Up Top since 1995
I went to visit Matt Hill on a scorching day over the summer at the Globe HQ in El Segundo, a sunny surf neighbourhood of Los Angeles. Matt is CEO of Globe, best known for the skate shoes, but also makers of clothing (my early teens favourite, Mooks) and skateboards and distributors of all kinds of skate brands in Australia. Before we sat down to chat, Matt showed me around the offices, a huge space consisting of open plan offices, mini showroom/shops for the various brands under the Globe umbrella and, most impressively for anyone’s inner 15-year-old boy, a warehouse complete with half pipe for lunch and after work shredding. Did I mention his office is filled with incredible mid-century furniture?
Matt arrived in Los Angeles just over 18 years ago, ready to get Globe, a business he started with his brothers in Australia, going in the US as well as to attend to the prestigious film school at the University of Southern California. But really, Matt was always going to end up in LA. “I came for the first time when I was 17, we did a tour when the business was first starting to pick up and I was like, this place was made for me. It was everything I liked – I liked the architecture, I liked the sports, I liked the film and pop culture.” His love of the city is pretty contagious.
He’d been working on Globe with his brothers since he was in high school. The company started as a skateboard distribution company in Melbourne in 1984. His older brothers had already finished school, but all of the Hills here skateboard crazy. They could see that while interest was growing, there was essentially no industry in Australia and thought they could start distributing some of the big skate brands themselves. Says Matt, “At that point, the skate industry had all been run by big corporate sporting goods guys so their worst nightmare was a skateboarder actually running that business.” In contrast he says, “Today it’s kind of a core credential you have to have – if someone calls us and says I want to distribute your products in, say, Egypt, I want to know if they have any connection to skateboarding.”
They started taking on a brand or two, distributing, marketing and putting on events in Australia. But the Hills weren’t content to ride the skateboarding wave. “We knew, having been skaters for a while, that skateboarding is cyclical,” says Matt, singling out his older brother Peter as having seen this in operation. “While we always wanted to be in skateboarding, we wanted something to back up the business and we were pretty keen on clothing, so we got our first clothing line, Vision Streetwear.” The iconic 80s skate brand presented a big learning curve – “We didn’t know anything about clothes, we made some horrible clothes. We didn’t know anything about production, made awful mistakes but kind of rode our way through that and branched into something less skate, more just a fashion-based business.”
The Hills became the Australian licensee for Stussy, Mossimo and Freshjive amongst other, before realising that they should parlay their brand building experience into their very own labels – starting with Mooks clothing and Globe footwear.
So by the time Matt came to the US to start his Masters at USC, he was already pretty experienced at running a business, and threw himself into studying during the day and setting up the US operations at night. His childhood friend Gary Valentine came over and the two young skaters set about getting things started. “It was just a two-man show,” says Matt.” We set up in a small place down in Torrence, a tiny little office with a warehouse in the back and we started selling.” This involved travelling a lot, meeting retailers and getting the lay of the land. “I think one of the advantages for us was, being Australian we felt so ignorant about how the market worked here, so we really travelled the whole country and probably went to places that our Southern California competitors had never been because they sort of figured, ‘if we build it here, they will come.’ Whereas we felt more uninformed so we really went around.”
In the years since, the business has grown and grown, going public in 2001 and in 2002 buying skateboard brand Dwimdle. ”That was the final piece of the puzzle because then we had apparel brands that we owned, footwear brands that we owned and then by buying Dwindle we had a means to actually making our own skateboard brands.”
I asked him if he felt that Globe had, with this broad-based approach, overcome the tendency skateboarding has to come in and out of fashion. “We know that it’s there and we we know how to expand and contract but [also] to make sure that we stay involved in it,” Matt says. “It’s a really important culture and it’s important that we stay committed to it. You can’t be seen as somebody who come in and out, so we know how to manage a baseline of business when it’s on a bit of a downturn and how to ramp it up when it foes well and still stay in it.” He says this means being “committed to team riders, committed to surfers, promotions and marketing initiatives.” And what about that Masters in film Matt has? It’s come in pretty handy in everything from promotional videos to the skate documentary films that are a staple of any good skate brand.
Having been in LA for so long, Matt’s a huge advocate for the city. When he first moved here in 1995 he lived Downtown, an area that still has a seedy side today, one that was even more apparent then. “One of the things I’ve always loved about LA’s Downtown [is] it was sketchy, but it wasn’t as sketchy as people [thought] - as long as you were careful, you could see all the really good elements. Now it’s all been pushed up to be highly visible, but you’d go down there and I remember thinking, this is one of the most awesome preserved by neglect downtown areas you’ll see in any city in the world. Ironically in one of the most high development parts of the world, it had just been left untouched, which is now what they’re taking advantage of.”
Once his then-girlfriend, now wife, Christine joined him in Los Angeles, they headed out to the South Bay, seeking more of a sense of a community than Downtown at the time offered. They now live with their two sons and a whole menagerie of animals in Palos Verdes, one of the more spectacular LA neighbourhoods, in a mid-century gem perched on a cliff overlooking the ocean. So it’s perhaps no surprise that Matt doesn’t really plan to head home for good anytime soon. He’s now lived the bulk of his adult life in the US and as he says, the real issue is “I’ve got two American kids. And I like to give them as much exposure to Australia as possible, I think it’s a terrific opportunity for them to have those two possibilities of [Australia and America].”
Unlike some Australians who can have a tendency to take the mickey out of their adopted country, Matt is unashamed in his love for the US. “I’m very parochial and loyal to this place now, as much as I am to Australia, so of course I’m proud of this place.” He is clearly grateful for the “huge opportunities” America has given him and, especially, the success that’s come out of these. “What I really enjoy here is that as a general rule, people aren’t intimidated by the success of others. In fact they kind of like to get close to it in a way that affirms their belief that if you dig in and you work hard, good things can come from it – it underlies the whole culture here of the American dream. So I think in a weird way, I find that really motivating and good fun and if you can bring a degree of Australian humility to that, you can get the best of both worlds.”
Matt credits Globe’s US success with the company’s mindset, indeed, bringing that measure of Australian humility to the American dream. “The thing I’m probably proudest of is that we’ve lasted the distance here. There’s a couple of big [Australian] surf guys who’ve done really well but by and large, most of the fashion crossover brands have a lot of trouble translating to the US. I think that’s often because they try to navigate from Australia and tell them how to do business as if they’re in Australia and they don’t assimilate and figure out how to take what’s good about what they know and do that in America. It was no master plan, but I think the fact that we physically came ourselves and set up shop and became an American business run by Australians, that that really helped us.”