There’s no doubt Australia is a surfing nation – it’s estimated three million Aussies like to get out there on the weekend and catch a wave. In the 1970s a couple of inspired surfie entrepreneurs discovered there was money to be made from their favoured pastime. The result was the establishment of three iconic Aussie companies that took on the world and won – big time.
It’s true: when you love what you do, work is never a grind!
In 1969, surfer buddies Alan Green and John Law started making board shorts in their home garage in Torquay, on Victoria’s southwest coast. Green also came up with some prototype sheepskin boots for that essential post-surf warm-up. Being surfers, the duo designed their products to suit surfers’ needs, and before long they were making a good living, and combining work with surf.
Those custom-made board shorts became their flagship product, and Quiksilver the company was born in 1973. Quiksilver board shorts were cool, and were soon the brand of choice for surfers across the country.
Things really took off in 1976 when Quiksilver was licensed in the USA to surfer Jeff Hakman and the man who would become the company’s long-term CEO, Bob McKnight. The firm went global, the sibling Roxy brand for women was established, and at its peak the company was worth in excess of US$2.3 billion.
Since the heady days of the 1990s, though, the acquisition of rival sportswear companies and an unsustainable mix of debt and expansion have seen the company’s fortunes tumble.
Quiksilver USA filed for bankruptcy in 2015 and is now almost entirely owned by a global asset management firm. Nothing cool or counter-culture about that. The tide is on the turn though, and the company remains one of the world’s largest manufacturers of surf and boardsport gear and equipment.
In an ironic twist, the global asset management firm that threw a rescue line to Quiksilver also owns a major slice of one of its largest competitors – Billabong. There’s
even been ongoing speculation that the companies could merge – Quikabong?
The iconic Australian brand was founded in 1973, when surfer Gordon Merchant left the surf at Maroubra and found surfing heaven on the Gold Coast. Merchant designed his own boards and developed the first leg-rope, but things really came together when along with his wife Rena he began running up pairs of triple-stitched board shorts on a machine at his kitchen table.
He sold the gear to local surf shops and spread the word about Billabong by sponsoring local surf contests. It was all about authenticity, and Aussie surfers flocked to buy
Merchant’s durable board shorts.
In the 1980s Billabong products were exported to New Zealand, Japan, South Africa and the US, and licenses followed. Like Quiksilver, Billabong broadened its focus to embrace skate, snow and wake boardsports, and in mid-2000 the company traded on the Australian Securities Exchange.
But also like Quiksilver, Billabong became a victim of its own success – if everyone is wearing your trackie dacks, your brand can no longer be cool.
A familiar pattern of acquisitions ensued, and Billabong is now worth a fraction of its peak valuation of US$3.45 billion in 2007. However, the company headquarters remain in Billabong’s original hometown of Burleigh Heads in Queensland, and Gordon Merchant remains hands-on, designing and promoting. He is still a major stakeholder in the firm.
The last major Aussie brand still left standing is Rip Curl, whose founders Brian Singer and Doug Warbrick stepped down as recently as 2013.
Like Quiksilver, Rip Curl also started life in Torquay in 1969. In fact, Quiksilver’s Alan Green was making wetsuits at Rip Curl when he began gussying up his first pair of
Rip Curl’s focus was on equipment rather than fashion – surfboards and wetsuits – and so earned heaps of cred with surfers. The firm has sponsored the Rip Curl Pro at Bells Beach every Easter since the 1970s, and in its early days is remembered for throwing legendary parties.
Rip Curl survived because it retained its core focus – it didn’t dilute the brand, didn’t go public and list on the ASX, didn’t accrue the debts associated with acquisitions and expansion. And the company still owns the ancient sewing machine used back in the day to make their custom-made wetsuits.
Rip Curl’s HQ is still based in Torquay, and though the original owners have left the premises they still surf every day. And if the surf’s up, Rip Curl staff don’t get sacked for swapping their desks for a wave.
Back to business
Nowadays, all three companies are focusing on core business: surfing and all the paraphernalia that goes with it. The marketing tool with the most cred that counts is sponsoring professional surfing competitions – Rip Curl has Bells Beach, Billabong has Pro Tahiti, and Quiksilver has Pro Gold Coast. Also synonymous with the firms are star surfers Mick Fanning (Rip Curl), Stephanie Gilmore (Roxy) and Taj Burrow (Billabong).