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Marine Veteran and Entrepreneur Mark Llano Sets His Sights on Better Sunglasses

When most people dream about cashing out from the sale of their (imaginary) wildly successful business startup, they're thinking about endless rounds of golf, sailing a yacht around the Caribbean or sitting on the porch of their new mountain house watching the leaves change. The truth is that most of the men and women motivated to build those companies in the first place just aren't wired to sit still.

Take Marine veteran Mark Llano. After 9/11, he started tactical distribution company Source One Distributors and became a major player in the defense procurement space. When he sold his company, he started over with Skeleton Optics, a bold startup that aims to sell high-quality sunglasses in a field crowded with cheap knockoffs.

The sunglasses are impressive. Manufactured in Italy instead of China, they feature custom design frames and ZEISS lenses. They're both lightweight and sturdy, miles away from the cheap camo frames for sale in every Pilot Truck Stop. Of course, quality like this can't come cheap: Skeleton's standard pairs run $180-$200 or so and they've got a series of limited edition hand-painted frames for $350.

The hand-painted Outlaw American Flag limited edition sunglasses.

Mark took some time to tell us about the philosophy behind Skeleton Optics. He also shared how his military service led to his success in business and gave us the lowdown on his fully restored 1971 Ford Bronco.

Tell us about your military experience.

I'm originally from Tampa, Florida, and I graduated college from USF in Tampa in 1992. I joined the Marine Corps Reserves in 1988. What I saw with the Marine Corps is the camaraderie of the family and the challenge of being a Marine. It's something I always wanted to do. I wrestled in high school and was one of those guys who always wanted to find where the next big adrenaline hit was coming from. The Marine Corps was just the elite, so I ended up joining the Marines.

I got activated for the first Gulf War. I spent seven months in the first Gulf War from 1990 to 1991. They selected me to be the unarmed combat instructor so I taught hand-to-hand, which was great.

When I got out of the Marine Corps, I met some friends who were on Wall Street. I joined an investment group and became a broker, investment banker. I ended up becoming a partner in the firm.

If you serve in the military, you're not afraid to work hard and you're not afraid to work long hours. What I saw on the corporate side is that everybody was 9:00-5:00 or 9:00-6:00. I was so used to working harder hours and longer hours, that I had no problem coming in at 8am and leaving sometimes at 10pm to help build the business.

The firm’s senior partners saw my work ethic and discipline and leadership style, which I think I learned from the military. They promoted me to a partner after two years. I eventually managed an office for them between Hilton Head, SC and about 60 or 70 brokers down in Miami.

In 1997, I got recruited to start up a new brokerage company and we grew that business in three or four years to around 640 employees. I sold my equity interest out around the tail end of 2000. Then I took off work for about a year, year and a half.

I got a phone call after 9/11 about going back into the Marine Corps. I said that I had already given five years, but I can help in other ways. I had two little kids at the time. So I helped some on the special operations side of the house. I saw the way the government was doing contracting and procurement and I saw an opportunity where we could probably streamline it to make it better and faster and more efficient.

I started Source One Distributors in 2003 and grew that business to probably a little bit over 200 million dollars a year in annual revenue. We got bought out last year.

When I got into the industry, I first started trying to understand how the government was procuring product. So I went to PTAC, Procurement Technical Assistance Center. I went to DETA, Defense Economic Transition Assistance. I went to the SBA. Started learning about the different programs that the SBA has from the 8A Program to the VOSB or the SBVOSB. And so I really started understanding that the government is looking to procure from small business first before they turn to large business.

As I started looking at the way the government was procuring product and issuing out multiple contracts for one item, I saw an opportunity to put together a vendor consolidation program as a distribution business. I did that in the tactical industry, because I understood the tactical side.

So I ended up talking to the SBA, took out every single piece of loan that I could possibly imagine to get my hands on. I had a business partner named Randy Webb, who I brought in to help me on a different area of the company. We started learning about GSA.

I've always hired consultants in different areas that were smarter than me. I've always believed you have to delegate, compensate, and evacuate to other projects. You're not gonna be an expert in everything. So I've always surrounded myself with people who were smarter than me in different areas. I believe in sharing in that wealth and I thought that was extremely important that we always share our success as we grow because we just cannot do it by ourselves. I've hired some great attorneys, I've hired some great CPA's, I've hired several folks who are experts on the GSA to be able to put our business together on that end.

We heard about a very large government contract at the DLA called the Prime Vendor Program. The first time I went after that program I realized how difficult that was going to be. Our first program was a 5.7 billion dollar contract. However, I felt that we could handle that contract based on of the team we had and our past history. We ended up going after it, we ended up winning it, and then it's the old story: be careful what you wish for, because we ended up winning that in 2008 right during the financial crisis. At that time, every bank was pulling back to be able to consolidate.

We ended up fighting through that, ended up servicing that contract for five years and did a great job with that contract. It ended up coming out for rebid because originally it was a two year contract with three one-year options. And we ended up winning it.

About three years ago, we ended up winning a 10 billion dollar contract with DLA. And that contract is for the same thing, for the special operations side of the house. I have to say that we're very blessed. We ended up winning an award as one of the top small businesses for GSA. We've won several awards through the SBA as one of the top veteran-owned companies in the US. We ended up winning distribution entrepreneur of the year from Ernst & Young.

A lot of it gets back to the most important thing: as the leader, as the CEO or as the president of the company, you have to assemble the right people, you have to trust those people, you have to give them responsibilities, but you cannot micromanage nor give them collars. You can give them left and right limits, but you have to be able to trust in each one of the people that work for you. If you need them to get to the end of the finish line, you just need to be able to show them how to get there and serve them and give them the tools that are essential and that will make them successful. Because if they're successful, you're successful in the big picture.

Why did you decide to sell the company?

I’d done it since 2003 and it was the right time. We had two other companies during that time that also got bought out. But it was the right time, it made good, financial sense, and there you go.

Mark & Lori

Let’s talk sunglasses. You’ve chosen to go into an incredibly competitive business where there's a lot of cheap knockoff products out there and you decided to compete by making a high-quality quality product.

I think I have severe ADD and I can't sit still, so I started a new business about five months ago called Skeleton Optics. We sell top-of-the-line sunglasses that we make in Italy. We partnered with Carl Zeiss for the polarized lenses.

My fiancée Lori and I wanted to do something together. And we wanted to do was to do something completely outside of the government. We saw that a lot of the sunglass companies have taken the business to China or to Taiwan. The products that they’re selling, from my standpoint, are just very cheaply made. If I'm buying a product as a consumer, I really want to have a great product. I also look for veteran-owned companies.

Skeleton Optics is a veteran-owned company. If you look through the sunglass industry, I don’t think you're gonna find too many that are in the US. 90 percent of the sunglasses business is really controlled by Luxottica, which owns your Ray-Bans, your Costas, your Oakleys, all of that. We're seeing more and more of that business going offshore.

We went offshore, we wanted to get our glasses made in Italy. We partnered with Carl Zeiss to provide the best polarized lenses that you can get. And then we assemble everything here in the US in West Palm Beach, Florida.

We decided to go after a market that focused on our own passion, the outdoor, rustic lifestyle. We know that sunglass companies, in general, seem to take a shotgun approach. They put a little bit into fashion, they go fishing, they go racing, they go a little bit everywhere. What we wanted to do to make this successful was to really define who we are.

Kind of what YETI is to coolers, we are to sunglasses. I have to give it to YETI, who have done an amazing job in their marketing approach. We’re in that same vertical space where you see YETI coolers, which is in that rustic, Americana outdoor country lifestyle.

That’s where Skeleton was born, that’s where Skeleton will grow, and we continue to grow in that area. But putting downrange a good product for the consumer. And that’s the most important thing that we wanted to do, was that when a person or somebody puts on a pair of Skeleton Optics, they're getting quality. That was the most important thing for us.

You hit it right on the head; it's a very tough industry. But if you have a good business plan, if you absolutely believe in the product and what the mission is, it will become successful. But you just have to put the time and the resources and good relationships to find a market that can believe in the product.

Realtree Extra Edition Scout Sunglasses by Skeleton Optics

We launched five months ago and it's been absolutely vertical. And the response that we have been getting through the industry has been amazing. We're now hydro dipping sunglasses for Realtree, we're dipping for Mossy Oak. We've got already about 15 dealers and about 6 distributors. And we've had a very good reputation for 15 years in the industry with a lot of folks out there, so that does help as well. And I think reputation is everything. You know you can't sacrifice your reputation for money. That’s just a no-no.

We do the hand painted limited edition sunglasses. The limited editions are all done with Cerakote and they’re all painted by an artist and signed. We saw an opportunity where nobody was doing sunglasses designed by an artist that could hand paint, let's say, Saltwater Fish on them.

Trout fishermen are absolutely passionate about their sport and we like that. You know we're outdoors. Whether we hunt or skeet shoot or maybe we’re into family barbeques, motor home trips, camping. The vertical that we live in every day is the #noboundaries lifestyle.

When we went after these limited editions, we actually designed them ourselves. One of the unique things too is that we actually own our own molds. So owning our molds in Italy is very important because we design the way our frames look and feel. And we added a little bit more to that, unlike somebody who just said, “Hey, I want to get into the sunglass business,” but they're buying an open mold and putting a logo on it. There's no real value there.

Italy has a reputation for respecting unique designs as intellectual property in a way that’s not yet happening for companies that manufacture in China.

Yeah, it's a really tough thing that I think we really need to monitor and police that a little bit better, in my opinion. We have such great American companies or veterans that have some just brilliant ideas, brilliant. Sometimes they're a little apprehensive of putting them downrange because they're afraid that they're gonna get copied or maybe they don’t have the money to hire a good attorney to get the trademark or copyright done or put the patent filed on it. Getting an international patent is very expensive, compared to just getting a patent here in the US. So it takes money.

In my opinion, there are so many great ideas that veterans have out there. You know I drove a race car for Porsche for four years. We're not racing this year, but it's Serket Racing. The whole platform we put together with Serket Racing was our philanthropy side of the house where we actually had sponsors; every race was a mission.

We ended up doing about ten million dollars in college scholarships for the wives and children of veterans. With Wells Fargo, who is also one of our sponsors, we gave three separate $300,000 homes to three different service disabled veterans. It was a phenomenal platform for four years.

This year we're taking a break because we're launching Skeleton Optics, but I am a huge advocate for veterans. I’ve been on the board for Boot Campaign and I'm very passionate about that program.

Jumping back to Skeleton Optics: there's an opportunity out there to really put something of quality in the consumer's hands. And that’s what Lori and I saw lacking when we ended up doing this. We just said, hey, look, this would be great to teach our four kids about entrepreneurship, teach them about business, but more importantly, it’s a way to give back in the process.

We've already given back probably over 300 pairs of sunglasses to nonprofits out there that are helping veterans, that are taking them on fishing trips, or they're doing things, let's say, with the Boys and Girls Club. So we're giving back as well. For a young company to already give back probably close to $10,000 in sunglasses, and top-of-the-line sunglasses too to veterans, you know that’s a big deal.

Sunglasses are one of those things that you have in your hand every day.

Going to all these meetings with Zeiss and going through the meetings with Italy, we learned that the average guy will own three to five pairs of sunglasses. The average female will own anywhere from five to nine. When we leave the house in the morning we take our cell phones, our car keys, maybe a knife, maybe a gun, but you always take your sunglasses.

So that’s an item that people wear every day. If you have blue eyes or green eyes, your eyes are very sensitive to the sun. And so having the right sunglasses is absolutely critical, but sunglasses also change the way people look. Some people feel empowered, some people feel they're better looking, whatever the case is, but sunglasses, in general, are a big deal to people. We want to make sure that they feel comfortable and they feel right for them when they buy Skeleton Optics. You're not just buying sunglasses, you're buying into the rustic lifestyle family of what Skeleton Optics is all about. It's much more than just sunglasses.

Mark's Bronco has been fully restored and modified to include a 2016 5.0 Ford Coyote engine, new 4R70W automatic transmission, all new suspension, new frame, all new electronics, brakes, and much more.

I’ve heard you’ve put a lot of effort into restoring your Ford Bronco.

I'm a huge Ford Bronco guy. I have a 1971 Ford Bronco that was done by Bryan Rood. At Classic Ford Broncos, his attention to detail is impeccable. His customer service is probably one of the top that I've seen out there in the car industry, but he spends a lot of time grooming, and when he puts his name on it, the quality is incredible.

He’s a young guy who's been passionate about Broncos since he was a kid. I happened to find him while I was searching for Ford Broncos. That’s something that I've always wanted to have in our car collection, and I ended up buying one of his Broncos. And I absolutely love it and it fits the culture too of Skeleton Optics. You know it fits that lifestyle, the rustic, outdoor lifestyle.

Does Classic Ford Broncos modernize the vehicles or are they just doing straight historical restorations?

They bring it up to more of a standard where you and I could go drive down to Key West and go fishing and come back and not have to worry about breaking down. So everything from the frame all the way up from the axle to the engine to the stereo system is more modern. You may not find the airbag in there, but maybe that’s an option you can get put in. But Bryan takes it all the way up and it's almost like a daily driver. If you wanted to drive it every day, that’s the kind of confidence you can have with Classic Ford Broncos.

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