THOM HILL AND AN UNASSUMING CALIFORNIA SURF TOWN
Words by Chris Nelson | Photography by Dylan Gordon
It doesn’t start here, and it probably won’t end here, but most of Thom Hill’s story has played out against the impossibly beautiful background of the laid-back, blue-collar surf town of Ventura, California, which is located halfway between Malibu and Santa Barbara along the Pacific Coast Highway. Hill, the 55-year-old founder of Iron & Resin — a moto- and surf-inspired apparel and provisions brand with an enviably outfitted flagship store located on Ventura’s historic Main Street — says, “A place can have influence over you, what you do, your actions, your lifestyle, and how you think, and I get so much inspiration from this place. We can surf every morning, go for a mountain bike ride after work, and dive for lobster in the evening. We have islands literally outside our front door, a short boat ride away, with complete wilderness above and below the water. All those things together in one place is just magical.”
Ventura County split off from Santa Barbara County in the late 1800s after tapping into rich oil wells, and suddenly this small coastal city of Ventura was magnetic. Black gold and booming agriculture brought new interest to the area, and an eclectic mix of families flocked to nest in its neighborhoods. In the ’60s, if you walked down one street block, you could meet ranchers, roughnecks, surfers, firefighters, plumbers, policemen, or other down-to-earth, hardworking folks.
“Nearby Santa Barbara is a façade of Spanish architecture — a portrayal of what its residents want their city to feel like, which is fine — but Ventura is funky, rough around the edges, and I like that,” Hill says. “Most people you meet in Ventura were born here, their parents were born here, their grandparents were born here, and there are deep roots here that I think are important in any great community.” He witnessed how strong that community can be in late 2017, when one of the biggest fires in modern California history burned through Ventura and nearby cities, and he watched as his 100,000 neighbors came together to help one another. “Ventura is the first place I’ve been in California that feels like home,” Hill says.
If you understand where he comes from, it makes sense he ended up in “Ventucky,” because it’s sort of a hick farm sanctuary for surfers. Hill grew up in a bumpkin town outside of Raleigh, North Carolina, called Apex, which has since been swallowed by a sprawling metropolitan area. He fondly remembers his family cabin in the mountains, where he’d ride the Honda Trail 70 that his grandpa bought him at the age of eight, and he spent a lot of his time on the Atlantic Coast, surfing the sandbars of the Outer Banks. “Back then all I wanted to do when I graduated high school was go to college someplace where I could surf, and I didn’t really care where that was,” Hill admits.
When he woke up in his dorm at UC Santa Barbara, he’d sit up in bed, look out his window, see a perfect right-hand point break, and know exactly what he was doing that day. “I realized that all the things I loved as a kid ended up being in one place after I came to California,” Hill says. “The mountains come straight down to the ocean. In the morning, you can go surf, and in the afternoon, you can play in the snow, or vice versa. How is that even possible?”
As an undergraduate, Hill studied economics because he thought it sounded grown up, and double-majored in environmental studies, simply because he so admires the outdoors. So, when he graduated in 1990, he had no idea what to do. All he knew was that he didn’t want to work at Apple, where he had interned for the past three summers. “I got offered an amazing job right out of school, paying me more money than I’d ever know what to do with as a college grad, and they were going to relocate me to Austin,” Hill says. “But the expectation was that when you went to work there, you were going to dedicate your life to that place, and it was a huge turnoff for me. So I turned it down to stay in Santa Barbara and surf.”
Still, Santa Barbara didn’t fit right for Hill, so he moved south along U.S. 101 to an affordable beach community called La Conchita, which is about 15 miles up from Ventura. Hill found middling work as a graphic designer at an ad agency, until he stumbled across a guy who was packing up a commercial screen-printing setup to put in storage, and everything changed. Hill had always been interested in screen printing, even though he knew next to nothing about it. He had saved up $5,000 for a car, so he impulsively offered it to the guy, who accepted, and went home with a shop’s worth of professional screen-printing equipment that he had to store in his carport.
“When people talk about burning the boat, I burned the boat to the water, and the boat sank, and there was nothing left, so I had to make it work,” Hill says. “I was engaged to get married, and I didn’t even talk to my future wife about it. I called my boss and quit my job that day, because a light bulb went off: I could work for myself and be free.”
He adds, “I mean, how hard could screen printing be? I was creative, I could do artwork, but I was a dumbass kid who didn’t know shit about anything, much less running a business or screen printing. But I got a book on screen printing and asked a friend who was a screen printer to come over and teach me a bunch of stuff. I wrapped my carport in plastic and got to work on shirts for local bands and little skate and surf brands.”
After five years, Hill had built a 150-employee business that produced private-label products like shirts, stickers, and skate decks, adorned with a catalog of artistic and progressive designs, that were then rebranded for thousands of surf shops, mountain resorts, or similar. “It allowed smaller brands to compete with any big brand out there with their own private-label lines,” Hill says, “and since I didn’t have the money to put my own brand together, I figured I’d build brands for other people, but really, I was just designing things in a very commercial way that didn’t have soul. We designed the stuff that we knew would sell, but it wasn’t my taste, and after a while I wanted to do something that reflected what I was into.”
In 2011, a subsidiary business called Iron & Resin came to life with an aim to produce durable, high-quality products inspired by the local culture that charmed Hill. He and his team created a small collection of apparel and goods, pulled together a makeshift booth for a trade show, and shook hands to set up a few accounts and get the wheels rolling. A well-curated Instagram became the brand’s main vehicle for exposure, and before long people from all over the world were asking to carry Iron & Resin in their stores. “Still, we never made any money with it, really, and we just kept pouring money back into it from the other business,” Hill admits.
It got worse before it got better. After 21 years of marriage, Hill went through a litigious divorce, and in 2019, it forced him to hit pause on Iron & Resin, sell off his main business and his house, and walk away from decades of work. He says, “It sucked having to start over at my age, but at least I was able to get the trademark for Iron & Resin out of it all.”
And at least the dissolution of a tumultuous marriage led him to his new partner, Laura Fullilove, who runs her own brand, The Salt Ranch, while also managing the Iron & Resin flagship store in Ventura. “I met her a couple years after my separation, and I was definitely not looking for another relationship,” Hill says. “I hadn’t even dated somebody else since I was basically a kid. But I’d just gotten out of the water from surfing and went to have beers with some buddies, and there she was.”
“She runs these horsemanship clinics and had just finished one,” he continues, “so she was dirty and had her hat and boots on, with dirt under her fingernails, and I was like, ‘Man, this chick is interesting.’ We ended up talking ’til two in the morning, and for the last seven years we’ve been partners in life, business, everything.”
Within five months of settling his divorce, Hill had restructured and relaunched Iron & Resin. In its salad days, the brand followed a wholesale model that is traditionally fraught with troubles, but now it focuses on a direct-to-consumer model, which Hill prefers since he can better tailor the product experience for his customers. Hill and his small, tight-knit team of a dozen function as a family, spending days at the beach so they can go surfing or riding motorcycles together at lunch, and if a truck pulls up in front of the store and needs to be unloaded, everybody gets up from their desk, goes outside, and unloads it together.
“As painful as it was to get here, it was probably the best thing that could have happened, because it freed Iron & Resin of a lot of baggage from my old business and left it completely unencumbered to grow and be very healthy,” Hill says. “Now I can just focus on that, and it’s really where my heart is, and it’s just been a much happier time in my life the last couple years.”
If he’s not in the office or at the beach, Hill is likely at his ranch just outside of Cuyama Valley, on the far side of the rugged Santa Lucia Mountains. “If you imagine a ranching community in the 1940s or ’50s in California, Cuyama Valley is pretty much still that,” he says. “There’s probably 750 residents total across a hundred miles, and it’s very spread out, but everybody knows everybody. Our neighbor, 88-year-old Fred, has an 80,000-acre cattle ranch that his family has been running since the 1800s. He still runs cattle, horseback by himself, and his grandfather was the first forest ranger in the Los Padres National Forest.”
When Hill is at his ranch, he rides horses or motorcycles on endless singletrack trails, shoots guns and runs around naked, doing whatever he wants to do with nobody there to tell him he can’t.
As much as he cherishes his adopted home of Ventura, Hill says the culture of the city is changing quickly as new money moves in, and as he gets older, he finds himself seeking seclusion, because he wants to be around noisy people less and less – the main appeal of ranch life. “When we’re at the beach, the train and the freeway go right by our house, and every day we watch thousands of cars pass us,” Hill says, “but in the mountains I have a place of complete solitude, with almost no one around, total silence, and an endless sky of stars.”
Hill is and always has been amused by his surroundings, a willing product of the environments that speak to him, from the sandbars of the Outer Banks and the forests of North Carolina to the surf breaks of Santa Barbara and Ventura, to the valleys of the Santa Lucia Mountains and wherever else he follows the passionate siren song of nature. Maybe next it draws him out with the tide to open ocean, to live aboard a sailboat with Fullilove, but still Hill never sees completely abandoning his beloved laid-back, blue-collar surf city. “We’d have the ranch, and we’d maintain our businesses here, and as long as we have balance, I don’t see any reason we’d ever really leave Ventura,” he says.
In the end, why does “where” matter to him? Because being in the right place helps Hill be in the right mindset and be present in what he calls “peak moments,” which are the flashbang instances of elation that we all chase. “I want to put myself in a place and in a position to have as many of those peak moments as I can,” he says. “In life, there’s good times, there’s bad times, and sometimes you got to put your head down and work, but the whole reason for doing that is to have those peak moments. It’s fleeting, it lasts only a few minutes, and then it’s gone, but threading those together over a lifetime is what makes life worth living, as far as I’m concerned.”