Deacon will always have your back! Whether it’s getting you out of trouble or into trouble, he’s always right there behind you. Ian has helped shape modern skateboarding as we know it today, most recognisably in his role as co-founder of Flip Skateboards. Chances are one of your favourite skateboarders has felt Deacon’s unprecedented support at one time or another in his or her career. You could call Deacon a manager or an agent. Maybe even a secret agent. He’s well connected and will get you to where you need to be. Whether it’s getting you into a party, a venue or getting you a new shoe sponsor. Deacon will be there. No charge of course.
That’s the thing about Ian: He’s passionate about his family, friends and business and will do whatever it takes to do what’s right. In his 30 years of running various skateboard companies he’s always had the spirit of fun in mind. Whether it’s dawn patrol at Copenhagen Open, burning piles of bikes in Münster or taking down road signs in Tampa. Deacon will be there with you, ready to guide you through whatever trouble you might collectively have gotten yourself into. A true friend. Always on point!  –  Rune Glifberg

So Ian, you got into skateboarding just as its second wave dipped around the mid to late ‘80s. What were you up to at the time?

Actually, I got into it right when it died in late 1979/early 1980. But Brighton (Pig City) has always had a strong skateboard scene, so there were always people around who skated all the way through from 1975 to today. In a lot of places in the UK, it just disappeared completely. Andover Skatepark and Southsea and the Farnborough ramp had their visitors, but no actual scene. South Bank and Crystal Palace in London had solid scenes as did Harrow in North West London, since that skatepark didn’t get bulldozed like nearly all the other ‘70’s concrete ones. Those were the places in the south of England that were keeping it going. In Northern England, nothing much was going on, as I can recall.

What was the scene like in Brighton then?

Brighton was great. Couldn’t have asked for a better place to spend my teenage years. It was nothing like it is there now. We even had an early version of a “skaters’ bar” in 1980/82 called the Electric Grape. It’s still good, but it’s lost some of its character with the influx of more and more Londoners moving south. Nothing as bad as how Hamburg, Germany has changed, mind. Spot wise in the early ‘80’s we had Churchill Square (a shopping centre), a paddling pool on the seafront by the old West Pier and The Level skatepark which was in its first generation at that time. It was pretty terrible—a free concrete, town council-built park. Legend goes that the builders had never built a skatepark so had the plans upside down, and it got rigged up to fix what had already been poured.

“He met up with a lawyer in the UK who advised that in the US a Deathbox is a coffin”

Can you clarify the story about the foundation of Deathbox, Bash and the merge to Flip? 

Jeremy Fox started Deathbox in early 1987. I started doing a sub division of that called Bash in late 1989. The government had these schemes to encourage you to start companies, so that’s basically how it came about. Bash did not last too long, but disappeared and resurfaced as Flip in 1991. Curtis McCann came up with the name. He was supposed to ride for it, but that didn’t happen. Luke McKirdy went from Bash to Flip, but no one else did at the time. Then Jeremy was working on getting Deathbox to the US as the European market (well, all of skateboarding, in reality) was really small around 1992/1993. But at least if the company was in the US it would mean it could sell to more countries.

He met up with a lawyer in the UK who advised that in the US a Deathbox is a coffin; it would be a really bad name legally in the US if a kid got hurt on a “coffin skateboard”. So Deathbox sort of became “DB” for a short while then “merged” with Flip in 1993 to become one company.

As a young skateboard company in the late ‘80s and early ‘90s, how did one get attention and brand a company?

Contests were the main thing, since video cameras were not so easily affordable in the late ‘80’s. There were quite a few contests around Europe back then, even though skateboarding was really small. Obviously Munster was the big one, but there was Eindhoven in Holland and Munchengladbach also in Germany. Copenhagen definitely had a couple of indoor ones in 1990 (which Omar Hassan came over for), then the Euros in late 1991 at Forum. With euro contests back then, it was a sub-competition between Deathbox and Powell Europe, which was run by Frank Messman. I guess Jeremy won that because Powell shut down their European operation after a couple of years. Then from 1993 in the UK, we had the Radlands contests in Northampton.

What was the communication and visibility across the Atlantic like back then? How were European brands seen? 

I think the US brands mainly saw what was happening at Munster and Radlands. Powell were still doing tours, but US demos were pretty thin on the ground because the market was so small. 411 was getting going around then, as well, so that helped with visibility. But apart from Deathbox/Flip there was only really Titus that I can think of, and that was distribution plus a chain of shops apart from the actual skateboard company itself. Powell Europe doesn’t really count because it was US funded and only lasted a couple of years.

“It was more of a friendship type mentality within each company. Powell Europe bought their way in, though, so they were less organic in that sense.”

How did sponsorship look back then? What sort of lengths would a company go to secure and retain riders?

I mean, you basically got free equipment and that was pretty much it unless you were one of the very few skaters who were pro in Europe at the time. Nicky (Guerrero) was pro for Powell, Soren (Aaby) for Santa Cruz, Ralf (Middendorf) and Anders (Pulpanek) for Titus. Claus Grabke was with Titus then Powell for a hot minute, then Santa Cruz. Then there were the Deathbox pros at that time, as well. It was more of a friendship type mentality within each company. Powell Europe bought their way in, though, so they were less organic in that sense.

How was the initial reception in the US and what sort of challenges did you guys face?

This was a strange one going in as we had definitely been vibed by some US pros at Radlands contests. With the majority it was fine, though. I think that carried on for a while after moving to the US. I remember an indoor street contest in San Jose in late 1994 where there was a “cool club” in one corner and then everyone else getting along like normal people. It was a pretty strange experience and I can only imagine that it was as if the “cool club” were representing the jocks at an American High School. European Skateboarding was not like that at all, so that was an eye opener.

“Maybe some pros felt threatened by how good Tom and Geoff were.”

Sales-wise, no one knew who we were and we had a problem with the first series of boards. Rune’s one got a cease and desist so that was another quick learning curve. It was only when Tom started getting recognised that things started to pick up and any lingering vibes started to dissipate—probably because everyone was trying to steal Tom! Maybe some pros felt threatened by how good Tom and Geoff were. Rune was obviously amazing as well, but there was more camaraderie in the vert ranks just because there weren’t a ton of vert skaters. Industry-wise, it was generally fine as I knew most of the people involved with companies from a few previous visits to the US. Rocco was always supportive, for example. He let us use Prime wood and we did a few things with Big Brother early on, which definitely helped. Maybe he saw us as disrupters, which I could see that he would like. Ed Templeton and Don Brown were always very supportive as well from day one.

Was there a tipping point when the brand started to really perform?

Nothing really happened until about late 1995, when Tom took over. So we had decent sales for a couple of years and then it slowed down again right around early 1999. Then we turned Ali pro in September 1999 and Arto at the following trade show in February 2000. With that, things started to turn around again; then that was full steam into Sorry in 2002 and Really Sorry in 2003. Luckily, skateboarding was massive at that time because of a population bump and the Tony Hawk games, plus the 900, etc., so the timing could not have been better. Just got lucky with that.

That was good all the way to the banking crisis in 2008, when parents no longer had spare cash to keep buying their kids whatever they wanted.

You’ve had your fair share of down times too, right? Flip has always had the really strong family vibe and a lot of your riders have been on for a long time.

I think that goes with skateboarding in general, right? Up and down. Used to be measured in years and now it seems to be on a month to month rollercoaster.

Rune and then Tom have been on the longest. Rune got on around 1990 and Tom got on right around when Radlands Skatepark in Northampton opened, so that would have been 1992. He’s just hit the 25 year mark! I think Rune’s first pro board was 1991. Tom’s first board was in 1993.

“[…]saying that Ali and Shane had had an accident and that Shane had passed and Ali was in the hospital, but was on the critical list.”

Can you tell us about the day Shane died? Did that change anything about how you live your life?

Well, I got a phone call from Australia; being in England, I was 8 hours ahead of Huntington Beach. I think one of our distributors called me (Hardcore), but it was all a bit of a blur, to be honest. Just saying that Ali and Shane had had an accident and that Shane had passed and Ali was in the hospital, but was on the critical list. That was it, apart from that it was a motorbike crash. I didn’t really find out anymore details until over the next few days as to how the tragedy actually happened.

As for changing anything, I think that it would change anyone who knew him. Shane was such a positive person that you couldn’t fail to like him. Being so young as well as so talented on a skateboard just added to the tragedy. The Cory and P-Stone accident recently brought a lot of those memories of that time back. Especially as Preston was also such a positive and giving person that you could not fail to like him, either.

I just have my fingers crossed that we do not lose anyone else in such tragic accidents.

Flip has had a couple of parent companies. How does that work and what’s the current set up? I head you’ve moved the production back to Europe? 

When the company moved to the US in 1994, it had a contract for distribution with Birdhouse (which became Blitz) which was owned by Per Welinder (Swedish freestyler) and Tony Hawk. Per was responsible for helping get Flip to the US so with him and Tony, we had various contracts over the years. Part of the last contract was if Per and Tony went their own way, we could leave as well. Per took over Tony’s part of Blitz in 2008 so we decided it was best to go to new pastures, as there was less focus on skateboarding at Blitz by then and more on an apparel brand called Howe. Jeremy knew Bob Denike and we ended up going to NHS on a “handshake” deal compared to what we had at Blitz. It was still owned by us—just mainly distributed by NHS. That relationship ended in June 2017, so we are now with HLC (in the Basque Country) exclusively in Europe, which helps make the deck price a lot more competitive as there are less levels of distribution involved.

What does the daily running of the company look like today as opposed to 10 and 20 years ago?

Well, at Blitz Distribution (1994 to 2008) there was someone in the actual building so that made things run a lot smoother—especially since there wasn’t really a disconnect between the sales department and the person representing Flip.

Moving to NHS (2008 to 2017)—I think that was probably the one thing that we underestimated. NHS owned all the brands apart from Flip, and all those brands had at the very least one person in the building to interact with the sales staff.

Now we are entering a third era, I guess, with various ways of selling skateboards through different channels like HLC in Europe and dealing with the rest of the world’s drop ship orders direct. Plus, there are more direct sales as well, which didn’t really exist as much a few years back. I mean, it was on offer, but it seems that because of Amazon etc, also most shops sell direct online alongside the mail order companies. So it is certainly a lot easier for skaters to get the exact products they want—certainly not like England in 1980, when it was either Alpine Action or Surreys!

If you were to offer up any advice for youngsters starting out in the skateboard industry, what would it be?

Well, logically, you would start a softgoods company if it was part of some grand business plan that wanted to make money.

Skateboards only sell to a small percentage of the population of any one country, whereas softgoods could be sold to anyone. I think core skate shoe companies in the boom years were running 10% to 15% sales to skaters and the rest to the general public, for example. Not sure where skate-associated streetwear companies would be clothing-wise, but I’m sure it would be something similar to that. As a community, we make skateboarding look interesting and exciting. Then the general public latches on to it, but mainly on the shoe and softgoods side. Seems to be going more the way of surfing, where none the of actual surfboard companies really have much of their total sales related to surfing itself.

This article was initially published in BS29

Interview: Nick Bridge

Photos: Arto Saari