Feature: Alum Turns Hobby into Career, then Cruises into International Market

Larry Peterson ’05 doesn’t seem like a celebrity from the outset. The Western Oregon University alum is in his mid-40s, works in Independence and has a wife and four sons. But if you ask anyone who’s a fan of longboards—skateboards with extra length and interesting shapes—“Longboard Larry” is a well-known figure.

He’s not convinced, though.

“I am pretty surprised that I go places and people ask if I’m Longboard Larry,” he said with a laugh. “Or people will call me up and act surprised they actually got me on the phone. I’m like, ‘I’m just this dude making longboards in a dog food storage building,’ you know. But it’s pretty cool.”

He’s not exaggerating about the dog food storage building. The Longboard Larry manufacturing space and retail showroom is on Third Street in Independence. He shares the building with a car lot, a furniture company that makes church pews and business that repairs whirlpool spas. There’s a Purina Chows sign at the warehouse’s pinnacle that he estimates dates from the 1960s. If it weren’t for the brightly painted front door—reminiscent of an old-school surfboard—visitors might be uncertain whether they’ve strayed too far afield.

But Peterson is confident he is right on track. Though the longboard market has stumbled in recent years, the Longboard Larry brand is still cruising right along, pivoting as needed whenever the client base or hot design changes. Right now, he says, the Asian market is breaking open. Female skaters there have popularized the dancing and cruising style of riding, which for many years had been overshadowed by the action and excitement of downhill racing and freeriding.

“It was a happy surprise,” Peterson said about the growth among women skaters. “For years we wondered whether we should do a girls’ line of boards, but there wasn’t that influx of girls wanting to skate. Then South Korea hit, and we got some girls who wanted to skate. Longboard and skating had always been for so long men-dominated, and it was always grungy and dark. When we started into the Korean market, they wanted pastel colors. They wanted it pretty. So I was like, ‘Sure!’”

Taking the long view has benefited Peterson many times in the 12 years he’s been running the business. He’s also a guy who’s not afraid to try new things, even if he has limited knowledge in the endeavor. He learned how to silkscreen his longboard decks through trial and error. When he needed a new business logo, he designed one himself and asked a friend to render it electronically. Even his core product, the longboard, came about through necessity and has morphed through the years at Peterson’s whim.

“I just do it. I figure out a way to get it done,” he said. He attributes some of the can-do attitude toward his middle school and high school years, when he was a wrestler. “You have to have confidence to wrestle, I think that played a part of it. You work your butt off, and then you beat somebody up, and you feel good about it. You never went out doubting yourself because if you doubt yourself, you’re going to lose.”

Peterson grew up in south Salem and graduated from Sprague High School in 1988. He worked in food service and sales before deciding to enroll at WOU for the biology department, which research told him was outstanding. The end goal was to become a dentist, though all along he was making longboards for friends and a few customers. After he graduated with his degree in 2005, he was juggling study time for the Dental Admission Test (DAT) with longboard construction time.

“I was like “Well, either I stop building boards and study for my DAT to get into dental school, or I keep building boards and not do my DAT,’ ” he recalled.

The hobby won out. The longboard concept was breaking away from the run-of-the-mill skateboard market, and it was the prime time to jump on the innovation. Besides, he knew he could always go back to school.

“I thought, ‘Let’s give this a whirl.’ So I focused on promoting and building boards and building that side of it,” he said. “I was pretty early. There weren’t a lot of companies. The first longboards hit the market in about 1996, but it wasn’t really a big deal until the 2000s.”

He doesn’t regret the decision, and he credits his time at WOU for giving him the concentration he needed to succeed in business.

“I had to focus and study and be able to use what I’d studied for tests and labs,” he said. “Plus, I was quite a bit older than the other students, so I was more focused that way. (I had to) learn that study-skill side of it that I hadn’t done before. It’s helped me in business because now I can step back and say ‘What do I need to get done, and how can I get it done?’ ”

Right now what needs to get done is filling orders, maximizing the Asian market and staying on top of social media posts and videos. One of his employees is the master of the Facebook page, but Peterson finds videos to be the most effective for outreach. He recently posted a short, casual video of a new skate area at Geer Community Park in Salem that has racked up more than 400,000 views. Plenty of other videos highlight Longboard Larry team riders, behind-the-scenes looks at the shop and customers doing tricks on his products.

Perhaps the strong Longboard Larry video game is behind his industry fame?

“It’s cool to be recognized for what you do,” he said with a shrug.

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