CEO Profile: Chris Birchby, COOLA Suncare

January 12, 2017

They say if you follow your heart in any aspect of life you are bound to find success. But what if you follow your surfboard?

For Chris Birchby, CEO of COOLA Suncare, a Donald Takayama long board guided him as a young surfer, inspiring a cross-country adventure that would culminate in one of the most exciting skin care companies in the nation. Chris headed west in 1998 with the board he purchased in Long Island and previously enjoyed on the Montauk shore in pursuit of a fresh start in Southern California.

“I saw that my board was ‘Made in Oceanside, California’ and I had yet to hear about Carlsbad just south of this ‘Oceanside,’ but as I drove I simply knew that I wanted to be in Southern California and that I needed to be as close to the water as possible,” explains Birchby.

He ended up in the Los Angeles area for grad school, working on design projects while enjoying the ocean and discovering organic foods, when suddenly another development close to his heart would alter his life course. Both of Birchby’s parents were diagnosed with melanoma.

Fortunately, his parents were treated quickly and fully recovered, but the experience was an eye opener for Birchby on the serious risk of bad sun habits. He viewed the beach and surfing as a life necessity, traveling to Australia to surf and growing up vacationing in Florida where sunburns were not uncommon.

These personal life experiences, combined with Birchby’s passion for sustainable goods, led to his launch of COOLA Suncare in 2007 as a skin care company focused on sun protection through healthy, organic, eco-friendly ingredients.

By experimenting with skin formulas at various laboratories in Los Angeles, COOLA Suncare grew through a process of trial and error with a continuous dedication to quality, health and sustainability.

 Startup Skin Care

Early growth came from the resort and spa niche market, which proved to be the perfect venue to launch this unique brand. Soon, COOLA Suncare was featured at select resorts and garnered media attention from national outlets like Shape Magazine.

“The boutique spas and resorts were a wonderful base,” explains Birchby, “because these passionate business owners understood our commitment to quality and healthy ingredients and were so honest with us on any issues we could address and how we could continue to improve on the product, the packaging, everything. They are still a core group of COOLA support with long-time relationships that we truly value.”

With tremendous growth and continual expansion, Birchy moved the company south and selected Carlsbad, California for its headquarters in 2011. This was not only based on the beautiful Carlsbad beaches – always a necessity! – but also the corporate partners and cluster of eco-friendly, action sports and active lifestyle retail outlets in the area.

 Core Community Values

“One of the greatest blessings of living out here is the active lifestyle, and our company is very engaged with employees that train for Iron Man competitions to hiking as much as possible,” says Birchby. “The entire company is currently tracking our steps and we turn it into a competition with me and our sales director tracking until midnight in a head to head competition.”

“We all love being competitive, doing things like surfing, stand-up paddling, mountain biking, and the relaxing activities too. We’ve had yoga instructors come to our office and as a company we support gym memberships for our employees,” he says.

COOLA Suncare team members are also allowed to bring their dogs to work, with dog bowls and dog treats visible around the office.

“It’s a lot of fun,” says Birchby. “Who wants to leave their dog at home all day long? We want our employees to feel comfortable. We create a family environment, and we’re doing what we love.”

The close-knit team may be having fun, but they are also experiencing remarkable growth—over 200% in 2015 with a trajectory that is nowhere close to slowing down. COOLA Suncare was honored with the 2015 Cosmetic Executive Women (CEW) “Eco Beauty Award” at the Waldorf Astoria, up against global brands like L’Oreal and Estee Lauder.

Core Commitment to Quality

The focus on quality has never wavered for COOLA Suncare, with research-based formulas that seek to reduce non-organic chemicals and materials in the active ingredients of skin care products and maximize plant-based sun protection.

The company trademarked the terms “Plant Protection” and “Farm to Face” which help explain their commitment to utilizing ingredients like raspberry and strawberry seed oils, red algea and other natural ingredients to boost sun protection with fewer chemical or mineral ingredients. The anti-oxidants and skin care protections these natural ingredients provide are a tremendous benefit for loyal customers.

“Education is a large part of our company experience with the market,” says Birchby. “We have an amazing marketing team that is dedicated to developing easily digestible terms as launching pads for much broader conversations about what we use on our skin and the effects of those products on the environment. From their impact on water systems and coral reefs, to mining processes for mineral-based ingredients that are not the most environmentally-friendly, to the waste that is involved in production.”

The Big Picture

“We are on a mission to stop skin cancer and help the environment, and feel lucky to provide such a fun product that is simultaneously good for you and for the environment,” he explains. “More people nationwide are realizing that this combination of good, fun, responsible care and carefree enjoyment exemplifies the Southern California beach-inspired lifestyle that COOLA Suncare is helping to share.”

COOLA Suncare has launched with Rock & Roll Marathon, LA Galaxy and licensed their sunscreen to Hang 10 (found at Walmart and CVS) and Tommy Bahama (found at Costco), with different formulas for each line.

An additional licensing and distribution deal with Target brings COOLA Suncare products to a wider audience via the Bare Republic brand, and Birchby and his team are looking to continue expanding into eco-active skin care – with wipes, dry shampoo and antiperspirant. In other words, “everything you could need in the soccer bag for the kids or your own activities,” says Birchby.

“We’re also expanding into COOLA Beauty, from make-up primers to setting sprays with SPF, lip products that offer all natural colors and flavors with 70% organic formulas.

And operating out of Carlsbad is par for the course, with so many other eco-friendly, active companies nearby. Prana is just across the street from COOLA Suncare and more than 300 creative tech companies in the city are available to help grow the marketing and distribution abilities of these rapidly growing enterprises.

Carlsbad Connections and Opportunities

Simply being from Carlsbad leads to encounters like Birchby sitting with Ballast Point’s CFO on a recent flight and discussing trading “screen for beers” or meeting other company founders that want to come see the artwork in COOLA Suncare’s new offices – like the Maya Hayuk painting similar to what is found in the lobby of Facebook – combined with the surfboards, stand-up paddle boards and bikes found in almost all Carlsbad offices.

“All of that gives our office fun, creative inspiration,” says Birchby. “It reflects who we are and our passions – we love art, the beach, the people and SoCal beach culture that is healthy, environmentally aware and always up for a fun challenge!”

A commitment to sustainability is found from the 5,000 employees working in Carlsbad’s Clean Tech sector. The Action Sports sector that helps fuel talent for a competitive team like COOLA Suncare – not to mention uses their products at the beach – is over 50 times more concentrated in Carlsbad compared to the national average.

The Future

As a new father, Birchby is focused on this tiny new addition at home, while at the same time planning for sustained growth for his company. He explains that the secret to his company’s success in growing so quickly is the team behind the product. They are an expanding family with an exciting future.

At the day-to-day level for this growing company, Birchby appreciates the work/life balance that Carlsbad offers, particularly with such a vast array of outdoor activities. The company is now reaching 100 employees and he is conscious of the workplace experience the talent he needs to attract is looking for.

“Our creative atmosphere drives people. Ideas come from all over the company and we have created a great energy in our new office space. It feels like a downtown loft in how it was designed, but we’re also close enough to the beach for some midday surfing or late day sunset on the sand,” says Birchby.

The Carlsbad community also provides opportunities to unwind and recharge for the next challenge. Business leaders, like Birchby, and their employees enjoy hiking during the day, seeing each other on the 40-mile network of inter-connected trails throughout the city.

And of course they will also see each other on the sand and among the waves, as they follow their surfboards to the water, with eco-friendly sun protection, at the end of a productive day.

Photo credit: Steve Babuljak