Quick! What do Vissla, Billabong, Xcel, O’Neill, Quiksilver, Rip Curl* and Patagonia all have in common? If you guessed that they’ve taken your hard-earned money in exchange for material goods, you’re picking the low-hating fruit on laissez-faire tree. Reach higher! However, if you said that all their wetsuits are made by a single Taiwanese company, then you’re right on the money! Or lying.
Meet, the Shecio group. For over three decades, Sheico has grown from its small-town Yilan County roots to become a multinational corporation with over 11 production sites in five different countries employing 10k workers. Specialising in the production of high-quality neoprene, Sheico makes over 4.5 million wetsuit pieces – supplying more than 60 percent of market demand – annually. In short, there’s a pretty strong chance these guys have made the wetsuit you own now.
Originally, the company was founded by a Mr. Pi-Goong Shiue in the mid-60’s as a maker of rain gear and rubber boots. Unfortunately, that alone wasn’t cutting it in sales. To avoid folding, Shiue knew there was a potential bank rolling opportunity mass-producing wetties at a time they weren’t as widely available and sports such as kayaking and surfing were wildly popular. The only problem, however, was that a majority of the neoprene sheets needed to produce such a line were dearly priced and tightly controlled by a monopoly of Japanese suppliers. The logistics of relying solely on these suppliers was too costly for Shiue. Had it not been for the younger of his two sons, Min, he might of scrapped the idea altogether and stuck to boots and slickers.
But Min, being a savvy entrepreneur, was intent on bringing neoprene in-house and refusing outrageous Japanese supplier demands. Posing as curious traveler, Min flew to Osaka to take tours of their competitors’ factories. What he was actually doing was observing plants so as to make his plans for factories back home in Taiwan. Amazingly, he only needed 20 minutes to analyse a vendor’s plant before he could make sketches of his own designs. As soon as he touched back down in Taiwan he took his detailed drawings to local engineering experts to talk formula experimentation, temperature settings, machine efficiency and all the other technical jargon needed to be discussed in order to create insulated neoprene goodness. Meanwhile, Mr. Shiue took out a one-million dollar loan to cover his son’s effort…hoping it would payoff.
And it did. By the mid-1980’s, Sheico made the leap from experimentation, to production, and then made another bound into the realm of innovation. Since its inception, Sheico put itself at the helm of modernisation, often absorbing a doubled tab in order to produce unique wetsuit specs such as brighter colours, enhanced flexibility and longer wear in the face of exposure to UV-rays.
In fact, innovative technology has been a primary selling point for Shieco. Eight years ago, Sheico was the first to deliver the material for Rip Curl’s Flash-Bomb series, the fastest drying wettie at the time. And recently, they had a hand in the exclusive development of the enviro-conscious Vissla Eco Seas rig.
“At this point, Sheico is making the best wetsuits in the world… They are definitely the guy,” says Greg Ward, President of Xcel, to Forbes back in 2014. “What’s amazing, is that Sheico contract-manufactures for various top brands but manages to customise components so that each can have its own look and feel.”
Seeing how cutthroat the nature of the biz often is, it’s impressive the Shiues have consistently delivered on their promises of progress, sustainability, and loyalty.
“Competitors will have a hard time catching up with us. None of them are as vertically integrated as we are,” says Min in an interview with Forbes. “We have the control over all relevant expertise and manufacturing skills, including the supply of key materials.”
Control is nice, sure, but not the most important ingredient to Sheico’s success. “Honesty, not money, is the key that opens all doors,” says Min.
So, next time you’re sitting in your car during a winter dawn-patrol, scanning a lineup that has all the scenic charm of a tundra, you can thank the Shiues for that neoprene body condom chilling in the hatch that gets you out there.
*Rip Curl has their own wetsuit factory and have for years, they have a long-standing relationship with Sheico, who are an important supplier of their neoprene–A message from Rip Curl’s PR team.
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