Gallery: Sparky [10 Images] Click any image to expand.
by Don Kindred
People don’t become successful just because they have a good idea. They become successful when they combine that idea with the talent and tenacity it takes to make it work.
For Jay Longley Jr., the good idea came when he found a discarded sandal in the shoreline of a Laguna beach in 1974 and instinctively knew he could make a better one. But the tenaciousness that it takes to build a simple idea into a multi-million dollar company was evident from birth.
Longley entered the world of Takoma Park, Maryland in 1944 and never stopped moving. A rebel even in diapers. He first ran away from home when he was only three by chewing thru a leather leash that his mother rigged up to hold him in place while she nursed a younger brother.
She called him Sparky. He set a record for speed-skiing when he was six that still stands in Idaho. He overcame his fear of heights by jumping off a cliff in a human kite. Then he learned to fly.
“The trouble was always stopping,” he says with a smile. Sparky always has a smile.
Even at 67, the owner of Rainbow Sandals is not an easy guy to catch up with. Environmentally conscious, he drives a Prius to work, but he owns two planes and a Ferrari. An avid snowboarder, if there’s no snow in Aspen for the holidays, he’s heli-boarding in Canada. He lives on Beach Road but there’s a house in Cabo, and an Avocado ranch in Fallbrook.
I found him on an 80-degree Wednesday in January at the end of San Onofre where “Dogpatch” has turned into a haven for those who enjoy his current passion, stand-up paddling. He’s there with surfer-actor-shaper-legend and lifelong friend Gerry Lopez who has flown down from his home in Oregon to take advantage of some spectacular weather and a decent swell.
Sparky is casual and relaxed. He dresses like he does for work, a t-shirt and shorts. He greets Rainbow-sponsored pro surfer Collin McPhillips who’s out for some exercise, gives away the sandals on his feet to another SUP’er who’s walking around Rainbow-challenged, poses for marketing director and son Pat Huber and takes the time to talk about his life...
“You want the truth, right?” he grins.
The Wild West
The Longleys moved west in 1949. His father was an Army medic when he transferred to Camp Pendleton. “Jay Sr.” became a Newport Beach urologist, a devoted doctor who worked long hours often at the expense of time with his family. His mother, of course, was a saint. The eldest of four children, Sparky took to the ocean like he’d taken to the snow. He grew up surfing Big Corona, skiing Sun Valley and getting expelled from various schools. He eschewed the structure of the classroom and was ultimately dismissed from Newport Harbor High when he was observed tossing an egg that cracked on the Principal’s head. Seven months before his 18th birthday he was declared a ward of the state and sent to graduate from the Joplin Boy’s Ranch.
Rebel finds a cause
On his own at 18, college was pretty much off the table, the corporate route would be a tough fit. In retrospect, Sparky was probably pre-determined to be self-employed. He had started three different businesses and surfed half-way around the world before he found that sandal on the beach, but it finally seemed that this new passion to create a great product gave him the focus he needed to channel his energy and develop his talents.
At 30-years-old and on his last $200, he bought a sewing machine that had been used to sew parachutes during World War II. He bought a press to cut the shapes and a grinder to finish them; he used a 2,000-pound-test webbing to keep them from breaking. He found the best rubber in the world and then he found a way to make it better, to mold to the wearer. Then he added an arch. When he couldn’t find a glue that would last long enough for his three-step process, he invented a new one.
He called his sandals “Rainbow” because it was simple and worked with the layers of the closed rubber soles. It took him months to make the first pair, but he soon cranked up production to six pair a day in the garage where he lived on Laguna Canyon Road. He had to sell what he made before he could buy the material to make more. He sold them wherever he could (and at least one place he couldn’t, if you count the parking lot outside the Sawdust Festival.) He was already outgrowing the garage when the city of Laguna Beach suggested he build his business elsewhere. In 1975, Rainbow made a historic move to the Gregorian building on Los Molinos in San Clemente and did just that.
The Rainbow Sandals factory-outlet on Calle de los Molinos is practically a tourist attraction. It’s become a ritual destination for visitors and locals alike. They come, not to replace last year’s models, but to add to their collections or share stories of how long their sandals have lasted. They bring hand-written tales or send poetry of their long-suffered soles. The walls adorned with notes and images framed like a Hall of Fame for the well-worn. The retail outlet can generate up to $40,000 a day in sales but as Sparky will tell you, in 1975, the original $250 a month rent was a risky investment.
“The landlord, Fred Gregory used to make his copper candleholders on the site, he let me move in with $100 down and a promise to pay him another $150 in 10 days, Rainbow was rolling,“ he says to the sky.
A company’s growth isn’t always steady it’s like waiting for waves, you need to stay ready to paddle. In the mid-‘70s he finally got in with retail guru Dick Metz who agreed to test the sandals in the first Hobie Surf Shop.
As Metz recalls. “Back then we sold these little rubber jobs that came from Japan, The toe would always come out and they always broke, but they were only 99 cents! Sparky was selling his sandals at five or ten times more than that. There were some wild colors and I thought they were too expensive, ” Metz reminisces laughing, “but we took some on consignment.”
“They always sold.” Metz continues, “Sparky kept making them better and coming back with more ... we sold thousands of them. I know that ... Sparky was just one of those guys, like Hobie and Grubby Clark, John Severson, Bruce Brown, they all started working out of local garages and created great things, back then everything was new.”
Rainbow’s name and reputation grew, not on the investment of marketing dollars, but on “word-of-foot”. Surfers, beach lovers, even celebrities traveled coast to coast and around the world, privately extolling the virtues of the fashionably-functional footwear with the iconic tag.
By 2000, manufacturing had grown to 1,200 pair a day and demand was exploding. Orders from major chains like Nordstrom’s and Dillard’s could push orders to five times that amount. New styles and fabrics were in the works. Then came the EPA Regulations (the same ones that spelled the end of the run for Clark Foam located in Laguna Niguel) forcing changes. Sparky figured out how to utilize a Volkswagen-sized catalytic oxidizer to take the bad stuff out of the air during the gluing process, but it was a temporary fix. The State of California limited his production in San Clemente back down to 1,000 pair a day, (which he still does) but again came the suggestion that he build his business elsewhere.
Rainbows in China
“The challenge with manufacturing overseas, of course,” Sparky says, “was maintaining the quality. These are hand-made products and quality’s what our brand was built on. That’s what our customers expect and we had to keep at it until we got it right. We had to do the same thing over there,” Sparky says, the old tenacity still intact. “In 2011, 2.5 million pair were shipped over from China and we hand-inspected all of them. They got the message, We’re not compromising.”
Rainbow currently distributes out of a modern 52,000 sq.ft. headquarters in the San Clemente Business Park. Rainbow Five, as they call it, (being one of five commercial buildings Sparky owns in San Clemente) is where 35 employees oversee the physical movement of eight million pair of sandals in over 30 styles, all in a half a dozen colors and sizes, to 8,300 outlets in 17 countries. They’ve also opened new stand-alone retail locations New York and Los Angeles. It’s a long way from 6 pair a day.
Work Hard, Play Harder, Give Back
In 2008, Longley, Pat Huber, Gerry Lopez, and shaper Ron House came up with an idea to create a spectator friendly SUP (Stand Up Paddle) event called the “Battle of the Paddle”. It’s become an annual celebration of what many consider the world’s fastest growing sport and raises funds for Doheny State Beach Interpretive Association, in their efforts to rebuild the Marine Center at the State Park. This year, over 1,300 competitors and 30,000 spectators will attend the two-day event on September 29th & 30th.
Sparky serves on the board of directors for the Surfing Heritage Foundation (The Smithsonian of all things surf, located in San Clemente) and donates a custom-stamped pair of sandals to everyone who becomes a member. He supports the Marines, donating over 1,500 pair last year alone to deployed soldiers and their families.
After hearing about Courtney’s Sand Castle (The new universally-accessible playground opening this month at the new Vista Hermosa Park) he donated $25,000 worth of sandals and the proceeds of his annual Halloween golf tournament, the “Rainboo! Classic.” He sponsors the Friends of San Clemente Foundation’s “SC Open“ Surf and Skateboard Championships, the San Clemente Ocean Festival, the Boys and Girls Club, Laura’s House, the Exchange Club, the Lions Club … the list is long.
He pays special attention to local youth and hopes to “offer guidance where he can, to encourage them to be focused and set priorities for themselves earlier in life.” He recently gave 1100 custom “SCHS” sandals to the San Clemente Educational Foundation to help their fundraising efforts.
The San Clemente Chamber of Commerce presented Rainbow Sandals the 2010 Business of the Year Award to recognize their generous financial contributions to the community, to the environment for the building of the city’s largest solar energy installation on their 30,000 sf roof, and for the company’s efforts to enhance the Los Molinos Business District known as locally known as Surfer’s Alley.
Sparky’s still Sparky
“None of the success has changed him,” says friend and Surfer’s Journal Publisher, Steve Pezman. “He still plays as hard as he works. He goes full-in on everything he does. He appreciates success and keeps it in perspective because it came rather suddenly and unexpectedly after 20-years of struggle. He’s the same guy he’s always been through it all. He remains devoted to his family, his friends, his employees and his community.”
Rainbow made a sandal, that walked around the world.