How do you know when a company is losing its way? With Mambo Graphics, a clue for co-founder Dare Jennings lay in the way some of its people were handling the firm's star artist. This was the early 2000s, after Jennings and Andrew Rich had sold the company for a rumored $20 million to the giant rag-trader Gazal Corporation. Having stayed on as creative director, Jennings was amused to see certain staffers treating Reg Mombassa like a tradesman. "They would come to me and say, 'Can Reg do something for us?' Later it would be, 'Now, Reg, this is what we want you to do.' It's just not how it works. Reg does something for you and that's what he does. And you use it."
Gazal and Mambo went together like pepper and jam. A public company based in the artistic dead zone of Banksmeadow in Sydney's south, Gazal generates annual revenue of $160 million and licenses a suite of brands including Oroton and Calvin Klein. Mambo was no Ma and Pa store in its heyday, either: it had outlets on three continents and annual revenue of about $40 million. But right from its 1984 launch in a Sydney motel, Mambo in spirit was always the quirky interloper contending with surfwear's super-heavyweights, the all – Down Under trio of Billabong, Quik?silver and Rip Curl.
At Mambo's heart were Jennings and a handful of mates from Sydney's art and music scene, who turned their irreverent and sometimes off-color whimsy into the loaded words and striking images that defined the Mambo brand. The drawings were seldom sophisticated, often focusing on human anatomy and bodily functions. But along with Jennings' habit of donating a share of profits to left-wing causes, the art made Mambo exceptional in business, where the tweaking of a logo can qualify as a creative masterstroke. "Mambo was a community," says Jennings. And for more than 15 years, it thrived.
Jammed into a corporate culture, however, the stirrer lost its sting. In May last year, resigned to Mambo's dwindling sales and street cred, Gazal announced it was offloading the brand, which a private consortium snapped up in January for about a third of what Gazal had paid for it eight years before. The new owners' plan is to revert to the original Mambo recipe of humor, social commentary and art, while stirring in a fistful of contemporary spices. Co-owner Angus Kingsmill told TIME: "We believe Mambo has massive global potential. It would take almost a perfect storm to stop us." In the shape of the meltdown on financial markets, something like that storm is rattling the windows of businesses across the world. Preparing for Mambo's November relaunch, Kingsmill concedes that securing capital has been hard lately. "But we're still growing Mambo against all the economic trends."
In the mid-1980s, when Kingsmill was an easily distracted Sydney marketing student, a go-to item in his wardrobe was a T shirt declaring "Live Fast, Die Young in a Nice Pair of Shorts." It was one of Mambo's more benign items. Still to come were Mombassa's "Australian Jesus at the Football" and his design protesting plans for an expanded nuclear facility at Sydney's Lucas Heights: "Mr and Mrs Sydney would prefer not to have a nuclear reactor situated halfway up their arse."
Last year, an old college friend of Kingsmill's, Bret Merriman, suggested they go after Mambo. At that stage interest was high, and Kingsmill thought they'd be priced out. As a successful footwear importer, Merriman, along with the third director, accountant Anthony Woodward, assembled the consortium and invested heavily in it. They wanted Kingsmill as frontman for two reasons. One was his grasp of the surf industry. For three years from 1999, Kingsmill was general manager of beachculture, a retail chain that grew on his watch from eight to 21 stores in Australia and New Zealand. In 2005, he bought into former ironman Guy Leech's eyewear company Odyssey 20/20, which the pair sold the following year as a market leader.
The other quality Merriman valued in his friend was charm. Friends extol Kingsmill's knack for putting others at ease, using his wit to disarm the prickly and draw out the shy. A brand builder who likes his humor with a Seinfeldian twist, Kingsmill seemed the right man to rebuild Mambo, to persuade retailers that the entity most people thought was lost at sea had been found, revived and set on a course that could make it stronger than ever.
The morning after the acquisition, Kingsmill and Merriman powwowed in a café in beachside Manly. For managing director Kingsmill, high on the to-do list was meeting with Jennings and Mombassa. A founding member of the celebrated band Mental As Anything, Mombassa never formally cut ties with Mambo, but in the Gazal era they frayed to a thread. In the old days, Mombassa would fill his notepads with sketches and show them to Jennings. "Dare was willing to run with stuff that wasn't going to be commercial," says Mombassa, "because he wanted to make a point." In the Gazal period, when the sensibilities of a board of directors ruled, that idealism faded along with Mombassa's interest.
Kingsmill wanted him back. And once Mombassa decided the new managing director was right, he agreed. But can 57-year-old Mombassa still conjure the bizarre imagery that marked his early Mambo work? "I'm just as childish and ridiculous as I was then," he says.
Another link with the past is Wayne Golding, who bluffed his way into the art room in 1984 and rose to become the company's chief copywriter. Convinced Mambo was dying under Gazal, he left the fold for 14 months but is now back, a wise head in a smart young team. "To many at Gazal, Mambo could have been a breakfast cereal or a box of dog biscuits," says Golding. "There was a failure to appreciate that we were at the élite end of the hard-core surf market." The brand hadn't moved with the times, persisting with oversized clothes and huge graphics long after a sharper look became de rigueur. Its youth appeal dipped when kids spotted Mambo tees and shorts on the middle-aged, then plunged in 2006 when Gazal shifted Mambo stock from surf shops to department stores. From those '90s peaks of $40 million, in 2007 Mambo turned over $10 million.
For Mambo's new HQ, Kingsmill snared a warehouse-style set-up in North Manly, in the heart of Sydney's surf scene. For their $7 million, the new owners acquired the Mambo brand everywhere except the European Union, as well as the nine Australian stores, which Sydney architect Kelvin Ho will refurbish, Kingsmill says, with a "gallery-type feel."
But the clothes are the thing. Kingsmill assembled a design team headed by Elisha Guilfoyle, fresh from a stint in Ohio at Abercrombie & Fitch, and Ben Noble, previously of Quiksilver. There'll be a sharper difference between the men's and women's ranges. Kingsmill is betting that women aren't so interested in jokes and slogans but will embrace a range that celebrates what he calls the "quintessential Australian beach babe," to be embodied by Sydney model Cheyenne Tozzi. Mambo will stay in department stores but also return to surf chains. If all goes well, says Kingsmill, its nine outlets in Australia could become 20 within three years. He also plans to expand into the U.S., where classic Mambo T shirts have been traded on ebay for up to $250.
The new team's challenge is to move the brand's appeal from nostalgic baby-boomers to their children. "Brands have to evolve," says copywriter Golding. "The new guys are charismatic and well-connected. If anyone's going to pull this off, they are." While the economists deliver dark prophecies, the brand that gave Australia its own beer-and-pie-giving Jesus is poised to make a Second Coming of its own.
6 months ago