George Powell: the entrepreneur that changed skateboarding

May 16, 2022 | Skateboarding
George Powell: one of skateboarding's ultimate masterminds

Symbiosis has been a hallmark of skateboarding. Skaters push their boards to the limits, and skateboard makers constantly strive to remove the boards' limitations.

The energy and creativity of both have joined to make skateboarding the incredibly dynamic sport it is today.

It is not surprising, therefore, that the vast majority of those manufacturing skateboards are also skaters themselves.

For over two decades, the Powell Corporation/Powell-Peralta has provided skateboarders with some truly memorable skateboard products.

George Powell began riding a homemade skateboard in 1957, and by 1965 he had an oak board with clay wheels.

He studied engineering at Stanford University and occasionally would hop onto a board.

"In 1974, I was working for an aerospace company in engineering sales, and my son had come to me and asked for a skateboard. So I pulled one of the Hobie Super Surfers from the garage, and he started to ride it," remembered George.

The next day George's son came back and said, "It's no good because all my friends have yellow wheels."

The yellow wheels turned out to be urethane, and George realized this was indeed a product breakthrough.

George then went out and bought a pultruded (plastic) board. He didn't like the ride, so he went out and purchased a Fibreflex.

He liked the ride but was caught up with the idea of designing his own boards.

As George related to SkateBoarder in 1978, "Urethane wheels had turned a toy into a real vehicle with exciting potential."

"As soon as I discovered this, I wanted to see if my engineering design experience could be used to further improve skateboards."

George Powell: he changed skateboard decks and wheels forever

New Skateboard Materials

He then began testing various prototype boards and wheels in his home and really got into things: "I picked up some premixed urethane that I could bake in my oven, and I started making my own wheels."

Initially, the boards were quite rigid and combined aircraft aluminum and fiberglass skins with aluminum honeycomb, foam, and spruce cores.

One day, while testing a board at Pacific Palisades High School's parking lot, he met up with legendary skateboarder and innovator Tom Sims.

"Tom was doing a commercial shoot and riding one of his longboards. I told my wife I had met up with Tom, and she said that her parents lived near him."

As a result of this connection, he contacted Tom and asked him if he had any interest in the prototypes George was creating.

It was Sims who suggested the idea that was to change George's career.

"Although he wasn't particularly interested in my boards, he was looking for something to compete with the Fibreflex because he didn't have a slalom board."

Over time, George perfected the combination of fiberglass and aluminum.

One of the first test riders of the resulting flexible slalom boards was Stacy Peralta.

As George recalled, "Stacy was so impressed with the pumping action of the board, he offered to buy one on the spot."

George had developed a great product but was still working full-time in the aerospace industry.

He deliberated over whether or not to quit his job and go full-time into skateboarding.

As a result of being laid off, however, George was given four months' salary, so he decided to take the plunge and become a skateboard manufacturer.

He left Los Angeles and moved with his family north to Santa Barbara.

Quicksilver: Geroge Powell and Tom Sims teamed up to market Quicksilver ProSlalom deck

The Quicksilver ProSlalom Revolution

In November 1976, Powell and Sims wrote up a formal agreement and joined together to market the Quicksilver ProSlalom deck.

It came with two unique sales pitches.

One was that the deck was offered in three combinations depending upon a rider's weight (50 kilograms, 70 kilograms, and 90 kilograms).

The other innovative feature was that the skater's name could be engraved next to Tom Sims's name on top of the board.

George was able to produce anywhere from 30 to 60 boards a day. Initially, the boards were sold by mail order.

Although both the Quicksilver and Fibreflex offered a terrific snap, there was one key difference with George's board.

By incorporating aluminum, the board had better torsional resistance, and this meant it could pump more easily than a Fibreflex product.

Soon after its introduction, the Powell Corporation brought out the Quicktail, which was a freestyle/vertical terrain deck with much less flex than the Quicksilver.

The board got this name because it came with a kicktail.

Bones Wheels: the first featuring double radial wheels

The Bones Wheels

At the same time, Powell also introduced the first double radial wheel, called "Bones."

The white urethane was quite a contrast to other wheels at the time.

"I had looked at the big, wide wheels with big lips. Although they were pretty grippy, they didn't go over bumps very well. I decided to build wheels with hard lips and big radiuses that would enable you to roll over the bump better.

George started to experiment with urethane in a quest to produce a fast and highly responsive wheel.

Eventually, he found a urethane that fit the bill perfectly.

The urethane wheels came out a white color, so George decided to call them "Bones."

The wheels were immensely popular, but Powell faced problems filling orders.

"The wheels were difficult to pour, and there were a lot of rejects. After a bad experience with one supplier, I finally solved the problem, got quality and production in gear, and 'Bones' took off."

As skateboarding began to change from slalom to street and vertical riding, the Powell Corporation began to expand into other areas.

As wooden boards became more popular, Powell switched production from aluminum and fiberglass to wood laminates.

Their first series of wood boards were called Brite Lites, featuring fluorescent colors.

George Powell: he joined forces with Stacy Peralta in 1978

Teaming up with Stacy Peralta

Things really took off in late 1978, however, when Stacy Peralta joined forces with George.

At the time, Stacy had achieved a great deal of success with Gordon & Smith Skateboards.

His pro signature models (the Warptail I and II) were very big sellers.

But, as he related in a March 1979 interview with SkateBoarder, he had his reasons for leaving G&S: "You've gotta move on - you can't stagnate."

"With Powell, I'm part of the company, so financially, if they do good, I'll do good. At Powell now, if I want to change a design, experiment with new materials, or try anything different, he's behind me."

Stacy's original job at Powell was to be the team manager and direct promotions and advertising.

Powell-Peralta's first model together was "The Beamer."

Combining traditional wood laminates and two aerospace strips for reinforcement, the board was extremely popular from the start.

More products hit, including the Bones "Cubic" wheel, which was suited for vertical riding.

1978 honeycomb pool skateboard: a revolutionary design by George Powell | Photo: NMAH

The Bones Brigade

In 1979, Powell-Peralta put together a team of skaters that would have an enormous impact on future generations of skaters.

The original rider for Powell was Ray "Bones" Rodriguez.

George recalls how Stacy built the team: "He started adding members like Steve Caballero, Alan Gelfand, Mike McGill. He found skaters with a unique combination of grace, style, and charisma. Stacy was very good at finding people."

The Bones Brigade was headed up by Stacy, and their mission was to spread the word on Powell-Peralta and move the sport of skateboarding forward.

It's hardly surprising that they succeeded in their mission.

The team was mostly made up of vertical riders, with the exception of freestyler Tim Scroggs (who went on to influence Rodney Mullen in a big way).

Ray "Bones" Rodriguez had the only signature model on the team.

The Fall and Rise of Skateboarding

By 1980, skateboarding's second bust had hit.

The fun aspect of skateboarding seemed to have diminished and in its place was general malaise.

Skateboarding moved underground. Powell-Peralta was one of only a handful of manufacturers that continued with the sport.

"We stayed with it because we loved the sport," says George.

But the company was facing financial hardships.

"I think at one point in the 1980-1981 period, we were building five hundred decks a month. They were extremely lean years."

During these lean years, Powell-Peralta's riders took a cut in pay. Stacy went into acting and ran the Bones Brigade on a part-time basis.

Thankfully, skaters rediscovered skateboarding at the end of 1982.

"All of a sudden, we started receiving triple the amount of orders."

Stacy started adding more members to The Bones Brigade. Freestyler Rodney Mullen was asked to join.

Soon after, vertical rider Tony Hawk came on board, and the third skateboarding wave was starting to build.

The following quote is taken from a Powell-Peralta ad found in the March 1984 issue of Thrasher magazine:

"Hawk seizes the thin line that separates genius from insanity and ties it in knots."

"Tony realizes that how you get there is more important than where you go. He requires innovative equipment for his unconventional actions. For such a man, the choice is obvious - Powell-Peralta."

The Bones Brigade Video Show: 16-minute video by Powell-Peralta released in 1981

The Skate Video Boom

Capitalizing on the start of a third boom, George began setting aside more money for the production of a video.

In October of 1984, Powell-Peralta advertised what was to become one of the main ingredients in the launch of the third skate boom: "The Bones Brigade Video Show."

Although Powell-Peralta had created a 16-minute video in 1981, it had been mostly overlooked during the skatebust.

"The Bones Brigade Video Show," created with the talents of Stacy Peralta and artist Craig Stecyk, was the one that people crowded around skate shops to view.

The video opened with Stacy getting angry at a television host's ignorant comments about skateboarding.

Stacy gets so irate that he takes a pickaxe, drives it through the TV set, and pulls a Powell-Peralta board from the mess of electronics.

He then utters the most famous line of the entire video: "Now this is a skateboard!"

The video featured skater Lance Mountain as the official host, who travels around to each skate spot checking out the action.

The key members of the Bones Brigade are featured riding in backyard ramps, pools, skateparks and, in one memorable sequence, sliding downhill at tremendous speeds.

The video's humor and pace would set the stage for other installments and dramatically boost the sales of Powell-Peralta products.

The video cost $15,000 to produce and went on to sell thirty thousand copies.

In the second video, additional skaters joined the ranks of the Bones Brigade.

Streetstyler Tommy Guerrero stunned viewers when he was featured ollieing all over the streets of San Francisco.

Freestylers Rodney Mullen and Per Welinder (who had both appeared in the first video) were joined by Kevin Harris.

Powell-Peralta's third video, "The Search for Animal Chin," was the first to actually have a "real" storyline.

The skaters featured were Tony Hawk, Steve Caballero, Lance Mountain, Mike McGill, and Tommy Guerrero.

The video was a huge hit and still turns heads to this very day.

Besides the Chinese imagery used throughout the video, "The Search for Animal Chin" is best remembered for its impressive wooden ramp (located in the middle of nowhere).

The Search for Animal Chin: one of skateboarding's most iconic videos of all time

Craig Stecyk and Vernon Courtland Johnson: The Visual Artists

Powell-Peralta continued to bring additional skaters to their roster of talent, but visuals remained an important element in the company's popularity.

Along with the videos, Craig Stecyk's artistry was also applied to Powell-Peralta's advertising.

The graphics and imagery created by Vernon Courtland Johnson were simply awesome.

The Powell-Peralta board logos and graphics were reproduced on countless stickers and shirts and filled the magazines.

Johnson's image of a skeleton ripping out of a canvas is burned into most skaters' brains from the 1980s.

As Powell-Peralta's market share grew, so did their manufacturing facilities, eventually culminating in an enormous 185,000-square foot factory/warehouse.

However, something happened to skateboarding in the late 1980s that was to have a dramatic effect on Powell-Peralta.

Smaller, independent, skater-owned companies like World Industries started to change the game.

This is George's take on the situation: "Steve Rocco, the founder of World, empowered himself to start his own company."

"He also empowered other skaters to do the same thing. Steve pulled all the pro skaters from the larger companies in an attempt to gain a foothold in the industry."

Of course, the phenomenon of pro riders changing teams had been going on ever since the Makaha team was raided by Vita-Pakt/Hobie in 1964-65.

The difference this time was that pro skaters who were nearing the end of their careers were now starting up their own companies.

This increased competition set the stage for a shakeup in the industry.

George Powell: the entrepreneur dedicated his life to skateboarding and innovation

Peralta's Departure

Skateboarding's third wave had been extraordinary, and Powell-Peralta had been the dominant player.

But toward the end of the decade, things started to change.

As Stacy recalls, "When Powell-Peralta got successful, it damaged our ability to be on the cutting edge. I felt we had to work even harder to maintain our position. We couldn't sit still."

It was a difficult time for Stacy, and he was at odds as to which direction to take his career. Finally, he decided to change course.

"I was done. I felt it was time for a new chapter."

He walked away from a lifetime job during the biggest season Powell Corporation had ever had, December 1991.

George recalls the period with some sadness.

"Stacy was unhappy with the way the industry was going. He wrote me a letter saying he didn't want his name on any of the products we were making. When he left, it set the stage for the newer independents to develop further market share."

After Stacy's departure, Powell Corporation faced some extremely difficult financial problems.

Questions and Resurrection

During the early 1990s, George became introspective.

"I'd ask myself why weren't we doing well, what was going on in skateboarding, how do I compete against the crap that was being thrown at me."

"People printed stuff that wasn't true or misleading in an attempt to slander me and detract from our presence in the industry and what we'd done."

"I was an easy target because I didn't fight back - I wasn't going to lower myself to their level. But, I learned my lesson, and I'm not going to take it again lying down."

George looked at the strengths of the Powell Corporation.

He had reinvested a great deal of the profits into the business and realized he could build better-quality products than his competitors.

"Throughout the 1990s, we were given a bad rap because we had been a really large company in the 1980s. It wasn't cool to be a big company."

"Ironically, most of the smaller companies that complained about the awful practices of the companies that had been popular in the 1980s, like telling their skaters that they had to behave themselves, not allowing everything on a board, or exercising a certain amount of restraint, soon discovered that it has to be done at times."

"It's kind of like when kids become parents - the shoe is on the other foot. That's all happened now, and it's over. We're kind of all on the same footing at this point."

George Powell has lived through enormous changes in the skateboard industry and has created a tremendous legacy through his products.

When the creative genius of Peralta was joined with Powell Corporation, the company provided skateboarders with truly memorable products and imagery.

George continued to manufacture with the same attention to detail he used in his garage and kitchen back in the mid-1970s.

"What I've come to realize over my 20 years in manufacturing is that we are here for the skaters who use our products, not for the pro skaters."

"We have to listen to what our customers want and then try and build the best equipment we possibly can."

The pros are there to educate and inspire, but the focus at Powell Corporation is on the consumer of skateboards."

At the turn of the new millennium, George Powell and Stacy Peralta resumed their personal and professional relationship, and their iconic brand resurfaced.


Words by Michael Brooke | Skateboarder and Author of "The Concrete Wave: The History of Skateboarding"