Fast Company

The Empire Strikes Back

Oakley Inc. specializes in making sunglasses and sneakers that look as if they come from a galaxy far, far away. They are made within the company's $40 million headquarters, where Oakley's work style combines a passion for design with a lust for combat.

Within menacing, castlelike walls and behind massive steel doors is a state-of-the-art company that operates like an army in a state of war. The company's products include cutting-edge sunglasses and sneakers, but its mind-set has been honed on the edge of conflict.

There may be no better expression of corporate mission in corporate architecture than the headquarters of Oakley Inc., in Foothill Ranch, California. The lobby of the two-year-old, $40 million facility looks like a bomb shelter: It's a huge, echoing vault straight out of Star Wars. Sleek pipes, watertight doors, and towering metallic walls studded with oversize bolts suggest a place that is routinely subjected to laser fire and floods. Ejection seats from a B-52 bomber furnish the waiting area. A full-size torpedo lies in a rack behind the receptionist's armored desk.

A maker of high-end, ultrahip eyewear and footwear, Oakley attacks such rivals as Nike with gladiatorial glee. Its annual report reads like "The Art of War," while its business strategy displays as much attitude as it does acumen. In 1997, when worldwide sales of pricey, high-fashion eyewear collapsed, founder Jim Jannard, 48, and his 1,100 employees responded by introducing even wilder designs for 1998. Early last year, after experts warned that Oakley would be unable to penetrate the athletic-footwear market with a domestically produced, competitively priced shoe, the company unveiled a U.S.-made $125 sneaker.

Oakley doesn't like to be told what to do. And its brash approach to business has paid off. Analysts expect total sales in 1998 to top $233 million -- up 20% from a disastrous 1997 and up 18% from 1996. The company's stock price has climbed back toward its 1995 IPO level, earning Oakley plaudits as a marketplace warrior with staying power.

How has Oakley battled back? The answer lies deep within its headquarters facility, where the company has built a proprietary operation that encompasses its studios, its laboratories, and its manufacturing areas. Says Colin Baden, 36, the vice president of design: "We've always had a fortress mentality. What we make is gold, and people will do anything to get it, so we protect it."

What Oakley is really at war with is conventional thinking. Every step of the Oakley operation has been turned inside out, pulled apart, scrutinized, and reassembled in a unique, and usually more efficient, way.

Rule #1: It Has to Be Beautiful

Given the sleek beauty of Oakley's eyewear frames, a visitor to the company's design area may be surprised to find chaos. Beyond the computer-aided design stations and the stereolithography machines, however, the area's well-lit rooms are cluttered with an assortment of objects -- land-roving vehicles, barbells, statues, pictures of Elvis -- whose connection to eyewear or footwear is not readily apparent.

Many of the objects have no defined purpose. They have simply been found and brought to the Oakley studios by "hunter-gatherers" -- staff members who go around the world looking for any concept, shape, or gadget that might inspire an Oakley design. Going to such lengths might seem extravagant, but it reflects Oakley's design-is-everything philosophy. From the company's founding, back in 1975, Jannard and his crew have based the development of their products on two things: design and technology. "Design runs this company," says Baden. "The mentality is to push the envelope and to come up with the best sunglasses on the planet."

Rule #2: Do Everything Yourself

From design and engineering to manufacturing and shipping, Oakley seeks to control every aspect of its operation. Indeed, more than three-quarters of its 400,000-square-foot headquarters is devoted to manufacturing. Oakley's method turns the conventional business model upside down: Its creative process can take months, but once a design is in place, the company models and manufactures a prototype in less than a week. "In about four days, we can go from working with computer data, to shooting an outsole and stitching on an upper, to putting a pair of shoes on an athlete and seeing how they work," says Baden.

Rule #3: Challenge Every Norm

Hanging from the ceiling of Oakley's new shoe-manufacturing area is a huge brass gong. During the company's startup phase, workers and managers would sound the gong whenever they found a problem. "We called it the 'oh shit gong,' " says one Oakley factory worker. "It meant, 'Everybody stop everything, and let's figure this out.' "

That practice was classic Oakley. The company's attitude toward its people is equally innovative. Workers are cross-trained, so they can fill in for coworkers as needed. They can also spot operating inefficiencies and, in many cases, come up with solutions. Notes Baden: "If you're doing something a certain way because it's always been done that way, then you're probably doing it wrong."

Paul Roberts (proberts@nwi.net) is a Seattle-based writer who contributes frequently to Fast Company. You can check out Oakley Inc. on the Web (www.oakley.com).

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