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Entrepreneurship: How a Facebook Executive Revived a Fading Surf Brand

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“We always loved the brand and the products, and we made attempts to buy it over the years,” Mr. Drexler said. “But then Matt was able to buy it, so he won and we won.”

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Birdwell makes its shorts in a renovated 10,000-square-foot plant. The company started in 1961 in the founding family’s living room. Credit Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times

In addition to men’s and women’s shorts for surfing and walking, Birdwell sells shirts, bags, hats, jackets and towels — all with a vintage beachy vibe, of course.

Mr. Drexler said, “It’s not a big business for us, relatively speaking, but it’s important to our customers and it sells out every year.”

Birdwell Beach Britches was started in Carrie Birdwell Mann’s living room in 1961. She made one product: two-ply nylon surfing shorts. The catalog from which people ordered was made using a copy machine. Its logo was designed in 1964 by Mike Salisbury, whose career has included creating designs for Levi’s, MGM and Michael Jackson.

Over the years, Birdwell’s shorts acquired a cultish following, especially among surfers. A pair can last for generations, and customers often send in photos of their father’s or grandfather’s board shorts, still going strong.

Yet over time the Birdwell family lost interest in maximizing their brand’s potential. Production peaked in the 1970s.

By the time Mr. Jacobson acquired it, the company had one facility running four days a week during the busy season and one day a week during low-demand periods. Birdwell barely had a digital presence and rarely changed product designs or selection.

Natas Kaupas, a friend of Mr. Jacobson’s who is now a co-owner of Birdwell and its creative director (as well as a semiretired professional skateboarder), recalled that if you wanted to buy shorts on Birdwell’s website: “The third step in the process was to call. They were so hard to get.”

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Cutting Birdwell’s proprietary fabric, called SurfNyl. In addition to shorts, Birdwell makes shirts, bags, hats, jackets and towels. Credit Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times

Another friend of Mr. Jacobson’s, Geoff Clawson, left Facebook to become Birdwell’s chief executive in 2016.

The new owners have brought an industrial revolution to Birdwell. Their first priority was to move from wholesale to direct-to-consumer sales and build a web presence that would be the primary point of interaction with customers. The company now has Instagram and Facebook accounts.

Next, they redesigned the production space with the tenets of lean manufacturing in mind. Birdwell’s shorts used to be sewn one at a time, by one worker, but now employees cycle through several different operations each day, depending on what’s needed.

“Lean manufacturing and management informs my thinking every day, removing waste from processes and making everything more efficient,” Mr. Clawson said. “We literally rearranged the way employees physically work, putting them in closer proximity to their task.

“That shaves seconds off the production time, which results in more shorts being produced.”

The company’s recently renovated, 10,000-square-foot facility is bright and clean, with rows of sewing machines in the center and large cutting tables attached to the side walls. The back wall is a kaleidoscope of color, with rolls of brightly colored fabrics stacked tightly together.

Mr. Clawson’s ideas about efficiency come from his 20-year career in software development. Board shorts and software might seem quite unrelated, but Mr. Clawson says they aren’t.

“People get into this flow state — here it’s a sewing flow state — where they start producing at a certain speed and you don’t want to say, ‘O.K., stop doing that and now start doing this instead,’” Mr. Clawson said. “And that’s very much akin to software development. Engineers often talk about being ‘plugged in,’ and that means when you see an engineer with headphones on, it’s not the time to ask them where they want to go to lunch, because they are focused on solving a problem.”

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Leticia Valbuena has been working at Birdwell for seven years. Birdwell was purchased in 2014 by a Facebook executive, who sold equity shares to friends who now run the company. Credit Carlos Gonzalez for The New York Times

Their problems, Mr. Clawson continued, just happen to be intellectual, virtual problems, “whereas at Birdwell, ours are usually a physical problem.”

Bruce Cromartie, chairman and president of the Board Retailers Association, said growth in the industry had been “slow and steady,” especially since the recession. But Birdwell’s owners say they have been able to increase revenue and profits rapidly, thanks to their new production and management regimen. Mr. Clawson said that revenue for 2016 was in the “mid-seven figures.”

Michael Lynton, the chairman of Snap Inc. and former chief executive of Sony Entertainment, is one of Birdwell’s longtime customers and now an investor. “I think what they’ve done very cleverly is stay true to what the brand always was,” he said in an interview.

“When you order online now, it’s still delivered in the same Birdwell box, same as the times when I would call up one of the sisters and buy it over the phone,” Mr. Lynton said. “It’s more efficient now, but, oddly enough, retains the same feel for me it had many years ago.”

As Birdwell’s new owners strive to retain that old-school feel while maintaining growth, they are also confronting the tension that exists today between “fast fashion” — trendy and seasonal clothes that move from runway to retail quickly — and what Birdwell does, which is small-batch production of classic clothing that is not tied to a particular season. It is made to be worn whenever it is bought, Mr. Clawson said, but consumers are used to being led into the new season, seeing spring clothing in February and winter clothing in July. That’s not how Birdwell operates, he said. “We have more of an endless summer vibe.”

As for Mr. Jacobson, he still lives in Manhattan Beach and still surfs. And his memories of summers with his father wearing Birdwell shorts are still vivid.

“We got one pair each summer and that was it,” Mr. Jacobson said. “Like a fireman’s overalls, we’d drop them beside the bed at night and pull them on first thing in the morning. They were indestructible.”

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