by Kevin Cody and Mike Purpus
It’s doubtful that a Congressional subpoena could have compelled, without a fight, appearances by the CEOs of the surf industry’s four largest manufacturers.
Bob McKnight’s Quiksilver, Paul Naude’s Billabong, Bob Hurley’s Hurley and Richard Woolcott’s Volcom account for nearly half of the roughly $7 billion in annual U.S. surf industry sales.
But despite gray skies and small, mushy waves, the four goofyfooter oligopolists all assembled Sunday morning on the sand at Rosecrans Avenue in Manhattan Beach to compete where they got their starts – in a surf contest.
Each CEO was accompanied by a trusted gunslinger from their stables of professional surfers. McKnight brought Australian Julian Wilson, the 2006 18-and-under world champion who is featured on the cover of the current Surfer magazine. Hurley brought Yadin Nicol, another hot young Australian aerialist. Naude and Woolcott bet their companies’ reputations on local talent. Naude enlisted Dane Zaun, a member of Mira Costa High School’s 2008 U.S. Championship team. Woolcott had former Palos Verdes High standout, turned big wave charger and “Drop Zone” video star Alex Gray.
Publicly traded surf manufacturers tread a thin line between success and sell-out.
“I organized Quiksilver so that the enemy, Tommy Hilfiger, Nike, Guess, Old Navy and Gap would quit sucking the life out of the surfer, stealing our vibe with checkbook marketing,” McKnight stated before his company eclipsed the enemy.
Sunday’s CEO surf contest was orchestrated by Spyder Surf shop owners Dennis Jarvis and Dickie O’Reilly as a not so subtle challenge to the CEOs to prove they haven’t lost their souls.
Spyder’s motto is “We live it.”
“I reminded them about why we all got into this business, and how much fun it used to be. I said, ‘Let’s have a fun day at the beach, even though South Bay surf is always crappy in the summer because the Peninsula and Catalina block the south swells.’”
Jarvis picked Rosecrans, at the north end of Manhattan Beach, even though his two Spyder stores are in Hermosa Beach, because as bad as Manhattan is in the summer, Hermosa’s summer surf is even worse.
The format, devised by South Bay High School Surf League director John Joseph and Arbor Snow and Skate’s Charlie Ninegar, called for 20 minute, man on man heats.
The first prelim heat was Wilson versus Zaun. Heat two was McKnight versus Naude. Heat three was Woolcott versus Hurley. Heat four was Gray versus Nicol. The prelim winners would compete in the finals for first and second. The losers would compete for third and last.
A towering canvas
The contest began to take shape four months ago when Jarvis and Dickey began remodeling their Pacific Coast Highway shop. They were looking for a creative way to make use of the store’s new, 22-foot-high signature tower.
“Surf artists are incredible. So I went to our four major brands and said, ‘I’ve got an idea for something that’s better than just putting your stickers all over my windows.’”
His idea was to turn their artists free on Spyder’s new tower.
“I wanted something that says surfing is more than a sport, it’s a lifestyle and that’s why we do it,” he said.
Jarvis is a former pro surfer whose relationships with McKnight, Hurley, Naude and Woolcott date back three decades to when he was a 13-year-old shop rat at ET Surf and they were pedaling board shorts out of the trunks of their cars.
“Dickie and I were in a meeting with the Volcom execs and Woolcott, and he said, ‘Okay, I’m in. But we want to be the first to paint the tower.’ I said, ‘You’re a ripper. Why not a contest and the winner gets to be the first.”
At Sunday’s contest, the CEOs each insisted he was just there for a good time and to show support for Spyder, and by extension, all the other small surf shops struggling with the recession.
By mutual agreement the press wasn’t notified. The only spectators were the competitors’ reps, their women and kids, and judges Jarvis, O’Reilly, Ninegar, Havoc TV’s Brian Robbin and former Mira Costa surf coach Kevin Sousa.
“I’d do this any Sunday. It’s just like surfing with my neighbors in front of my Newport Beach house at Orange Street,” said Hurley, while watching McKnight and Naude jockey for position in their first heat.
“Of course, we each want to win,” added the former shaper who went on to head Billabong USA from 1983 until 1998 when he founded Hurley. Four years later, he sold Hurley to Nike for an undisclosed amount, estimated to be in the $100 million range.
Fun and games
“Crush and rule,” quipped McKnight as he exited the water from his heat. The famously competitive businessman, who co-founded Quiksilver USA in 1976, declined to expand on his comment.
“The Waterman’s Ball,” Naude answered when quizzed about what the two had talked about between waves. The former South African pro finished third in the Pipeline Masters the year McKnight started Quiksilver.
While the other competitors affected a soulful calm, Woolcott, the youngest of the CEOs, made no effort to disguise his intentions.
“Dude, I’m going to smoke them,” the former NSSA nationals champion told Jarvis while stretching before his heat against Hurley.
Asked what made him so confident, Woolcott answered under his breath. “I’ve been practicing.”
Woolcott picked a 5-food-4 Estrada fish and sat inside, where he tore apart the shore pound.
The other CEOs waited outside for set waves, and waited and waited. The strategy might have worked on longboards, but in keeping with their core images, they all rode shortboards.
McKnight looked like Alec Baldwin trying to hustle waves instead of chicks on his Channel Island thruster. Glimmers of past greatness were erased by less than elegant dismounts. Hurley hustled, but couldn’t pump enough speed into his 5-11 thruster.
In the CEO finals, Naude clung to his outside set strategy on his Pavel quad and was shutdown by the rising tide. Woolcott kept playing in the shore pound, and on wave count alone, out scored Naude 8 to 2.
Even with Gray struggling to find waves in his final against Wilson, Woolcott was able to make good on his boast and bring home bragging rights and first shot at the Spyder tower for Volcom. ER