September 17, 2010
Legal ‘Tactics': Board Shop Co-owner Matt Patton ’95 Makes His Mark on the Industry
This is the fifth in a weekly series of stories profiling Oregon Law alumni whose class reunions occur this fall.
Matt Patton will never forget his father’s reaction to the news in 2000 that his son was leaving the law firm where he had been employed for nearly three years and starting a snowboard shop with his friends. It’s news most parents dread hearing.
“There was a long pause and he calmly asked, ‘Matt, do you think that’s a wise decision?'”
As it turns out, Patton’s decision was very wise.
From its humble beginnings in a garage to its current home in a modern, eco-conscious warehouse on West 4th Avenue, Eugene’s Tactics has been going strong now for a decade. The store is among the largest specialty skate, surf, and snowboard shops in the Northwest, and is one of the largest online specialty stores of its kind in the country. Tactics even sponsors skateboard and snowboard teams.
The idea for Tactics was born in 1999 while Patton was an associate at Hershner Hunter LLP in Eugene, and playing soccer on a city league team with several former law school graduates, including current Tactics co-owner Bob Chandler ’98. The plan was to start an e-commerce snowboard company.
“The idea was that all six of us would keep our day jobs and pitch in efforts to run the business on the side,” Patton recalls. “Our goal was to make enough money to pay for a yearly snowboarding trip. I still laugh when I think about how naïve we were. We really had no conception of what it took to run a business, much less a seasonal inventory business.”
According to Patton, the group made it through their first winter season, but it became clear that running the business was going to be a fulltime commitment. Within a year Tactics was a two-man operation with Patton and Chandler taking on all of the responsibilities.
“We persevered through some lean times,” says Patton, who also notes that having law degrees gave the owners the credibility needed to actually get the company off the ground and keep it afloat.
“My law background has certainly helped. Early on, with virtually no startup capital or business experience, I think the degree alone gave us a level of credibility with banks and potential investors. It helped put people at ease in the sense that we were accepted as serious, diligent, and not afraid of hard work,” Patton notes. “Operationally, the most important benefit has been the ability to identify, measure, and weigh legal risks in everyday decision-making. I’d like to think we’ve avoided a lot of legal land mines and attorneys’ fees.”
Patton says he went to law school as a way to further understand the world and to build upon the knowledge he gained as an undergraduate studying the humanities.
“I wasn’t one of the lucky ones who knows their career path from childhood,” he remarks. “In college, I was drawn to history and political science as those subjects help me explain the world.”
Patton was somewhat late getting into the board sports scene — just one example of how his career path was never cut and dry. A military brat whose family eventually settled in Seattle, soccer was Patton’s sport while growing up. He says he went skiing several times as a child and later transitioned into snowboarding. Surfing is his sport of choice these days.
“I never lived on the coast, but always wanted to surf. Since we started Tactics, I’ve started surfing and love it. At some point in my life I definitely want to live on the coast somewhere.”
While snowboarding and surfing have become Patton’s specialties, skateboarding is another story.
“We have a skate ramp at the back of the shop for employees. I mess around on it, but the consequences of really progressing at my age can be pretty dire. I hope to snowboard and surf as long as I can,” he says lightheartedly.
Having been in the board sports world for some time now, Patton says that while the sports themselves haven’t changed that much, the “industry” surrounding them certainly has.
“Like a lot of other industries, there has been a lot of consolidation over the last ten years. Additionally, a lot of the suppliers we work with have gone public or been acquired by public companies,” Patton explains. “As a result there’s an increased focus on making next quarter’s numbers, often at the expense of the industry’s long term health’ throw in the current recession, and there are plenty of challenges.”
One of these challenges has been keeping the store headquartered in Eugene — not quite the board sports Mecca that is California. The choice to stay in Eugene was more personal than professional.
“Honestly, there’s no question that staying in Eugene has made it more difficult in some ways,” Patton explains. “But there are also benefits, and at the end of the day it’s a great place to live and raise kids.”
Despite the challenges, Patton feels pretty lucky to be making a living at something he loves.
“Like most folks in the industry, we got into it for the fun of it. Helping start something from nothing can cause a lot of anxiety, but is also incredibly exciting,” he says. “Not having to track my time in six-minute increments is awesome!”
Patton admits that while he has no idea what the next ten years will have in store, he knows his business will need to continually evolve in order to survive.
“Things have changed so much and I think the pace of change will only accelerate. Part of the reason I left the law firm was my discomfort in knowing what the rest of my career looked like. I like not knowing what I’ll be doing in ten years.”
See more on Tactics’ involvement with 1% For The Planet and its other green practices