O’Neill founder Jack O’Neill made sure the mission to expose the masses to the ocean and teach them how to protect it was never lost in the message or the merchandise.
Jack O’Neill, the Santa Cruz-based entrepreneur who created the blueprint for the modern surf shop and was a core inventor of the neoprene wetsuit, died Friday. He was 94.
A surfing pirate, a living, breathing Nike Swoosh, O’Neill’s look and demeanor was indelible. A one-eyed surfing legend whose unkempt beard, sideways grimace and signature eye patch passed away due to natural causes in his Santa Cruz home—itself an iconic scrap book to the early days of the sport.
What may be most notable, is he left the Earth with his family business largely intact and on mission—to introduce the ocean to the masses, and to protect it: “I’ve felt this in my own life, but there are also researchers interested in studying the way ocean therapy affects the brain and its pathways,” he said during a 2012 interview with the San Francisco Chronicle. “[The ocean has] proved therapeutic for people with physical and mental disabilities, for veterans returning from war, for everyone. I think in the next 30 years we’ll see the potential of that power become fully realized.”
O’Neill began experimenting in the early 1950s with ways to insulate swimwear so he could stay out longer in the bracing Northern California waters most thought were untenable. The gear of the time was wool sweaters sprayed with some kind of epoxy or water sealant. Not exactly the weight or insulation one seeks when attempting to paddle out.
First, it was a rubber suit that friends remarked made O’Neill look like a swamp thing, and then with the help of friend and UC Berkeley physics professor, Hugh Bradner, a neoprene prototype wetsuit was birthed. O’Neill himself tested it in the sub-50-degree waters of Lake Tahoe in the spring of 1950.
Bob Meistrell of Redondo Beach-based Body Glove International, said he came up with the neoprene wetsuit idea at the same time. Indeed, the pair became surfing’s Jobs vs. Gates and O’Neill and Meistrell threatened each other with lawsuits and poked at the other in the press for decades.
To sell the suits, O’Neill opened a small surf shop on Ocean Beach in San Francisco in 1952. Seven years later, he moved his family to Santa Cruz and opened a second shop. O’Neill trademarked the term “surf shop” in 1962 and held onto the original business license for the San Francisco shop after it closed in 1966. The O’Neill family could legally sue any surf shop since then for infringement, but has refrained from doing so.
By the 1980s, O’Neill had become the world’s largest recreational wetsuit maker and the brand was ubiquitous in waters around the globe. In 1991, O’Neill built its own wetsuit factory in San Francisco and employed more than 100 workers to produce about 35 percent of the company’s wares domestically. Other manufacturing was based in Ensenada, Mexico as well as Taiwan and Hong Kong.
O’Neill’s only big misstep came in 2007 when Dutch company Logo International B.V. announced the acquisition of the O’Neill worldwide trademark portfolio, a licensing agreement that would expand the brand to snow gear and various clothing lines which is why you see their India-made Bermudas in Costco today.
The O’Neill family, however, continued to operate the wetsuit business and the surf shop. O’Neill domestically still employs 130 people and retains about a 60-percent market share of international wetsuit sales.
After stepping back from the company’s day-to-day in the mid-’00s, O’Neill got the O’Neill Sea Odyssey program up and running. He used his 65-foot catamaran to take kids out on Monterey Bay National Marine Sanctuary and teach them about ocean preservation. To date, the program has taken nearly 100,000 children on an unforgettable voyage. “There is no doubt in my mind that the O’Neill Sea Odyssey is the best thing I’ve ever done,” he told the Associated Press.
O’Neill also helped get Santa Cruz registered as a World Surfing Reserve. The designation belongs to only four spots in the world and helps protect the area’s 23 surf spots against threats from pollution and coastal development.