Any Canadian skateboarder with an ounce of entrepreneurial spirit has, at one time or another, fancied taking a crack at the distribution game. And for many, that’s as far as it goes. It’s a crowded market, and it’s safe to say opportunities to get in The Show are few and far between.

But for Kadence Canada’s Phil Song, his big break came nearly six years ago, and over 10,000 kilometers away.

From left to right: Morgan Smith, Ryan Saley, Phil Song, Bartosz Hollas and Scott Pasko. Photo: Will Jivcoff

 

Song, who is Korean but was born and raised amid the hustle of the Greater Toronto Area, was dividing his time between the GTA and Seoul, where he’d become somewhat of an early explorer of the marble skate Mecca and tour guide to visiting Canadian skaters.

“The business wasn’t really planned,” Song admits. “There was just an absence of a skate distributor in Korea and we saw an opportunity in a country that has a strong middle-class economy—and probably some of the best skate spots in the world.”

Along with business partner Ryan Saley, Song launched Kadence Korea.

“The opportunity was there because of the cultural barriers in Korea,” he explains. “The whole country is based on a hierarchy, and in that culture, kids were getting beat up at the skatepark if they didn’t bow to the older dudes. It was pretty bad.”

Song took it upon himself to help break that beef. “I was really close with the older guys,” he says. “I told them, ‘This skate scene’s gotta grow, you can’t be pulling that kinda shit.’”

 

“The opportunity was there because of the cultural barriers in Korea,” he explains. “The whole country is based on a hierarchy, and in that culture, kids were getting beat up at the skatepark if they didn’t bow to the older dudes. It was pretty bad.”

 

Kadence was the first to actually distribute independently in Korea, according to Song.

“The shops would be monopolized and it would be the distributors who would actually own them,” he says. “So the retail stores would be killing it in Korea, but with just really whack owners.”        

He goes on to lay out the typical working conditions of employees in those days: working 12-13 hours a day, toiling for 6-plus years without a raise, and turning big profit for their employers.

“Most of those employees that were making these great numbers are all working at Kadence now,” he says. “And it’s because we keep it pretty Canadian, even in Korea. Regular eight-hour days, overtime, benefits. So dudes were obviously down. We started the distribution with the community, not trying to win the community over.”

Fast forward to 2013. After strategically securing Korean distribution rights for nearly every major brand in skateboarding, Song and Saley moved back to Canada, and started making moves to open up shop. Enlisting the talents of longtime friends, Morgan Smith, Bartosz Hollas, Scott Pasko and a couple silent partners, they launched Kadence Canada.

“Prior to Korea, I didn’t think I’d ever be able to start a distro in Canada,” says Song. “Because you’d think it’s already all been done, and in most countries it has been done for the past 20-30 years. Especially with a good economy like Canada has.

“But coming back to Canada, I realized, ‘Damn, there is a lot of opportunity here.’ You don’t always see those opportunities until you’ve been through it, and seen it from another angle. I think that’s where Korea really inspired me to do something in Canada.”

Looking to further explore the opportunities of running two independent businesses in completely contrasting markets, Song now plans to implement an exchange program for his employees where Canadian workers who want to work in Korea for two months can swap with their Korean counterparts. But for someone who’s been entrenched in both markets, where would he rather be?        

“It’s nice to be back in Canada, for sure,” he says. “It’s way more slow paced, and I definitely appreciate being in a multi-race, free thinking country. In Korea, it’s one race, one people, one way. And when you’re doing a skateboard distribution, it’s a very community-based business.”

While Song may be new to the Canadian distribution landscape, his connections in the industry run deep. In Korea, he currently works with Girl, Baker, NHS, Skate One, Stance, the list goes on­—about 45 brands in total.

“It definitely shows you what we’re capable of doing in Canada,” he says. “So while we’re doing probably 5 per cent, if not less, of all the goods distributed in Canada, if you look at what we’ve done in Korea, we’ve done way more events and marketing, and we actually pay skaters a full salary.

“I think I’m a bit unique in the market,” he says. “Because I do all the brands that consist of Ultimate, Centre, Supra, Mehrathon, Take 5 and Timebomb in Korea,” he says. “So when I go to all the sales meetings, I see everyone, and everyone has given me that great Canadian love.

“I didn’t really come in and have everyone say, ‘Who the fuck is this guy?’ It was pretty welcoming,” he says. “A lot of the distros have been hitting me up asking me what I need help with, like do I need a shop list for this region…And we want to be supporting other distributors that support us. So yeah, it’s been really healthy and good.”

 

“I think I’m a bit unique in the market,” he says. “Because I do all the brands that consist of Ultimate, Centre, Supra, Mehrathon, Take 5 and Timebomb in Korea,” he says. “So when I go to all the sales meetings, I see everyone, and everyone has given me that great Canadian love.”

 

Song is quick to point out that there are still challenges in Canada he’s had to adjust to, like working with prebooks and large volume orders from national retailers.

“Korea is maybe 5 per cent or less prebook business, because they don’t have the retail infrastructure, they don’t have a Zumiez or West 49 to rely on for those big orders. So for me to do this in Canada, it’s a good learning experience that I can hopefully take back to Korea.”

 

 

DIVERSIFY YOUR BONDS
Growing Your Brand While Opening Doors

“Right now, we’re focusing on not only growing our brands, but branding ourselves as well,” says Song. “Developing the Kadence brand, as a good symbol of what we’re about, to help when we’re bringing newer brands to market.”

And bringing new brands to market is what Kadence is all about.

“I didn’t want to come into Canada beefing with other distributors and stealing brands,” Song says. “So it’s really fortunate that the brands I really like to work with and am passionate about, like Helas, FTC and Western Edition, etcetera…they’re smaller brands that I believe in.”

It’s not easy to see the potential in emerging brands, but Song has seen it happen time and again, and recognizes, likely though growing an entire industry in Korea, the possibilities of an upstart, whether you see it coming or not. Look no further than Penny Skateboards.

“Taking on Penny was interesting, and really it was just coincidence,” he says. “When we started working with them in Korea, we didn’t think they’d be this monster brand they are now. And we lucked out, too, that they were left with nothing here in Canada. It’s pretty apparent when we took on Penny, Uppercut and Z-Flex, that opportunities grew way quicker, and we were financially able to get a warehouse, and do everything more proper.

“Penny is a good tool for us, because in Korea, as an emerging market, it was a great way to get people on skateboards,” he says. “Something like 50 per cent of Penny purchases in Korea, people would be coming back for regular completes. And that opened my eyes for Canada as well, because I know the potential of a brand like Penny. We were pretty lucky that we worked with them for almost five years in Korea, growing the brand from nothing to one of its biggest regions in the world, so I got really close with the owners and when they needed new distribution in Canada, it was a done deal.”

Song admits the brand, on the surface, doesn’t immediately appear to jive with the Kadence portfolio, but Kadence’s growing reputation is helping Penny’s credibility in the core market.

“It’s not like I was specifically after Penny for our brand portfolio,” he says. “But I knew where we could take it. And I think everyone at Kadence Canada, since we do the core brands that we do, thought that by us taking on Penny, the core community would accept it more.

“We just want to make it a different category,” he continues. “If you want to get from point A to point B and have some fun, great, and if you do want to get into tricks, we’ve got product for you as well. And of course, Penny’s popularity has enabled us to a lot of rad things for our smaller core brands that we truly love and care about.”

Song goes on to iterate that one of the keys to Kadence’s future success is not only diversifying his brand portfolio, but looking for a variety of new doors to open.        

 

“Right now, we’re focusing on not only growing our brands, but branding ourselves as well,” says Song. “Developing the Kadence brand, as a good symbol of what we’re about, to help when we’re bringing newer brands to market.”

 

“We’ve recently started working with Uppercut. It’s a hair wax product under the same umbrella as Penny and Z-Flex—Absolute Board Co. It’s backed by Eric Dressen, and they’re getting Jason Jessee on board,” he says, his excitement palpable. “It’s selling like crazy for us here in Canada and we haven’t even attacked our shop list.

“It’s really interesting because I don’t go to barber shops acting like I know about hair,” he says, laughing. “I just go in and say, ‘Straight up, I don’t know hair, but I have this product and we want to do it right, and we’re a skateboard distributor. That’s actually been a strong selling point for us.        

“Nowadays people are more careful with want brands they pick. They want to get behind the brand story,” he says. “So it’s rad that there’s something like this in hair care, and now it opens up so many interesting retail opportunities for us.”

Inevitably, a conversation with a business man whose interests lie in both established and emarging brands turns to a discussion about future trends, and whether the big boys have had their day.

“It’s hard to say with trends, because everything usually comes full circle. It’s an interesting time, where a lot of these brands with great history and legendary pros, maybe aren’t so relevant to today’s kids. I’m hoping, being a cross between a younger and older dude, that it does come full circle and these bigger brands do get love,” he says. “Many of them are still owned by skaters, and still run by skaters. I hope it evens out that small brands are killing it, and the big brands, the right big brands, are also getting the love that they deserve.”

 

 

 

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