Burning Rubber

A few years ago, three friends from Boulder started a shoe company called Crocs, created a worldwide fashion phenomenon, and made millions of dollars for themselves. Then the trouble began.

June 2008

It all started over a couple cases of beer.

One summer morning six years ago, the Hannibal, a 78-foot, dual-mast sailboat owned by a Boulder inventor named Scott Seamans, left Isla Mujeres off the Mexican coast and headed toward the Florida Keys. Aboard were three friends—Seamans, George Boedecker Jr., and Lyndon "Duke" Hanson. All were in their 40s and had met decades earlier as young men in Colorado. Hundreds of square miles of watery nothingness splayed before them like a smooth, shiny foil—water glistening off the boat's sides, sparkles of light exploding on its white hull. Almost immediately, fishing lines trolled behind the Hannibal, and emptied cardboard cases of Coors Light began to fill a trash bag.

With the wind on the nose, the boat's captain, a man named Ron Oliver, switched on the engine. The Hannibal puttered along at six knots. At that rate, the trip would take longer than expected—perhaps an extra day or two. Seamans wasn't worried. Forty-eight, single, and semiretired from a career developing and patenting products, Seamans was quiet and unassuming, and, unlike his two friends on this trip, his life was a closed book. He had moved between California and Colorado as a child, but beyond that he rarely spoke about his past. Seamans never bragged about his successes, though they were plentiful enough for him to afford the Hannibal and a more-than-comfortable lifestyle.

As the sun rose high on the seascape and cast its warm glow on the deck, George Boedecker stretched himself on a chair, his rumpled shirt untucked. Six-foot-three and just a shade above 200 pounds, Boedecker, 40, was an imposing figure, both physically and mentally. He was the quintessential American success story: In three decades, he had transformed himself from a kid who'd become emancipated from his parents at age 17 to a multimillionaire franchisee of Domino's and, later, an executive for Quiznos sandwich shops. Boedecker enjoyed three things: drinking alcohol, helping others, and making money.

Duke Hanson sat at the front of the boat, alone, staring out on the Gulf. His life had fallen apart in the previous six months: His wife had filed for divorce, and he'd lost his job marketing computer hardware. His mother had died of breast cancer. Now, without a home of his own, Hanson, 40, had moved in with a friend, a recently separated electronics executive named Ron Snyder. The two lived by a Boulder golf course and drank beer. They named Snyder's home the "Dejected Man House." Hanson and Boedecker had attended junior high and high school together in Boulder, and Boedecker sometimes crashed at Hanson's house when the two were teenagers. Over 25 years, they had formed a bond that only childhood friends could have, and Boedecker had sensed the depression in his buddy's voice a few weeks before this trip. You need to get away, Boedecker said.

On the first day of their adventure, Seamans went below deck and returned with some rubberlike clogs he'd discovered while on a business trip to Quebec, Canada. In the previous months, back home in Boulder, Seamans had spent his time tinkering with the Canadian clog. Of all the items he'd developed—foot padding, seats, fishing-reel covers—Seamans thought these shoes had the best chance for commercial success. Now he wanted input. Actually, he wanted investors. But it wouldn't be an easy sell: The shoes were black with Swiss cheese-style holes cut into the top. To cover the back, Seamans punched two holes in the shoes' sides and attached a strap made of the same material as the rest of the shoe. The strap was roughly the size of a flattened caterpillar and was held in place with metal rivets. Each shoe weighed only six ounces.

Seamans saw something in the shoes—literally: The Canadian manufacturer had made its clog from a specialized resin, a closed-cell material that resisted odors and liquids, never lost its grip on wet surfaces, and contoured nicely into a personalized fit when exposed to body heat. To top it off, the shoe could be cleaned easily with a water hose or in the shower. In Canada, the clog—minus the strap—had sold modestly. Seamans wanted to distribute it in the United States, with his strap attached. He thought the shoe could sell in the United States. But, first, he wanted his friends' opinions.

Boedecker and Hanson laughed out loud when Seamans showed them his idea. "Scotty, those are ugly," Hanson said. "I'm not going to wear those."