EYEWEAR Exclusive Interview with Colin Baden, President and CEO of Oakley
Performance-oriented, stylish and tirelessly innovative, sports performance equipment brand Oakley commands a unique position on the international eyewear market. Founded in 1975 as a manufacturer of motocross accessories, the company from Foothill Ranch, California, has grown by leaps and bounds into a global market leader, securing its competitive edge with over 575 patents for eyewear and equipment. Along the way, Oakley introduced countless “industry firsts” – including interchangeable sunglasses lenses and titanium frames – in cutting-edge glasses cherished by Hollywood action movie stars and Tour de France winners alike. In this exclusive EYEWEAR Magazine interview, Colin Baden, President and Chief Executive Officer of Oakley, talks about his company’s approach to product development, the future of eyewear design and how Oakley wants to keep leading the way.
Mr. Baden, please give a short outline of your career.
I pursued a career in architecture when I was younger and earned my degree from the University of Washington in Seattle. I became a partner in an architectural firm and after a few years received a contact from Jim Jannard, the founder of Oakley. He wanted to build some projects in the Seattle area, houses with different and diverse architecture. We hit it off really well, and between 1992 to 1995 designed a whole bunch of bizarre houses together. Although we never actually built an entire house, boy, did we draw a lot of them. In 1995, Oakley became a public company and had the resources to build a corporate headquarters in Southern California – so our houses served as an inspiration for the new corporate HQ.
The spaceship-like Oakley headquarters at Foothill Ranch are a clear departure from the norm – and a huge structure. Was directing this project difficult while living in the Seattle area?
Once Jim and I had settled on a design for Oakley’s headquarters, I ended up flying back and forth between the Pacific Northwest and Southern Californian quite a lot to execute this work. Oakley was a small organization at the time and needed resources to manage the company, so in 1996, Jim asked me to join the group as Director of Design. At first I commuted to California, but eventually moved down here with my family – and the rest is history. I became the company’s President in 1999 and was named Chief Executive Officer in 2009.
How would you describe the responsibilities of your current position?
I’m ultimately in charge of whatever you taste, feel or smell about the brand! I often get asked why an architect would get this role and my answer is: “In our business, there are a lot processes running all at the same time that need to be kept on track. A lot of the time, operating this place is like juggling cats. Architects need to be good at managing lots of disjointed tasks in their job and a sure hand in directing disconnected processes.
What part of your current role are you most passionate about?
Obviously the product! I am no less involved in the process today as I was before becoming President. I love the chase involved in getting a product out there. Once the product is done – it’s over! You move on and try to beat what you just did. It’s part euphoria, and part depression. I enjoy the mental high that comes from being able to create something. It’s an amazing experience to be part of that hunt.
What inspires the design process at Oakley?
Here at Oakley, I found that reinventing the processes and methodologies behind our products also changes the way you answer a specific problem. Reinventing yourself will typically lead to a solution that’s unexpected. I think we are at our best when we are doing what’s least expected.
Can that be “too much” for some consumers?
We don’t always try to be everything to everybody. When we do our best work, we are definitely polarizing. When someone sees one of our new products and says, “What’s that?! I would never wear that!” I tell them to their face, “That’s good! I’m glad YOU wouldn’t.”
But is it necessary to be inventive all the time, at all cost?
Not everything has to blow the doors off the world when it comes out. But I do have great passion for what we call “halo” product; product with a kind of aura that sets a new trend and creates a new construct. It can be an invention, something that our company can draw on for many years. Halo can be both a design and an inventive solution.
How does design integrate with other departments of the company?
Design at Oakley has always been a somewhat isolated entity. There’s a quote from [automobile pioneer] Henry Ford: “When I would ask the customer what he’d like from his transportation, he would ask for a faster horse!” By isolating the design department, we allow that group to think a bit differently without being influenced too much by current paradigms and the status quo.
What kind of people work in design at Oakley?
Design is not only about design itself, but about functionality, the actual product and its production. In our teams, we have technology-oriented engineers and product developers. And keep in mind that when you reinvent something, you are also reinventing how you make it. So as a vertical organization, it is important to be able to integrate new ideas all the way into production. Sometimes it can be very hard to make something new, but ultimately you end up creating new fields and processes that empower the entire company.
What is the most recent model or technology you have worked on?
We have had a long run of owning sculpted titanium frames. These are slowly being replaced by applications with carbon fiber. We have done a number of models with varying degrees of difficulty of execution. The flagship piece is the Elite C6 frame, a complete carbon fiber frame machined with CNC technology. The billet material is very rigid. About 96 hours of machine time are required for producing one pair. The designers achieved a great functional aesthetic, it’s really something you have to hold and see for yourself. Right now it goes at $4,000 retail, but surprisingly, we have no problem moving it.
Will this technology eventually “trickle down” to broad consumer levels?
There are countless customers who would love to have this technology at a lower price point, and we are currently working on glasses that combine titanium and carbon at a lower price levels.
What else is in the pipeline right now?
One of the next big things will be our sports-specific prescription lenses. We have developed a portfolio of patented designs that help a golfer or a cyclist have a better optical experience in the way they execute that sport. When you’re out golfing, you look at the ball in a certain way and the lens makes your experience a lot better. I can’t wait to get this product in the market place! It will coincide with a new lens construct called “Crosslink,” meaning it can be worn at the office but you can also wear it for an activity.
Looking ahead, what are some “hot” fields of technology to look out for?
Electronics embedded into eyewear are an important change in the business, both communication and entertainment applications. We have already built three or four models. The basic idea is that the majority of information is perceived through your eyes. Eventually we will be able to create an optical platform through which any streaming data and any interaction with your environment can be delivered. There are some physical obstacles we need to overcome, but it is a constant vision that drives us to constantly work on executing it in reality.
So what is the characteristic mark of an Oakley design?
Many of our lenses have a high degree of wrap, where it’s as much about peripheral vision as it is about clarity and also better coverage for impact protection. You will see a lot of lens curvature in our designs, and we have specific patents that revolve around curvature, because it creates many optical issues that need to be mastered. So if someone would want to go with the solution, they have to go with our way! And we have sued about everybody on the planet who tried to copy our patents.
What about the materials?
We always like to pursue a unique material story, whether it’s a metal frame or injection molded frame, or interesting graphics or treatments for frame decorations that involve unique custom processes. For example, you can go into one of our retail stores, pick a frame and color treatment, and have that crafted in-store and walk out with these customized glasses on your face.
Was it hard to get this kind of customization into the mass-market?
To be progressive in a consumer product world is very challenging from a tooling and production standpoint. Because the tools will cost so much to get into place, only few people will do it.
How do you decide to take that leap, to make that investment?
When I say, “That’s it!” we have practically made the decision. There are a bunch of sensitive meters all over my body that have to be at a “10” and if any one them isn’t at that “10”-level, we need to work on something a little more!
What are some “design mishaps,” some products that did not work out?
When processing titanium for the X Metal line, we are inserting a bar of titanium into a melt unit at over 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit [1,646 C]. The chamber has to be water- cooled at these temperatures and if by accident you crack the containment vessel, you generate a pretty violent explosion. When we first started producing in Nevada, we blew a forklift trough the wall of the melt unit one time!
How about styles that were too “far out”?
There were some designs where we just pushed too hard into the future, they were just too much for the world. I look back at them with a degree of fondness; we were so brave to do that. There was a pair of frames we made that you would wear over the top of your head, called “Overthetop.” I would wear them when I would go to New York to talk to our analysts and walk the streets of New York in them. It’s a pretty progressive place, but even there, people would walk into the side of a building looking at me because they were just so far out there. But we did sell 40,000 pieces of them! Some products will not be an initial success, like the Romeo model. But then Tom Cruise wore them in Mission Impossible II the next year and suddenly, we couldn’t make enough of them to meet demand.
Which one is your all-time favorite Oakley eyewear design?
The Leather Mars model. It’s an X Metal frame that we made a number of years ago, with leather stitched into the titanium. It has round-shaped lenses and as you can see, I don’t have a lot of hair on my head, so if you see a picture of me wearing it, that will look pretty crazy!
Which designers and brands do you look up to? Who’s doing it right?
I don’t really look up to anybody. I always try to view what we are doing as our own mental problems and challenges. And we are not really trying to track consumer tastes. Especially in optics, there are just not a lot of inspiring moments. Plus, we own a large part of the sunglasses market right now, which is a very dominant position. If I was feeling the heat of a competitor, I would have a different answer for you.
Where do you see eyewear designs headed right now?
We do customization differently than anyone else on the market. It’s a double-digit growth market for us right now and we are actively pursuing it. Customers can pick their frames and lenses online and that will be a big component of our growth. In the process, we can see how strong color is becoming as part of the overall dynamic. You will see a lot more opportunities for consumers to put color into their face. Not necessarily entire frames that are completely bright red, but maybe one component they chose to red that works just perfectly.
Have you noticed any recent shifts in consumer behavior?
The consumer market used to be a lot about vibe and style and being cool. I think that today, performance matters more than at any point in history. Consumers are really smart and they can get on the Internet and make comparisons for what works best and offers the best functionality. Oakley has an offering of high quality products for teenage kids on skateboards the same way as 50-year-olds on the golf course. You would think these two target groups are mutually exclusive, but we can be relevant to both because we offer performance products – and that is beyond discussion of what is cool and what’s not.
How would you summarize the Oakley brand philosophy?
We are part of a huge international organization, with more than 65,000 people in the Luxottica Group worldwide. Last year, we went through an interesting exercise: to reformulate the brand and decide on what Oakley is about for the next 100 years. Our insight was, to put it in one sentence, is that everything can and will ultimately be beaten. And the question is: do you wanna be beaten or do you wanna be the guy winning? We have decided to belong to the latter group.
How does that translate into everyday operations?
The idea that everything is going to get beaten means for us: everything we do has to be so interesting that it’s better than everything we have done before. So the aesthetics have to better than what we have done, we have to realize technology that is better than what we have done last year and it has to be packaged so it can be made interesting to consumers.
It’s been great talking to you. In closing, what will you be doing after this interview?
I had an idea while we set up this conversation, so I will run over to the design department to get it mocked up to see if I actually had a great idea, or not. The design department is really close to my office, so I only have a few hundred feet to go.
Wow, so hopefully we were able to contribute to a brand new eyewear design. Great luck with that and thanks for the interview.