Flips That Won't Flop

UPDATED 09/09/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT Originally published 09/09/1996 at 01:00 AM EDT

MARK THATCHER, MULTIMILLIONAIRE designer of the ubiquitous Teva sandal, likes riding wild rivers, which makes sense, since they provide a pretty accurate metaphor for his life. They're rough, unpredictable, they flip him over—and he always bobs back up. "Everything that looked horrible," says the 41-year-old entrepreneur, "I've converted into something positive. I'm relentless."

Just so. Fourteen years ago, Thatcher was laid off from his job as a geo-physicist in Houston. Pondering his next move while guiding rafts through the Grand Canyon, he noticed his fellow guides all wore flip-flop sandals that tended to slip off when the wearers slogged through water or mud. Thatcher designed a solution: a rubber, nylon and Velcro sandal with a heel strap that he called the Teva—Hebrew for "nature." He made a deal with a shoe company, California Pacific, and started touring the Southwest as a low-rent salesman. "I put my kayak on the roof and my sandals in the trunk and lived out of my car for the next year and a half," he says.

Thatcher sold only 200 pairs his first year, but then word-of-mouth began to kick in. At that point, California Pacific, realizing it had a winner, claimed it owned the Teva name and that Thatcher was only an employee. The company sued; he countersued and, after a nasty, expensive court battle, won his case in 1985. Last year 2.3 million pairs of Tevas were sold, and Thatcher earned $2.8 million.

After his victory, Thatcher thought he was set for life—then life set him straight. Two years ago, while happily renovating his two houses in Arizona and California and making his first TV commercial, he started waking at night with painful cramps; within three months he'd dropped 20 pounds from his 6-foot frame. An outdoors-man who prided himself on his high pain threshold, he says he "ate a bunch of antihistamines and went back to work." When friends persuaded him to see a doctor, tests showed he had Type 1 diabetes, in which the body almost completely stops producing insulin. "At first," he says, "it was a death sentence. Now, it's a way of life."

Every eight hours, Thatcher injects insulin directly into his abdomen, and 10 times a day he pricks a finger to test his sugar level. On a kayak trip last year with friends, he was carrying his boat on a portage and stopping constantly to check his blood. Falling behind, he momentarily lost sight of the group. "I was scared," he recalls. "Scared to stay, scared to go out and maybe pass out in my boat. If you pass out and flip over, you're dead." Realizing that he was risking his life, Thatcher went home. He knows now that he can no longer take such adventuring for granted.

Thatcher's life has been an adventure almost from the beginning. The younger of two children of lawyers Helen and Tom Thatcher, he was 6 when his parents divorced and his father left their suburban Philadelphia home for Florida. A self-described "rebel child of the '60s," Mark dropped out of school at 15. A trip to Israel on a student program, says his sister, Leslie, 44, "was a moral awakening. He learned a sense of community, the dignity of work and the importance of education." Finishing high school in the U.S., he returned to Israel, where a park ranger named Gil Dror befriended him. They roamed the Sinai in a Jeep, checking on animals and sharing meals with the Bedouin. "I was in love with the desert," says Thatcher. "From that point on, I wanted to study the outdoors in a scientific way."

While majoring in geology at Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff and working summers in the Grand Canyon, he learned about rivers. After graduation, he took a desk job in Houston analyzing rock samples for the petroleum company Citgo. When that ended, he says, "I just knew I couldn't exist in an office, so I was going to be an entrepreneur or a bum." Since, he says, he had "lived on nothing and already knew how to be a bum," he decided to start his own business. Teva, his first at-bat, proved a grand slam.

At least financially. Socially, his life has been less stable. Before taking off on his extended road trip to introduce his sandal, he ended an eight-year relationship with a girlfriend. "The main obstacle," Thatcher says, "was my commitment to wherever the business was going to lead me."

These days, success lets him stay in Flagstaff, where he lives in a three-bedroom, wood-and-glass hilltop home and can be, he says, "close to the people who run the river." He owns just one sports jacket but has two motorcycles, a Jeep, eight guitars and four kayaks. Though his mother chose to stay in Pennsylvania, he has brought his father, Tom, 70, and sister Leslie to Flagstaff as Teva consultants. "I'm reassembling my family, in a way," he says. Still, he remains incorrigibly single. As his father puts it, "Mark likes family life, but he's afraid of it for himself."

It may be one of the few things he is afraid of; after so many bumps, he tends to focus on those things, big or small, that are going well. "My life now," he says simply, "is a gift from God."

EMILY MITCHELL
ANNE-MARTIE OTEY in Flagstaff

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