Columbus based lifestyle company, Salt Life, is making a splash. Whether it’s surfing, fishing, diving or simply enjoying a day at the beach, President Jeff Stillwell lives and breathes the Salt Life. With his drive an passion, Jeff propels the company to receive national recognition.
he Salt Life brand was created in 2003 by four men who weren’t only friends – they were also avid watermen from Jacksonville Beach, Florida. Drawn by their shared passion for ocean-centric activities, they embarked on a journey to develop a brand that wasn’t just a logo… they wanted it to represent a style of life. Fourteen years later, under new management and amid expansion, the brand is as strong as ever.
We spoke with Jeff Stillwell, President of Salt Life, about the humble beggining of the company, how he stays connected to the active community, the challenges, and the most rewarding part of his involvement with Salt Life.
Can you talk about the founding of the company in 2003 – who were the key people involved in launching the business and what was the initial inspiration in starting Salt Life? There were 4 guys down in Jacksonville, FL a couple of them were contractors, one owned an auto body shop. Every weekend they’d go out fishing, diving, or surfing and that was their weekend getaway. One day when they were spearing fishing, one of the guys jumps out of the water and says “man we’re living the salt life.” That became their code word to go out on the weekends. Not long after that, one of the guys, Troy, loved tattoos and had the original logo drawn and tattooed on his neck. People were asking what it was, and they started making a few t shirts and stickers to give away. Next thing you know, there was a demand for it in the Jacksonville area. I was traveling a lot down there and I started following the brand. Ultimately, they realized they didn’t have any expertise in being brand managers, so we were able to acquire it in 2011 and go from there.
We had the vision it would be a life style brand. It’s interpretive, so it can mean different things to different people. For some, Salt Life is laying out on a beach with a book, for others it’s surfing or paddle boarding. It doesn’t matter if you live in Kansas City, if you take a trip once a year to go fishing on the coast; Salt Life is there.
Can you describe the creative process over the course of the year? We’re showing Spring 2018 for our dealers, working on Fall 2018, and having design conversations about Spring 2019. Mainly, our creative designer in California and I create the designs. We talk about where we are as a brand and where we want to go. We know we need to create a certain amount of styles, and we look for design trends by going through a story board. We may start with 150 designs and narrow it down to 35 designs for t shirts.
Designing the pieces isn’t easy, but it’s really fun and creative.
Starting a new business is not easy, can you share any challenges you have faced? Retail has been my background since my father started a chain of sporting goods stores when I was 7. I’ve evolved and grown up in this business of accessories, apparel, retail and whole sales. It’s been in my DNA from early on, but there are always challenges when you’re trying to grow a brand. You have to have a vision of how you want the brand to be, and no matter how much pressure you have from other people, you can’t change that vision.
Once you change that vision, you’re compromising what you believe in. For us, its fish, surf, dive- everything has to be related to that.
This is what we do. Even if you see our photography on Instagram or on our website, we don’t use “real” models, everyone we sponsor are athletes. When we go somewhere, they’re the first ones going in the water to spear fish. In our shoots, we go out for a week and fish one day or dive one day, and all the models are wearing our apparel as they do what they love. That’s authentic and I don’t think we can change that.
When you’re working on a new product, do the athletes come to you or do you go to them? They may say something like “hey have you ever thought about this feature,” and sometimes we
go back and change the design. Sometimes, the changes may make it extremely expensive
or too advance for our clientele.
Salt Life has already been established as a brand that represents a life style. Does the brand look to expand on that? If so, how? Expanding our life style is really giving our customers more stuff to wear. As we have evolved, we’re getting into performance fishing gear and UV protection shirts. Next season, we’ll be rolling out a new kind of fishing shirt that’s made from board short technology. It’s more stylish, so you’ll be able to go fishing and then wear the same shirt to dinner without being uncomfortable. Whether you’re on the boat or going out to dinner, you can represent the life style.
You are opening your first shop in downtown Columbus, how does it differ from other stores? Its similar in look to our other stores in California, Jacksonville, and Daytona. We plan to open up a couple stores every year around the country, all with a similar look, but they are tailored to the people in that area. The store in Columbus is a historic property, so we left the exposed brick and other elements that worked to make it “Columbus,” while adding our Salt Life element to the design.
A lot of people here in Columbus go on vacation to the beach, and they fish and paddle board all the time. We recently sponsored a paddle boarding competition on the river walk, which
encouraged people of all age groups to compete. We hope next year to triple the amount of people to participate.
What has been the most rewarding part of your involvement with Salt Life? At the end of the day, it’s following through with the creative process and seeing people love what we did. That’s the rewarding part. We go on tons of shoots around the world, and that’s of course really fun. But, the fun thing for me is to create something and have people tell me how much they love it. It’s just as relevant to people inland, because many people may only have a few weeks out of the
year, and the logo connects them to the coast.
What’s your favorite way to spend a Saturday when you are not working? If I have free time, I greatly enjoy scuba diving. When I happen to be home, I love having people over and cooking for them. Honestly, I have more hobbies than I have time for. SVM