Richard Baker; gave business sense to surf firms

By Adam Tschorn
Los Angeles Times / April 17, 2009
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LOS ANGELES - Richard Baker, who helped shape the surf apparel industry as president of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association and president and chief executive of the iconic OP brand, has died. He was 62.

Mr. Baker lost a two-year battle with cancer Tuesday at Mission Hospital in Mission Viejo.

His ability to embrace and genuinely appreciate the surf culture and at the same time act as a kind of free-wheeling ambassador between wave riders and Wall Streeters made him more than an influential spokesman for the surf industry. With a shock of white hair that set him apart from surf's young turks and a twinkle in his eye, he was a kind of counselor, advocate, and favorite uncle all rolled into one.

A Los Angeles native, Mr. Baker graduated from California State University at Northridge. His entrée into the apparel industry came as he worked his way through school at a men's specialty store.

He eventually became chief executive of Izod Ltd.'s men's wear division (in 1983) and president of Esprit Sport in 1986 and later Tommy Hilfiger's women's division.

But Mr. Baker's lasting legacy - his involvement with the surf industry - would come in 1998, when he returned to the West Coast and, along with investment partners, acquired the flagging Ocean Pacific heritage surf brand. Mr. Baker became the chief executive, and his efforts at reviving and updating the brand proved so successful, he was able to shepherd the label through two sales, first to Warnaco Group in 2004 for $40 million and two years later to Iconix Brands for $54 million.

He remained president of OP until 2006.

In 2000, he joined the board of the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association. He served as president and later became chairman emeritus.

It was in this capacity that Mr. Baker had a lasting impact on the business of "selling surf to the suits," mentoring the budding barons of board sports as they blossomed into the chief executives of megabrands.

Mr. Baker summed it up at a May 2005 surf industry conclave in San Jose del Cabo, Mexico: "Surf is on the world stage, and this hard-core, laid-back industry has been discovered by the suits. The nonendemic business types see this as an area of growth, and if you see this as a threat, then get a life - it's a compliment."