get there. They arrive by the busload and buy a shitload of stuff.”

People also make pilgrimages to PD’s Hot Shop in Vancouver, according to employee Jeff Cole, who is also president of the Vancouver Skateboard Coalition. “You wouldn’t believe the number of people we get who say, ‘Oh my God, I’ve wanted to come here my whole life.’” But seeing the home of Skull Skates is just one of the attractions for visiting boarders. Vancouver is regarded as a skateboard mecca—boasting 14 skate parks, the most per capita in the world, plus two indoor facilities. The SBC Restaurant, which opened on Vancouver’s East Hastings in 2013, combines a café with a 14-metre-long half-pipe set in a narrow brick hall. Fittingly, it’s situated in the building that once housed the Smilin’ Buddha Cabaret, a celebrated venue for punk rock concerts in the 1980s.

Despite this buzz of local activity, there are worrisome signs in the industry at large. It’s generally agreed that the sport reached a pinnacle of popularity in the early 2000s, and since then participation numbers and skateboard sales have been declining. “It’s a much more fragmented marketplace today. Brands come and go like crazy,” notes Ultimate Distribution’s Harris. Increasingly, skateboards are seen as little more than a marketing tool for hawking lifestyle products (which have a higher markup), especially now that corporate giants such as Nike, Converse and Adidas have hitched a ride to skate culture to sell their footwear. As for the hard goods, prices are close to what they were in the 1980s, with quality boards (including wheels and trucks) selling for about $190.

To maintain profit margins, a lot of companies outsource their production to Mexico, China and Taiwan, but Ducommun stubbornly continues to use 80 per cent Canadian wood (especially Quebec maple) and Canadian manufacturers. He feels it’s essential to construct the boards where the wood grows in order to “seal in the freshness of the tree.” He also believes that it’s important to keep the business in Canada—although that’s becoming tougher to do: “My manufacturers keep going out of business.”

As for future plans, Ducommun, married but without children, says he really hasn’t seriously pondered when he might leave the business and who would take over Skull Skates when he’s gone; his brother and former partner Rick exited the business back in the 1980s and died from diabetes in June 2015. Whatever happens with Skull Skates, Ducommun says he’s confident about the future of the industry—and the sport that has inspired him for four decades.

Skateboarders cruise at the Vancouver Skate Plaza

“I don’t worry about skateboarding. People are always going to skateboard. You can never take away that special feeling of rolling down some back alley. It’s a good feeling. It’s freedom.”