Interview with Johnny Schillereff
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Johnny worked his way up from the ground floor. Born into a military family, he spent many years living abroad, went through tuff times with his parents divorcing and began heading down the wrong path. He has lived in Oregon, Virginia, Georgia, New Hampshire, Ohio and New York to name a few, resided in an abandoned apartment and pirated electricity from the store downstairs because he was so broke. Not exactly a life in the epicenter of skateboarding, but he started skating at a young age and never stopped.
Have you ever heard of Underworld Element.
A skateboard company started in Atlanta, Georgia way back in 1992. Two art students going to school at The Art Institute of Atlanta both had the passion to start a skateboard company. One of the students, Andy Howell helped create Underworld Element in 1992. Soon after, Andy’s New Deal teammate & friend Johnny Schillereff began working with Andy on the over all company. Fast forward two years later to 1994, Underworld was headed for bankruptcy, Andy Howell soon leaves to pursue other opportunities and Johnny was left with a big decision of what to do with the company. He had developed a solid relationship with Giant Distribution while creatively directing New Deal and Giants other brands since first being recruited to skate for the company’s amateur team in 1989. Decision time.
Giant’s president at that time was Steve Douglas. Steve gave Johnny the option to start a new skateboard company and drop Underworld Element because of its rapidly decreasing sales. Johnny declined because of a vision and passion he had developed for Underworld Element and chose to stick with it. He changed the company name to Element - and the journey began.
We sat down with Johnny in his office, at his art table that has been with him since day one, to learn a little more.
Who is Johnny?
He’s a guy who can’t stop dreaming.
How did you get the opportunity to be a sponsored skater?
My sister was a skater when we lived in Germany, and was the first to introduce me to skateboarding and I grew up skating in the Peralta / Dog Town era. Fast forward to my early teens which were the “sponsor me video” days. I skated in the NSA & ESA contest series and got a shop sponsor. My shop sponsor helped me make a video, and I soon got picked up by Alva. I was a street skater in NY. West & East Coast styles were very different. The West Coast was mostly vert skaters & dominated by glossy images at the time. The East Coast was all about street we didn’t have access to vert so the street skating was all we knew. I remember doing a demo with the Alva team and they weren’t feeling me because I couldn’t skate transition like them. Those guys weren’t down with my vibe because I was new school back then and had a more urban style. I soon parted ways and got picked up by Circle A, an edgy underground company that better understood where skateboarding was headed. I rode for them until one day Andy Howell, who was an up and coming pro and a good friend of mine, called me from California and said, we’re all bailing from Schmitt Stix and starting a new company called New Deal. It’s confidential right now, but we want you to be one of the first amateurs on the team.” It was so on the DL. that my first package arrived undercover in a Schmitt Stix box. A couple of months later we launched New Deal.
A crucial part of all this is I was always into art, organizing events, and being an entrepreneur. At the time Andy was the Art Director at New Deal and he’d pass things off to me. I helped out with everything from team management, graphic design and straight running the company.
We were into everything. We formed a rap group called Mass Profits, started a creative studio in Atlanta called Urbanisticks, we did graffiti, produced music, danced and graphic design. I even opened up a Hip-Hop club / cafe down town called Graffiti’s. We tried to materialize anything we could think of at the time, it was craziness and this is all during the early 90s.
Where were you living while all this was going on?
Living in Atlanta at the studio.
During all of this I was also going to art school. I was at a crossroads. I had an internship at a design firm (suit & tie style place) after school and was given the chance to work Full Time for them. It was the “perfect scenario” for transition from school to work life. I passed it up.
I dropped everything in Atlanta and moved to California to keep building Element with Giant. I new I couldn’t do it with half the continent between us so I packed my life and moved to Ca. in a U-haul.
Back in those days the company was known as Underworld, nobody really ever referred to it as Element. But I was always looking at it as Element. When I thought about Underworld I’d feel the negative gangster / sloppy vibe, but I would think of Element and feel the earthy / organic / clean and the positive vibe of the word Element. Good things come to those who wait and boom it landed in my lap.
They [Giant] assumed I would want to drop Underworld Element because it wasn’t doing good and they gave me a choice to start an entirely new brand, but I declined. I wanted to run with the company [Element as we know it today]. I completely refaced the brand into what I had always envisioned it to be.
What were the biggest changes, or fundamental changes, you made when changing Underworld Element to Element?
I looked up the name in the dictionary. The word element is defined as one of four substances to compose the physical universe, wind, water, fire and earth. That’s when I really realized the power we had in the name alone. Element is a part of everything.
We could represent a bit of everything because we are everything, there is an Element in everything. There is no name that is better than Element. It’s the name that defines the universe.
With that in mind I sat down and developed the logo, which took ages. I wanted something translated to all cultures and represented all the elements. Eventually I came up with the tree logo which represents growth and endurance and the four elements that surround it to keep it alive. Pretty heavy but that’s the story behind the logo.
What was missing in skateboarding that made you believe Element would be a successful project?
For me personally, I had a pretty knarly childhood, I was headed down the wrong path, really up to no good, just a reck-loose. There was a turning point in my life. And I said if I’m going to do something I want to make a difference.
Over the history of skateboarding there have been a lot of companies that put graphics on skateboards, clothes, etc. with no real meaning behind them other than doing what’s trendy at the time just to sell product. I wanted to create a company with substance.
I wanted to make difference, and build a company that would have a positive impact on the world. To build what Element meant to me, I wanted to create a brand that people could live.
It was an opportunity to create something that is an extension of myself. The product, graphics, and everything else were, and are, bits and pieces of my life.
There are few examples but people like John Lucero, and his company Black Label, are similar in the way that he lives and breath’s his brand. It’s the real deal and not transparent.
How does a day in the life of Johnny Schillereff today compare to a day in the mid to late 90s?
I was a one man army. Giant was the back bone, thank god. I was the team manager, graphic and clothing designer, marketing, worked on board shapes, constructions and anything else that was necessary. That lasted for years, which is how I learned the business. Then slowly with the growth of the company help started filling in. Without Giant I wouldn’t have been able to do it.
I think the biggest difference now is the amount of people and things going on around me. The number of issues and people I have to communicate with on a daily basis can be insane.
But the roots & the general concept of Element are the same. Most the time my headspace is still the same and the things I did back then I still do today. I’m very hands on and still work on all creative aspects of the company and then some.
How have you maintained Element’s identity of, “Stay true to whatever you are” through all the changes that have occurred as a result of your company’s growth? --And what are some of the most valuable contributing factors to your company’s success over the past 10 years, and its continuing success?
Fanatical attention to detail. If I’m going to hone in on one thing its going to be that. Some people in the office recently gave me a “control freak” pin. I have also always been surrounded by great people. Like Ryan Kingman our Marketing Director, who has been with me through thick and thin and always had my back. Our Executive Vice President Mark Tinkess the other side of the Element brain who has enabled me to continue to do what I’m good at. People like those guys make it possible for Element to really shine. Without guys like that there to back you up its nothing but a dream.
At one point in time you created a separate office to run Element design, at the time it was called Little Giant. Does it still exist? Why / why not?
The real story behind Little Giant is that I met a beautiful woman in Los Angeles.
I wanted to get out of Orange County and into a new and improved creative environment and get the juices flowing. Giant was getting watered down with systems, procedures and other corporate B.S. (which has changed since then) and I’m notorious for needing change and moving around. The original plan was to move to SF. Right before it became official, I met this girl in LA who I fell madly in love with and I started going to LA every day. So I said good-by to SF idea, and it became LA. She’s now my wife and the best thing that ever happened to me. Fate is a weird thing.
The Little Giant went on for a while and from that came some of our greatest work. But it made me realize the set-up was still a half-ass solution. It became evident we needed to break out and spread our wings. So we left Giant and became an independent skateboard company.
When I decided to take the company to the next level and stand on our own two feet I met Paul Naude the man behind Billabong USA. He became my mentor and helped give me the confidence and resources to do it. He understood my passion. He was one of the first people I had ever met and told my ideas and vision for Element that understood - he knew it was possible and believed in it. The big picture for Element was still like a solo mission at that point. Getting people to see the full potential of Element and be prepared to take the risk was a solo mission, up to that point. Unless it is 100% guaranteed and safe most businessmen are terrified of risk, especially when they’re fat & happy. Naude thought it was a beautiful thing and believed in me.
I’ve dealt with so much resistance over the years with my ideas. It’s always been hard; it’s always been a struggle to get people to believe. I guess if it’s not a struggle it’s not real.
Are you satisfied with your generation’s creative & artistic direction of skateboarding? How does it compare to that of the 80s when you were growing up?
Yes, but art is very opinionated and so is skateboarding. I feel like it has become well rounded, eclectic and sophisticated. It has polished up nicely since the 80’s and I think we have all wised up since then.
How about with the direction your generation has taken the business of skateboarding? Goods & Bads.
I think we should all be proud. We have created an industry and helped keep skateboarding healthy. I don’t see to many negatives. With growth comes pain but that is just natural. In the end you’re still growing and that’s positive. In the process I think it is important that we don’t forget about our roots and always protect the core. All in all, I think we are doing a good job. Skateboarding is still very young and we all have a lot to learn. Part of what makes skateboarding so attractive is the beauty of its imperfections.
A lot has changed for you and your company over years. Looking back, what have you taken away from the experiences?
The one thing I’ve learned is in the end it’s still just you. You’re surrounded by all these people. You look around and all this shit goes on. But you look in the rear view mirror, whether you’re driving a Porsche or an old Volkswagen bus you’re the still same dam person. After doing this for so many years, so many things can happen, but in the end it’s just you. You need to be sure you are satisfied with the life your living…
Bottom line is, no matter what you do, where you go; you’re always living in your own skin. You can’t run away from yourself.
What is your biggest challenge in your job, as it exists today?
The biggest challenge is making sure you’ve got balance. Growing, yet keeping core. When the company’s growing it’s a challenge to find that balance. Being very busy, but finding time to think out side the box. Making the right decisions at the right time. Making sure I keep the three most important things in life in check… work, family, and health. For me the challenge with everything is finding the time and having the balance.
What’s the single most rewarding aspect of your job?
Its being able to help people. Right now as we’re speaking there’s a kid in a skate shop about to buy a skateboard that could change his life forever, and it could be an Element skateboard. Knowing that every kid who buys a skateboard could be kept on the right track, give them purpose, self worth and create great memories. Versus not buying that skateboard, becoming misguided and heading down the wrong path.
We have a chance to help make dreams reality. We help people stay in tune with their youth. Help our communities and it allows us to give people jobs in an industry they love. I’ve been able to watch my own personal dreams materialize. And the bigger it gets the more positive things you can do. For me personally skateboarding changed my life, kept me from becoming a complete reck-loose and I want it to do the same for other people.
What is new & exciting at Element?
I think what’s always exciting about Element is that we are all about progress. Its all about growth, life is about growth, it’s like a rock in a river, and if it sits stagnant then fungus will grow and bury it. Element is the river over the rock, we just keep on flowing. We’re always thinking about how we can improve, continuous improvement. That’s exciting because it comes through in our brand.
Our team is growing; we have Terry Kennedy about to turn pro, Vanessa Toress one of the first females with a pro-model. Don’t worry Vanessa, no pressure – the future of Women’s skateboarding is under your feet.
We are always developing new product, new technology and thinking of ways to progress skateboarding. We try not to shut any doors and keep an open mind.
There are no boundaries. You never know what we’re going do next; we don’t know what we’re going to do next. You have to be spontaneous and adapt to survive, but always with a plan. That’s what makes it exciting. To grow accordingly and stay core.
But what’s most exciting is I’m more passionate about this dam company than I’ve ever been.
Is there anything you can tell the readers about working or succeeding in the industry?
I think that the thing about succeeding is that it’s not so much about how to do it in this industry, but how to succeed in life. If you lead a successful life than you’ll have a successful career.
You have got to be responsible. If you know what you want to do, you’ve got to be responsible about how you go about you doing it. Use your head.
Someone once said me, “if you follow your heart you’ll rarely make mistakes.” Just be responsible when following it.
“Those who abandon their dreams, discourage those who don’t”. Ignore the haters. The people out there that are complacent can kill you with negativity. They’ll say, “You won’t be able to do that”. You can’t listen to that shit. You gotta try. Worst that can happen is you fail and if you do, start all over again.
Stay away from the drama. Don’t get caught up in the politics. Stay focused. You’ll get caught in so many other peoples business you will soon forget about your own business.
“Did you see so & so do bla bla bla…” that is all bullshit. You’ll loose your focus and soon forget about why you even started doing all this and what is really driving you.
Never wear the emperor’s new clothes. That is the kiss of death. Always listen and connect with your people.
Every day when I drive home, I thank god for what I have and can’t believe what’s happened. Even on my worst days.