INDUSTRY FOLK: Towing The Line With Tod Swank

In Industry Folk on May 24, 2011 at 7:00 pm

Handplant somewhere in time.

Ask any bitter, middle-aged armchair skate historian whose company sheltered some of the most successful and eclectic personalities in skateboarding and chances are they’ll crack another one of your beers and reference Tod Swank’s Tum Yeto Distribution, home to Foundation, Toy Machine, Pig Wheels and Dekline footwear. Funny thing is, he used to be a professional skateboarder and did his own magazine. Leave it to us to not ask any questions regarding the latter.

Tell us a little bit about your upbringing and when you first got into skating.

I was born in Detroit, Michigan and moved to Arizona when I was four. Parents divorced when I was eight and moved to San Diego when I was 12. That’s when I first went to Del Mar Skate Ranch and was hooked. Shaved my head at the same time celebrating my induction into the punk music movement around the same time and got my ass kicked by surfers at Oak Crest Junior High. I was so lucky that I met skateboarding at that moment in my life.

Who were some of your early influences?

I was lucky to step into skateboarding when I did (1979.) Those were crazy times. which I got. I didn’t realize how awesome it was to be a part of the end of the 70’s skateboarding onto the creation of the 80’s skate scene until I realized what was going on years later. I remember standing next to Steve Olson and Duane Peters fanning out as they skated the Del Mar halfpipe. So many dudes were a influence. 80’s skateboarding was tight, everyone was friends. Gator was an amazing skateboarder, he could skate anything. Mike Smith. Tony, Christian, Alan Losi, Blender, Mountain. All of my European and Texas skate friends, Nor Cal skateboarding. The list goes on.

Saturday Night Media Frenzy, El Cortez

So you started 1989 you start Foundation under World and in ‘91 you got cut loose and are forced to do it on your own. What happened?

Steve was busy blowing up. He helped me get going but left it up to me to make it happen. I never even wanted to do a company, thinking about all the things I didn’t know or care about that it took to be successful. I thought I’d be a hermit or a starving artist skateboarder.  I left World that fateful day with my Chevy Sprint full of the meager inventory I had at World. With a shop list and best wishes from Steve I drove back to San Diego. I sold a chopper I had and bought some decks. It was miserable.

Rocco had a reputation of being a cut throat businessman – why do you think he was cool with helping you get your own company off the ground? In a sense he was helping the competition.

I think Steve just was over putting up with crap and working with his previous employers and just did what he wanted to do. People got really excited and latched on to it. It’s really hard to please everyone so it’s going to piss people off. Steve did a lot for the skateboarding culture, community and industry. He helped more than a few skateboarders start companies that have gone on to great success. I can only say, “Thanks Steve.”

To me the Foundations heyday was around 1995 after the release of the Tentacles of Destruction video starring Josh Beagle, Kirchart, Berra, Frank Hirata and Steve Olson. Safe assumption?

TS: Very safe assumption. That was an epic time for the F.

A few years later a lot of those guys quit after the release of the next video Rolling Thunder. Rumor in our town was that they were all bummed on how it turned out. What really led to the fallout and most of the team leaving?

I never heard that one. I liked Rolling Thunder but the sound was fucked up.  I thought the guys started splitting because they saw better opportunities that Foundation couldn’t provide. I tried the best I could. I appreciate having all those guys as part of Foundation’s history.

Personally, what do you view as the best era in Foundation’s history?

It’s hard to say. There were so many good and hard times in the past, as well to this day – it’s still fun and challenging. I am learning all the time. My time and attention has definitely been stretched over the years and still is and Foundation, as a brand, has suffered from that. I dream of Foundation kicking out there. Mike Sinclair, our team manager and marketing lead is doing a great job developing new riders. I was stoked to get Marquis Preston on Foundation. I’m psyched on the Circle F as our epic logo. It’s so simple – like a secret symbol. Make your mark people! We recently hooked up with the epic illustrator, John McGuireas who’s now our main artist. We have a solid network of amazing dudes out there. Yuck Fou is back in the fold, too. It’s all good. Love this shit.

Twenty-one years in this industry is quite an accomplishment. How many times has it shit the bed since you’ve been in the running? By this point in time do you have a go-to emergency plan in place?

I got into skateboarding during the early 80’s collapse. So when Rocco and street skateboarding came up hard in the early nineties. I snuck in with Foundation. After that it was all good before it started to dump again in 2002. At the same time I sold my interests in Zero to Jamie, so it was a double whammy for us.  It’s been a rough few years and we are still working hard to keep things happening for our teams and our contributions to the skateboarding party.

A world without camera phones? Ugh.

The IASC caught heat a few years ago after putting skate shops on blast for selling shop decks, saying that by doing so they were not supporting professional skateboarding or it’s progression. In hindsight, was this a mistake or is it legitimate concern?

Yeah, it’s a problem. That whole thing was about bringing attention to and working towards a way to help stabilize things. It was not about demoralizing and pointing fingers at anyone. It was taken out of context and intention but it got people talking and communicating. Sometimes you have to stir the pot and most people do not like the pot stirred. IASC has done a bunch of great things that have benefitted the skateboarding community for the manufacturers, retailers and consumers. Those are business titles for everyone, but we are all a bunch of skateboarders. If anyone wants to complain about IASC they should get involved and help make it better.

Tum Yeto has an excellent track record of trying to help core shops by providing relevent discount structures. Why do you think that some of the other companies, who are obviously extremely popular but have a shitty reputation for quality control are still unwilling to extend a hand (to the shops)?

Thanks, it’s great that you noticed. To me our retailers are our partners. It’s not about us versus them. I know dudes that have had their stores as long as we have been around. That’s cool. It’s hard for me to know why other companies do what they do. I can imagine they get busy and start losing touch. I feel like I’m losing touch all the time! But it’s all about perseverance.

What was the most triumphant moment in your skate career was?

Ha. I don’t think there ever was one. Wait, doing the 540. I think I was one of the top five first, and most unlikely, people to do one. I didn’t do them high but I did them the right way. The first one I landed my eyes were closed. I guess another thing would be coming up with the feeble grind at DMSR. It’s weird to see it still being done so extensively today.

Interview by Jack Boyd, Portrait  photo (camera) by Rodger Bridges, others unknown

Explore the Tum Yeto Visitors Center here.

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