Sportswear entrepreneur loves his work, and the money follows

Succeeding in small business

August 12, 1991|By Jane Applegate | Jane Applegate,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

HONOLULU -- Dave Rochlen's passion for zany fabrics and comfortable clothes has kept his company going for nearly 30 years.

Rochlen's thriving surf and sportswear company was inspired in part by his love for Life magazine.

"I remember seeing a black-and-white photo layout of a resort on the Black Sea," said Rochlen, a former Southern California lifeguard. "The people were wearing their bathrobes and pajamas down to the beach."

Rochlen, who was having trouble finding comfortable surfing attire, was inspired by how comfortable the Soviets looked in the photographs.

He bought a few yards of brightly printed fabric and asked his wife, Kea Nue Nue, to make him some swimming pajamas. He suggested a few modifications: Forget the top, sew up the fly and cut the legs off at the knees.

As soon as Rochlen started wearing his "jams," as he called them, to the beach, his surfing buddies wanted some, too.

Today, Surf Line Hawaii Ltd. sells about $7 million a year in hotly colored beach and sportswear. Without any fashion or design background, the secret of Rochlen's success is his passion for what he does. Every morning he's in the office by 5, using the time to think and dream.

"I love what I do, and the money follows," Rochlen said. Although he hasn't read it, he personifies the entrepreneurs described in Marsha Sinetar's popular book, "Do What You Love, the Money Will Follow," (Dell, $8.95).

Sinetar, an educator and organizational psychologist, said that although she does not advocate "dropping everything and running off to play," she does believe that the most successful small business owners are extremely passionate about their work.

"When we go into work simply for security, the enthusiasm is not tapped," said Sinetar, who lives in Northern California. The theme of her best-selling book, which has been embraced by thousands of people seeking to change their lives, is that our working lives are enhanced when we enhance our self-esteem.

"He gives all he has to the thing at hand because this giving is the way in which he exists," she writes.

A truly "vocationally integrated" person "centers himself in his tasks, is responsible in his relational life and creates with great force and vitality."

Anyone who knows an entrepreneur, or is one, can relate to this description, and it definitely fits Dave Rochlen. At 67, he is so energetic and exuberant that people often ask his son, Pua, what he takes to give him so much pep.

Like most successful entrepreneurs, Rochlen started out doing something totally different. For about 10 years, he worked as a systems analyst for two research organizations doing top-secret government work.

"I started to have a bad feeling about the military-industrial complex," said Rochlen, who moved to Hawaii in the early 1960s.

On Christmas Day 1964, the first pair of Jams (which is a registered trademark) hit the beach at Makaha, Hawaii.

Their appeal landed Rochlen and a group of Jams-wearing friends on the cover of Life magazine -- the magazine that inspired him to create the funky, knee-length swimming pajamas.

Today, Surf Line has about 115 employees busy cutting, sewing and shipping clothes from an airy 30,000-square-foot warehouse an industrial area of Honolulu.

Although all the Jams, windbreakers, dresses, shirts and shorts are made in Honolulu, Rochlen and his design team take a global approach to the fashion business.

Four times a year they visit Osaka, Japan, to spend a few days brainstorming with their Japanese designers. When the wild colors and designs are complete, the fabrics are printed by a textile company partly owned by Rochlen's firm.

Rochlen also works with a fabric designer in Lyon, France, and makes a trip to Italy and Paris every year to check out the food and fashion.

Rochlen injects his personal philosophy into every piece of clothing he makes. Most everything in the Jams World line sports a hang tag with a sample of Rochlen's perspective on the world.

"Our credo is color, humor, freedom, difference and love," he said. "This seems to be what life is all about.

"We believe in color. Color expresses life, art and the joys of living. Color is a performance. Color isn't fattening. Grab some! Put some color into your life.

"I am deliberately designing to please myself. After 14 seasons on the beach as a Santa Monica lifeguard, I have seen it all come and go."

He plans to return to Santa Monica, Calif., to open his first retail store on Main Street in the next few months. The store and office won't be too far from the lifeguard stand where he used to work.

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