Russ Lesser lives in Manhattan Beach, across the street from his childhood home. He plays in a folk-rock band that plays original ditties about oceanfront life. Titles include “Beach Trash Blues” and “Mai Tais and Margaritas.” But he’s got a serious side, too. He spent 20 years at downtown Long Beach accounting firm Windes & McClaughry before joining Body Glove International, a Redondo Beach surf wear company that pioneered the modern wetsuit. He’s been president of the company since 1990 but had served as an adviser to co-founders Bill and Bob Meistrell many years before that. Lesser met the Meistrells in 1962, when making wetsuits was a side business run out of their Dive N’ Surf shop in Redondo Beach. Together, the three men transformed Body Glove from a little-known brand into a major wetsuit manufacturer and later into a global licensing company. Bill Meistrell died in 2006; Bob died in June, leaving Lesser to manage their business and legacy. It’s a job he takes seriously, though he still shows up to work most days in shorts and sandals. Lesser met with the Business Journal at his Redondo Beach office to chat about what’s kept him rooted to the shore, why he never took up surfing and how he’s preparing a third generation of Meistrells to take over their family business.
Question: You grew up in Manhattan Beach and you’re the president of Body Glove. But you don’t surf?
Answer: When I was a kid, there weren’t very many surfers. The boards were made of redwood and they weighed 50 pounds, and there were no wetsuits. There were very few real hardcore surfers. I was never interested in it much as a kid.
What did beach kids do if they didn’t surf?
You would learn to body surf, or you’d get little inflatable rafts and ride with them. We were on the beach constantly. Of course, there was no concept of sunscreen back then so we’d all just fry. I’m surprised any of us are still alive.
What did your parents do?
My mom didn’t work. She was a stay-at-home mom, like most moms back then. My dad worked at the post office. Before that, he played minor league ball. He was a good hitter. He told me he hit .424 one year. But there was no money in minor league baseball in the 1930s. Then he got a job in the post office in the late ’30s, which was a great job because it was during the Depression and your check didn’t bounce.
Why did you go into accounting?
When I started college, they wanted to make me an engineer. Sputnik had just gone up, so anyone who could add two and two and get close to four was supposed to go into physics or math. I hated it, so I quit. I didn’t know what else to do, so I took an aptitude test. It said I could be an engineer, a farmer or an accountant. Well, I had tried engineering and I didn’t want to be a farmer, so that didn’t leave much.
When did you first meet the Meistrell brothers?
I met them in 1962. I had an outboard motor that needed to be fixed, and I took it to the shop where I bought it and they didn’t have the part. They said, “Try Dive N’ Surf.” They had the part, and that’s how I met them. Then my cousin and I took diving lessons from Bill and Bob.
When did you start working with them?
They gave me their accounting business when I joined a CPA firm in 1966. They had their internal bookkeeper, but I was kind of an outside financial VP. Back then, the business was just a little dive store grossing a quarter-million a year.
How did Body Glove change over time?
Back then, we had two options: One was to build more dive stores and the other was to start selling a product wholesale. Which product? How about wetsuits, since we were the first to make commercially viable wetsuits. So we bought a little factory and started building wetsuits, then went around knocking on doors and building the wholesale part of the business.
Bill died a few years ago and Bob died just recently. What’s it like to be running the company without them around?
Neither of them had management responsibilities since the late ’80s. Since then, it’s been run by the second generation. The key is to keep their spirit and philosophy alive.
What were they like as businessmen?
They were totally into customer service and treating people right. There’s a story about Bob selling a guy a boat and telling him if he didn’t like it, bring it back in 30 days. The guy brought it back totally trashed. Bob said, “Well, I made a deal, here’s your money back.” The guy said, “There’s no way I’m going to take that money, but I really want a bigger boat.” Well, you get a lifetime customer when you do something like that. Those guys were the greatest customer service people.
Did you spend much time with them socially?
Oh, yeah. My brother, cousin, Bill and I, we’d go take their little boat out. We’d go to Catalina, just hang out. We did everything.
Were you born in Manhattan Beach?
No, I was born in Simi Valley, actually, when only 300 people lived there. But I only lived there till I was 1. Then we moved to Burbank for three years, then to Manhattan Beach.
And I understand you haven’t moved far.
We live on Fourth Street, just across the street from where I grew up. My brother lives on Fourth Street. My dad, until he died, lived on Fourth. My aunt, until she died, lived on Fourth. It’s like a little compound almost. All three of our kids live within 15 minutes – two in Palos Verdes and one in Manhattan Beach. It’s a real unusual situation for American families to have the entire family so close. I love it.
What was Manhattan Beach like when you were a kid?
The beach area was probably 50 percent developed. Most of the homes were beach shacks. And shack is a descriptive term. When you grew up in Manhattan Beach, you wanted to be successful and move to Palos Verdes, because that’s where all the nice houses were. There are a lot of people now who have moved from Palos Verdes to the beach. It’s changed that much.
You said the beach was half-developed. What about the rest of town?
East of the beach, the hills where all these huge mansions are now, it was basically vacant land. It’s incredible what people are building there. There’s all this talk of mansionization, but I don’t have a problem with it, personally.
Others in Manhattan Beach do, though.
What I’ve found is it’s change people are afraid of. It doesn’t matter what the change is. Back then, there was an area subdivided into 80-foot lots. Then they changed it to make a 40-foot lot legal. When I was on the City Council, someone would come in and want to split their lot into two, and people were opposed to it because they didn’t want more density. Now, people are against joining two small lots into one big one because they’re against mansionization. It’s just change.
When did you first run for the council?
I ran in ’78. There were nine people running for two seats and I got 81 percent of the vote. I figure a lot of people voted for me because they knew my mother. She’d been active in the community clubs and the PTA. I ran for re-election in ’82 and was elected again. That’s when the Republican bigwigs called and said, “We need to talk to you about running for higher office.” I said, “Thank you, but no thank you.”
They wanted you to run for Assembly or something?
Yeah, they said they checked me out and couldn’t find anything in my background that was bad. I said that’s because I’m really boring. I didn’t have to say I never inhaled.
Why weren’t you interested?
It didn’t pay that well and I was not a wealthy guy at the time. Not that I’m Bill Gates now. I’m also way too sensitive to become a politician. The first time I ran for City Council, I had about 600 people on an endorsement list. I called them all up the second time and I think four of them said no and I fell apart. I said, “Well, I’m not cut out for this.”
What kinds of things were happening during your time on the council?
That’s when Manhattan Village shopping center was being developed. Back then it was 190 acres of oil storage tanks that Chevron had abandoned. We developed it from scratch. We negotiated a deal to create the Manhattan Country Club and the Marriott hotel on city land. I learned a lot about negotiating.
You’ve got to look at both sides. If it’s going to work long term, it’s got to work for everybody. That’s helped me at Body Glove with our licensing business. I’ve got to look at the other guy’s point of view. If I want to bleed him dry and get a big royalty payment upfront, but then they don’t have the cash to build the product right, that’s not good for us.
What do you do when you’re not working?
We go to the beach, we ski, we travel. I run a lot. When I was on the City Council, I was co-founder of the Manhattan Beach 10K run, which is now in its 34th year. I was race director for the first 25 years, but I recruited a young woman in year 20. Now she’s the director. I didn’t want the race to die out with me. I want it to go for the next 25 years.
Have you done any of that kind of legacy planning at Body Glove?
There are three third-generation people here now. They’re learning a lot about the licensing business. The weakness we have is the financial part of the business. They don’t have the financial background yet. I have that, but nobody else does. We need someone who has that. As far as timing, I don’t have any timing. Retirement is not for everybody and I don’t have an exit strategy. If I get hit by a truck tomorrow, it’s not going to be simple, but they’ll make it work.
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