When Jay Longley turned 30, he had $200 in his savings account and an idea in his head. The combination turned out to be quite lucrative. Today, at age 63, Longley is the well-heeled CEO of a California company called Rainbow Sandals, one of the top three best-selling brands of sandals in the United States.
The surfer/hang-glider/skier/biker/snowboarder-turned-entrepreneur made his first pair of sandals in 1974, emptying his savings account to buy three sheets of leather. Friends helped him obtain glue and rubber and webbing, and Longley’s first pair of sandals was something unique: a sandal that molds to the wearer’s foot without wearing out or breaking.
For the first year, Longley’s Laguna Canyon Road garage was his workshop. He made six pairs of sandals a day, until a fellow surfer and retail shop owner put in an order for 100 pairs. In 1975, Longley left his garage and set up shop in San Clemente, where Rainbow Sandals are still handmade.
Founder and CEO Rainbow Sandals San Clemente, Calif.Annual sales: $50 million (est. 2007)Type of business: Manufacturer of men’s and women’s leather sandalsAreas of operation: Nationwide
While the surfer footwear hardly became an overnight sensation—it wasn’t until 1999 that Rainbow Sandals evolved from a local favorite to a mainstream trend—the company continued to grow over the decades. Part of what gave the company such staying power was the longevity of its product. “They last so long,” said Longley of his sandals. In fact, to celebrate the brand’s quality and long lifespan, Longley frames and hangs 20-year-old Rainbow sandals people have sent back to him to prove how long they’ve lasted.
Longley doesn’t advertise his sandals—he said word-of-mouth is what sells them—and he doesn’t have bricks-and-mortar stores. Rainbow sandals are sold in retail stores nationwide and via the company’s Web site. In 2006, the company generated about $40 million in sales and projects an estimated $50 million this year. New products are expected to pump sales—besides selling sheepskin boots, Longley has introduced crystal-imbedded sandals geared toward the female shopper. The new bling-themed footwear retails for about $80, while more basic thongs with colored leather retail for $44 to $48. According to Rainbow Sandals’ founder, the company isn’t abandoning its roots, but is playing around with some unique concepts to keep the brand current.