Story by Jordan Spurgeon – Photography by Dianna Webb
Some say that clothing showcases who we are.
Others say clothing is more than what we wear on our backs.
And to many, clothing represents a lifestyle.
Jim Stroesser and Jennifer Echeverria founded Cali Strong in 2013 on a United States Naval base with the belief that they could create a positive culture around their brand.
The idea came to them one night at an apparel trade show. “We got a cocktail napkin and wrote down our goals and process,” Echeverria said. “We made a five-year plan.”
They accomplished their initial goal within four years. They were able to launch their own clothing company in the Navy’s largest store in the country.
The original name was Edge SST and they launched a collection called Cali Strong. They ended up not winning the trademark for Edge SST, so they applied for the Cali Strong trademark. They won, despite challenges from Nike and other big companies.
Cali Strong was the first sports apparel company to be consumer direct, which means taking the middleman out of sales and production.
Most companies only focus on one area of merchandise, but Cali Strong sells everything they can from clothes, hats, skateboards, shoes and more.
“It made us look bigger than we really were,” Stroesser said, “It was definitely a grind launching with all those different types of merchandise, but it was worth it.”
Fast forward to 2019 and it has grown by word of mouth since then. Cali Strong has increased its reach, including a main store located at the headquarters in Seaport Village. They are open seven days a week.
Stroesser recalls one story that puts things into perspective for him. One day, a man from France came into Cali Strong with his family. He told Stroesser that he had been looking forward to finally checking out the store when he came to San Diego. Stroesser asked him why, and he responded by saying he had seen many American Naval pilots wearing Cali Strong clothing at the French training bases. He always thought the apparel looked so cool and knew that he wanted his own when he went to San Diego.
“It’s pretty cool to know that a small, local company like ours is able to be noticed by people from all over the world,” Stroesser said, “Having badass Navy pilots wear our clothing is really special.”
When you see their stores, you’ll instantly realize that their designs are different than most clothing companies. Echeverria is in charge of coming up with designs and working with their designer to bring them to life.
The first design they launched was putting the design on the grip of their skateboards, not just on the bottom like every other skateboard company. That helps draw people into the store because they’ve never seen anything quite like it.
They also hide the words “Cali Strong” in the design of many of their clothes and skateboards.
The business model for Cali Strong is unusual. Stroesser and Echeverria networked with the right people to find the best possible pricing on their products. With the pricing they received on socks, they were able to include a free pair of $15 socks with every item a customer purchases, even if you buy 30 items.
Stroesser said, “That’s never been done before by any other company. It sounds crazy, but it works when you look at our finances.”
They also give away a free pair of shoes and socks with the purchase of any skateboard.
Inside the store, they have a basketball hoop, a ring to throw a football though and cornhole. When a customer buys products, they get the chance to play these games and try to win a free longboard.
Stroesser said, “The games are really fun, people might come in having a down day, but by the time they leave, their day will feel a whole lot better.”
Cali Strong puts a lot of effort into charity work, with 25 percent of their top line sales, not net sales, going to the charities they partner with. Most companies say a certain percentage of their sales go to different organizations, but that number decreases after overhead charges and net profit margins.
One impact that Cali Strong is proud to have is their work with children. “Kids are bombarded through the news, school and internet with constant negativity,” Echeverria said, “We need to do something to counteract that and stand for something good.”
Cali Strong also reaches out to children’s organizations such as: Big Brothers and Big Sisters, Boys and Girls Club, Boy Scouts of America, St. Judes Children’s Hospital, and the YMCA.
Cali Strong has eight to 10 employees in their stores, so Stroesser and Echeverria spend much of their time interacting with customers.
Lance Lynn is a professional skater who loves Cali Strong. He works with them in their store and spreads the Cali Strong mission to people in the skating community.
“The difference between me and a sponsorship, is I like the product, I’ve worn the product before I worked with them,” Lynn said, “I’m here because I genuinely want to be with the company.”
The words Cali Strong aren’t taken lightly by many celebrities, including Hall of Fame Basketball player Bill Walton, NFL Hall of Famer Andre Reed and actor Jason Weaver.
Every year Cali Strong throws a small celebrity party, called the Cali Strong Games. Celebrities and athletes come out to play games in the store to raise money for charity. They also get to meet other high level people in one place, in a family-like setting.
Events like that are hard to find, and normally they come with celebrities being treated like celebrities, rather than just normal people.
“No one was drooling over each other,” Echeverria said, “Everyone hung out and at one point we passed a microphone around so everyone could introduce themselves and begin seeing each other as regular people with lives just like ours.”
The celebrity games included three teams. The captains of those teams were Bill Walton, Andre Reed and Ryan Ochoa. They competed in cornhole, basketball and football toss.
Walton met Stroesser 10 years ago, right after he just had spinal surgery. He was looking for something more to do in life. He liked what Stroesser was about and began supporting him and Cali Strong in anyway that he could.
Stroesser and Walton were both involved in the San Diego Sports Innovators, a non-profit organization that seeks to help San Diego grow as the home of the Sports and Active Lifestyle Industry (SAL). Their mission is to help local sports companies grow their brand.
As chairman of the San Diego Sports Innovators, Walton has helped many San Diego sports companies grow their business.
Walton enjoys seeing the growth of Cali Strong because he knows that Stroesser and Echeverria are amazing people with an impactful mission. At the celebrity party event in May 2019, Walton said, “Cali Strong is the official brand of Bill Walton.”
Stroesser and Echeverria said they don’t pay any of these athletes and celebrities to be their sponsors. Every one that supports Cali Strong is doing so because they genuinely like what the company stands for.
NFL Hall of Famer Andre Reed has his own charity organization called Andre Reed Foundation. His purpose is to help kids learn how to read at young ages and help underprivileged kids reach their full potential.
Stroesser met Reed at one of his charity events a few years back and wanted to help out. He started giving away free merchandise to the kids at the event.
At the Cali Strong celebrity party event, Reed said, “Cali Strong was very instrumental to giving socks and shirts and hats to kids at our event.” Now they are partners wanting to help kids in the local community.
Disney star Ryan Ochoa also reps Cali Strong, wearing their clothes everywhere he goes. “This is a lifestyle to me,” Ochoa said, “When they say Cali Strong, I live by that.”
The hashtag that Cali Strong has come up with to help spread their message is #IamCaliStrong.”
Stroesser said, “Cali Strong is about empowerment, regardless of who you are… when we say I am Cali Strong, it’s a strength thing.”
Echeverria said, “To be Cali Strong means to find your inner champion within.”
Lynn said, “I am Cali Strong is really about being the best you that you can be and bringing out the best of the people around you.”
Stroesser has been in the sports apparel business for over 30 years. He was the Senior Vice President and Owner partner of Converse from 2001 to 2004. Under his control, the company’s sales grew from $110 million to $285 million in 2003.
He was able to help sell Converse to Nike for $305 million in September 2003. It was the largest company merger at the time.
Every company that Stroesser worked at after that also saw increases in net profit.
Despite his success, working for big corporations that already had their own histories and background wasn’t fulfilling to Stroesser, he said.
Owning and running a smaller company has its perks. It allows Stroesser to spend a lot of his time with the day-to-day operations, which includes managing the store and creating an atmosphere that makes every customer feel welcome.
Stroesser said, “I’d rather be a big fish in a smaller pond and our small pond is obviously still very big.”
They could get bigger. Los Angeles is appealing to Stroesser and Echeverria, but they are mostly focused on owning San Diego.
One day they hope the company can become more national, because they believe their mission is worth sharing with as many people as possible.