Rusty Preisendorfer’s View Of The Hardgoods Market

A shaper wears many hats. He’s not only a craftsman, but also an artist, psychologist, and therapist. So it’s fitting that while attending UCSD in La Jolla, Rusty Preisendorfer studied physiological psychology before ultimately earning his degree in visual arts.

“I always try to balance what the customers want and try to help them understand what they might need — I coach them, he says.

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The veteran shaper is talking with a lot more customers these days. In fact, he’s been placing a greater influence on his custom-board business. His factory’s use of a new SurfCAD software, coupled with the Digital Surf Design shaping machine, has streamlined production, allowing the brand to make more custom boards more quickly. The influx of overseas competition has also played a role in Rusty’s greater focus on custom boards.

We sat down with Rusty at his San Diego factory to find out more about the state of the domestic surfboard business, the role of technology in surfboards, and why he thinks it’s critical that the surf industry embrace the domestic hardgoods market. Here’s what he had to say:

You’ve introduced five new models recently — CJ, Piranha, Pro-ject, BOB, ’84, and Flextail. Is it harder to try new ideas as your business has become so successful?
Rusty Preisendorfer:
We’re always experimenting around here. We tend to try something for at least a year or two before we give it model status. We worked on the C5 for a couple years before we introduced it as a model. Models are good because it gives a handle for people to sink their teeth into. Also, they help us distill a design that’s really reliable.

How much of your overall business is inventory boards, and how much is custom-order?
At least 30 percent of our business is custom, and it’s increasing as we have a real commitment to it. The true roots of this industry are all about one-on-one relationships and craftsmanship and the experience of getting a new board custom-built. I think it’s important that we still keep that alive.

In your advertisements you mention that Rustys are available with Futures, Lokbox, or RedX fin systems — and there’s no mention of FCS. Has there been a falling out with FCS?
A couple years ago I was starting to become disenchanted with the system, strictly for performance reasons. I felt like FCS did a great job early of getting people to accept removable fins. They did some great pioneer work. But over the years the system didn’t evolve. My teamriders were looking for more performance and started to want more boards with glass-on fins, so I had to ask myself why.

We started trying other systems — systems that would allow us to experiment with glass fins, play with foil and flex, and that were adjustable, which is a fairly important component. We started gravitating toward other systems, because they were a lot more willing to work with us in R&D. And my teamriders and customers were giving us really good feedback.

Does FCS’s affiliation with Chinese and Thai boards have anything to do with it?
That was a huge disappointment, the Costco boards made in China — that’s one issue, and Surftech is another. It’s really frustrating because what they did is they gave those Chinese boards validity. The number-one — at the time — fin components validated the boards to a certain degree. It gave the recreational, entry-level surfer a brand they could recognize, even though it was just a component. It would be like a mass-produced, low-end bike showing up at Costco with Shimano, which is probably a top-end component.

What about Surftech?
With Surftech the shapers — who are experienced craftsmen — have made a choice to work with Randy {French}, who pays a royalty their designs. I have a big commitment to custom boards. Most of my customers prefer the feel of foam and fiberglass.

How is overseas surfboard production affecting domestic surfboard makers?
To be quite fra, I’ve seen guys who have been shaping for 25, 30 years who are having to go and get jobs doing something else so they can support their families. The industry has become so competitive, and a bigger and bigger percentage of it is going overseas. I’d hate to see these imports get embraced too heavily, because at some point the foundation of this thing we love to do called surfing is going to get eroded, and more and more craftsmen are going to get squeezed out.

The sad thing would be if a huge percentage of the market were committed to overseas boards, and you only had X number of models. Imagine what that would look like: you go into a surf shop, there’s only an X number of models, you can’t get a custom board, and shops have to order boards six months out.

You can look what happened to the sailboard industry — it’s a pretty good lesson to be learned.

But one can argue that these boards bring more people into the fold, which could ultimately benefit everyone’s business.
There’s always the argument that the Chinese boards make it accessible for an entry-level surfer. But I always tell people, “You save a dollar a day for a year and you can buy a surfboard — that’s still an incredible value for something that’s hand-built.

If you have these relationships that can be maintained — the connectivity between the guys who design and build the boards and the end consumer — everyone’s going to be better off for it.

How much of an impact has the proliferation of overseas surfboard production had on your business?
There’re different kinds of shops out there. There are shops that are committed to the bottom line, and then there are shops that are committed to the lifestyle. For the bottom-line shops it’s a little disappointing, because right now they have a short-term focus — you can get a slightly better margin on these imports, and they’re using the brand-name boards as window dressing to pull customers in.

But then there’re shops that are really committed to the lifestyle of surfing — to the sport. They support the craftsmen and that connectivity to the person who builds the boards with the end consumer.

When you’re getting an overseas board, you’re just buying what’s there — a poor copy of last year’s model. You’re not a participant in change. That’s what’s so great about what we do. The end consumer can be a participant in change in the evolution of the product.

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What sort of impact do mass-produced boards have on the entire industry?
Short term it will feed new consumer demand in the current climate of “surf is cool. Boards in Costco, Wal-Mart, Sears, Sportmart, et cetera will catch the attention of shoppers who might not ordinarily have surf on their radar. While they might not buy a surfboard, they might buy some other low-ticket, surf-related item.

It opens the door for outsiders to cash in on the surf vibe. As awareness and demand grow, the control slips out of the hands of the specialty stores and into the mass merchants’. As outside interests gain a foothold in the hardgoods venue, so goes the rest. It would serve the legitimate brands well to pay attention to the health of the hardgoods industry.

Long term, it will force domestic craftsmen to differentiate themselves in terms of design, quality, and service if they wish to survive. Our laws here — {minimum} wage, employee benefits, liability, taxes, environmental, material restrictions, and so forth — make it impossible to compete with overseas pricepoint popouts. There has to be a collaborative effort within our industry — retailers, media, and softgoods brands on behalf of the hardgoods manufacturers — to point the end customer in the right direction.

What’s an apparel company’s role in this?
I think a lot of the apparel companies haven’t placed enough importance on the equipment, and I think they’re just starting to realize there’s an erosion.

What are you doing to ensure the domestic surfboard business survives?
In addition to quality and R&D, we have a big commitment to customer service. We’re actually putting more effort into educating the retailer and their staff so that they can better serve the end customer who comes into their store, and help them make an educated decision to get the right board.

What’s keeping the price of surfboards down?
The fact that boards can be made in a garage — I came for the garage, that’s where it all started and I totally support that — the fact that boards are being made overseas and brought over here, along with lack of education, helps keep the price of boards repressed.

I’ve been lucky and blessed. There are a lot of hardworking, experienced craftsmen, who’ve struggled to just get by and deserve more.

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How can that be changed?
I think the guys who are truly market leaders can’t be afraid to raise their prices. We have to respect ourselves more and charge more for what we’re doing. It’s about having the confidence in yourself {to charge that price}. And at the end of the day it’s about the customer agreeing with you. If the guy’s happy, he’s surfing better, so it’s worth it.

If you go back to how much a surfboard costs a day … how do you put a price on happiness?

What can the industry do to make surfboards a more profitable enterprise for manufacturers and retailers?
It’d be nice to see the magazines and the retailers rally around putting a premium on experienced craftsmanship. There’s a lot of guys who would be doing much better if the powers that be — the media, the clothing companies, the industry associations — respected the board builder and the board.

Also, I think the magazines should do a much better job supporting the hardgoods — not just about individuals making surfboards, but about the surfboards themselves. The editorial staffs should be educating themselves more. There should be a commitment in every issue to surfboards. Ditch the cosmetic ads and soda ads and lend a hand to the guys in the trenches. The readers should lean on the editors to lean on the publishers to lean on the CFOs to respect the surfboard. It was so intuitive when surfers owned the mags.

At ASR you’re going to design boards on a computer. Why are you putting such an emphasis on technology?
Part of our R&D is always on technology — not just materials, but procedures and processes. I’ve been working with SurfCAD software for almost a year. I can design and evolve surfboards digitally, watch them {teamriders} ride their boards, go back, and make changes to any component of design — rocker, thickness, outline, bottom contours.

After you design the board on a computer, how long does it take to build?
The {Digital Surf Designs} machine cuts the average shortboard in twenty minutes. All the key elements — the rocker, the thickness — are within a hundredth of an inch tolerance. The consistency’s incredible.

How has it improved production?
What we have is a lot more consistent product. We have a lot more control over it. No matter how diligent your notes are and how good you are, as a hand shaper you cannot physically reproduce a board as closely as this machine. We’re more efficient, too.

What percentage of boards is shaped by the DSD machine?
It’s a growing percentage, but as part of our commitment to the custom board and the relationship between the shaper and the customer we still do a lot of custom hand-shaped work.

Have you taken any flack from the traditionalists for letting a machine make your boards?
There’s always that soul argument, but really the machine is my brain with better, mechanical hands. I can create those designs, the computer remembers perfectly what I created, and the machine executes perfectly what the computer remembers.

It seems like Rusty’s been marketing more hardgoods lately than softgoods. Why?
If you look back througic surfboard business survives?
In addition to quality and R&D, we have a big commitment to customer service. We’re actually putting more effort into educating the retailer and their staff so that they can better serve the end customer who comes into their store, and help them make an educated decision to get the right board.

What’s keeping the price of surfboards down?
The fact that boards can be made in a garage — I came for the garage, that’s where it all started and I totally support that — the fact that boards are being made overseas and brought over here, along with lack of education, helps keep the price of boards repressed.

I’ve been lucky and blessed. There are a lot of hardworking, experienced craftsmen, who’ve struggled to just get by and deserve more.

[IMAGE 3]

How can that be changed?
I think the guys who are truly market leaders can’t be afraid to raise their prices. We have to respect ourselves more and charge more for what we’re doing. It’s about having the confidence in yourself {to charge that price}. And at the end of the day it’s about the customer agreeing with you. If the guy’s happy, he’s surfing better, so it’s worth it.

If you go back to how much a surfboard costs a day … how do you put a price on happiness?

What can the industry do to make surfboards a more profitable enterprise for manufacturers and retailers?
It’d be nice to see the magazines and the retailers rally around putting a premium on experienced craftsmanship. There’s a lot of guys who would be doing much better if the powers that be — the media, the clothing companies, the industry associations — respected the board builder and the board.

Also, I think the magazines should do a much better job supporting the hardgoods — not just about individuals making surfboards, but about the surfboards themselves. The editorial staffs should be educating themselves more. There should be a commitment in every issue to surfboards. Ditch the cosmetic ads and soda ads and lend a hand to the guys in the trenches. The readers should lean on the editors to lean on the publishers to lean on the CFOs to respect the surfboard. It was so intuitive when surfers owned the mags.

At ASR you’re going to design boards on a computer. Why are you putting such an emphasis on technology?
Part of our R&D is always on technology — not just materials, but procedures and processes. I’ve been working with SurfCAD software for almost a year. I can design and evolve surfboards digitally, watch them {teamriders} ride their boards, go back, and make changes to any component of design — rocker, thickness, outline, bottom contours.

After you design the board on a computer, how long does it take to build?
The {Digital Surf Designs} machine cuts the average shortboard in twenty minutes. All the key elements — the rocker, the thickness — are within a hundredth of an inch tolerance. The consistency’s incredible.

How has it improved production?
What we have is a lot more consistent product. We have a lot more control over it. No matter how diligent your notes are and how good you are, as a hand shaper you cannot physically reproduce a board as closely as this machine. We’re more efficient, too.

What percentage of boards is shaped by the DSD machine?
It’s a growing percentage, but as part of our commitment to the custom board and the relationship between the shaper and the customer we still do a lot of custom hand-shaped work.

Have you taken any flack from the traditionalists for letting a machine make your boards?
There’s always that soul argument, but really the machine is my brain with better, mechanical hands. I can create those designs, the computer remembers perfectly what I created, and the machine executes perfectly what the computer remembers.

It seems like Rusty’s been marketing more hardgoods lately than softgoods. Why?
If you look back through the magazines of the 60s and 70s, you get a clear picture of what you need to surf: you need a surfboard. As the years have gone by, it’s become so convoluted that the seed that sparked this whole industry is barely visible — at least in advertising. I felt like it was time to make a stand and say, “What’s really the star here?

I’m just trying to make people aware of what it’s all about. A surfboard’s like sculpture. If you just take a picture of a blank without logos or glass or fins, it’s art — it’s a beautiful thing. And I’m trying to make people aware of that. Surfers fantasize about waves and what they ride them with — that’s what the memories are built on. And that’s the link I’m trying to build.rough the magazines of the 60s and 70s, you get a clear picture of what you need to surf: you need a surfboard. As the years have gone by, it’s become so convoluted that the seed that sparked this whole industry is barely visible — at least in advertising. I felt like it was time to make a stand and say, “What’s really the star here?

I’m just trying to make people aware of what it’s all about. A surfboard’s like sculpture. If you just take a picture of a blank without logos or glass or fins, it’s art — it’s a beautiful thing. And I’m trying to make people aware of that. Surfers fantasize about waves and what they ride them with — that’s what the memories are built on. And that’s the link I’m trying to build.