Step By Step: Rip Curl continues its push to make bigger inroads to the U.S. market.

Mike Martin’s office is better than yours.

From the new Rip Curl showroom just above Jack’s Surfboards in Huntington Beach, California, Rip Curl USA’s national sales manager can just glance to his right to check out the north- and south-pier lineups.

Outside, chairs and tables adorn a huge patio that has even a broader vista. The 1,300-square-foot showroom opened in June and is decked out with custom fixtures and lighting, the newest marketing support materials, and more than a little expectation.

Martin has it all figured out: how many appointments and orders before the rent is covered for the year; how many more before the fixtures and build-outs are paid for. As a longtime H.B. local, Martin pushed hard for the showroom, which will give the brand an important outpost in the taste-making Orange County market. He’s confident that the showroom will show retailers how committed the brand is to growth and will help continue the more than twenty-percent sales growth the U.S. business has enjoyed since he joined the company last year.

[IMAGE 1]Half-assed it ain’t, and in a tough market where budgets more often than not are being trimmed, the showroom would be a reckless expense if it weren’t backed by a continuing company-wide transformation.

The Rip Curl operation in the U.S. today bears little resemblance to the company just a few years ago. There’s a new CEO, a new marketing director, design team, ad campaign, and apparel emphasis. Just about the only thing that hasn’t changed is the brand’s commitment to surfing.

“In the last six to twelve months, we’ve been making some key appointments and getting the foundation set for what lies ahead, says Rip Curl USA’s new Marketing Director Adam Sharp, who just until recently headed up the brand’s marketing efforts in Australia. Sharp, a solid Syndeysider who wears a constant half grin, says he’s excited by the changes happening in the U.S. — and the opportunities they represent.

“We brought on Mike Martin to be our national sales manager, he says. “He’s been around forever and a day and is regarded as one of the top sales managers in the U.S. He’s got incredible relationships with retailers on both coasts and in Hawai’i as well. The board appointed Jimmy Olsson to the position of CEO, and he has incredible merchandise experience.

“All of this is a continuation of our setting the foundation of how we’re going to move forward and grow, he continues. “Having key people in the right position is the most important aspect of that foundation.

The View From The Top

Probably the most significant addition to the team is CEO Olsson, who helped launch Old Navy, a company that grew from zero to one-billion in sales in only four years. He also served as director of men’s merchandising for Gap, and the VP of merchandising for Coach.

“My long-term goal had always been to get into the surf industry, says Olsson via e-mail from Europe, where he’s attending meeting. “Right around the time that I was looking into employment opportunities in the surf industry, I got the call from the Rip Curl recruiters. It was perfect timing.

As a surfer himself, Olsson knew about the Rip Curl brand — all the way down to sharing a common perception about the company: “My impression of the brand was that it was a ‘core surf brand with an incredible heritage that produced the best wetsuits, surf watches, and boardshorts — but little else in the U.S.

Before accepting the position, Olsson did a great deal of research online to learn more about the history, culture, and global business of the company. “I also spoke with contacts in the surf industry that I had through friends, he says. “I questioned the Rip Curl board about the global strategy of the brand, their goals for the brand in the U.S., and why they hadn’t been successful here.

After all his conversations and research, he was left with notion that there was great opportunity for the brand in the U.S. “I also asked about the new nagement appointments and the future role of {Founders} Brian {Singer}, Claw {Doug Warbrick}, and {Rip Curl Europe Founder} François {Payot}. I was very happy to learn that the brand was being globalized, and that strong partnerships between countries were being formed.

Olsson says his background is a mix of business and merchandising: “I’m hoping to provide leadership to the Rip Curl USA team on building a brand, improving customer service, developing product, and integrating merchandising and marketing.

As a relative outsider to the incestuous surf industry, it’s likely Olsson will bring a fresh perspective to the business, but he says he understands both the lifestyle and the passion for surfing that underpins the brand: “In my short time in the industry, I’ve observed that both are reflected in the spirit of the business. It’s a very tight-knit community of people who are passionate about surfing. The people I’ve met so far have been great, and I look forward to getting more involved once I get things up to speed at Rip Curl.

The Apparel Push

Clearly Olsson’s experience in the apparel market played a key role in his selection for the CEO position — much of the success of the brand in the U.S. will be measured by its apparel growth.

“We’ve been perceived in the U.S. in the past as a ‘core and credible brand, and first and foremost as a wetsuit brand, says Sharp. “That’s okay. That’s a great platform to have, and wetsuits and the ‘core side of our business is going to stay incredibly important. We want to have a hell of a lot of focus on wetsuits. We certainly don’t take that market as a given. That’s the heart of Rip Curl. But now it’s time to gear up and grow the brand — grow the entire company — through apparel.

Sharp says the company will place equal emphasis on the men’s line and the smaller-but-growing women’s range. “We all know the potential, and the future lies in the girls’ market. We’re quickly gaining a slick reputation for having our girls’ line improve substantially range after range after range, he says. “You’ll see it again in Spring ’04.

Central to this new apparel emphasis is bringing on James Sowins as VP of design and merchandise. “His background is amazing, says Sharp. “He helped drive Puma from eighteen-million in sales to 200-million in a short amount of time. He’s worked with Mossimo and Quiksilver. In terms of design and as a merchant, he’s regarded as one of the best in the business.

[IMAGE 2]

Sowins’ first efforts will be for Spring ’04, which will debut at the ASR show in September. “Like I said, in the past we’ve been known as a wetsuit brand in the U.S., says Sharp. “Apparel was something that we did, but it probably didn’t do that well. We had different influences through different designers and different product managers.

“What James Sowins and our head girls’ designer Tanya Baldwin are concentrating on is the line as a whole, he continues. “In the past we’ve been known for specific pieces, but lacked a theme or purpose. Now we’ve tried to keep the spring line tight, keep the different elements of the story to it, and bring it together so it’s more merchandisable.

One item that Sharp is especially excited about is the Code: STL stitchless boardshort, which was developed by Group Surfwear Chairman Fred Basse. “Laser-cutting the fabric, electro-welding the seams, and assembling the pieces in a mold results in the best-fitting, most-comfortable, and most-durable boardshorts ever made, he says. In fact, Rip Curl will be offering a lifetime guarantee on the seams, and the Code: STL will be backed by more than a million-dollar promotional budget.

Retail Support Systems

Another area where Rip Curl says it will beef up its efforts is supporting its retailers through more and better in-store displays, through more dedicated P.O.P., and through better build-outs.

“To that end I’m just about to appoint a new visual merchandiser for the brand who will be on the road 90 percent of the time, says Sharp. “We’re going to dedicate a lot more time, effort, money, and resources to developing and diversifying our in-store displays and P.O.P. We’re putting more focus on racking, build-outs, hardware, and fixtures. We’re supporting our retailers on the sales floor, where it counts most.

Sharp says there will also be more of an effort to integrate the marketing and merchandise stories on a global level: “In the past, we had our marketing people and our sales and merchandising people, and a lot of the time they were running off in different directions. Now we’re trying to integrate the overall package so we’re supporting our sales team and our design and merchandising people and vice versa.

While change is a central theme to this ongoing Rip Curl story, Sharp says the company’s current distribution strategy will remain in place for the time being.

“Our focus for the short term is with our core accounts, our existing account base, he says. “There are plenty of opportunities for growth there and to strengthen the brand and our relationships. From there, we’ll move forward. Like everyone else, we see that down the track there will be opportunities for us with other types of specialty stores and chains. In reality, that’s where the future growth of the industry really lies.

Not A Gimme

Sharp is excited about the brand’s chances to make a bigger splash in the U.S. market, but he says he understands the challenges it faces. “One of the reasons the American market is the leader is that it’s more competitive, he says. “The cost of business is higher. Turnover is higher. A fundamental difference is that in the U.S. we produce four apparel lines a year, while in Australia and Europe we produce three. There’s a lot of debate right now as to whether that’s a good or bad thing.

“In terms of turnaround time, though, and being able to recover from any mistakes, the U.S. market is way less forgiving, he continues. “Sticking to schedules and working with deadlines — and having a good staff who can work with you autonomously to meet those deadlines — becomes incredibly important. But what makes it challenging also makes it exciting.

More than pride is riding on the U.S. effort, too. Rip Curl’s market share is far more developed in Australia, Europe, and Brazil than it is here, and closing that gap is key to maximizing the global reach of the brand.

“We always wanted the U.S. to play lead more and drive more of our global business — since we’re a global company, says Sharp. “Long term, Rip Curl certainly wants to be up there fighting with Quiksilver and Billabong in the U.S. like we are in Australia and Europe. But the brand is also willing and able to take it one day at a time. We know we’re not going to double our sales in six months. We need to be patient.

“Hats off to Quiksilver and Billabong, he continues. “They’ve done an amazing job. But there’s a lot of market share we’re going to take back through working with our retailers, through new potential distribution, through new retail stores from ourselves. Those are all things that lie ahead, but we can’t get cocky. We want to make sure that the foundation is solid.

In talking to retailers and with Rip Curl’s competitors about the company, a common critique was that the brand took too many of its design and marketing cues from Australia. Sharp say the company is well underway with addressing those issues.

“Australia is the international headquarters and will remain the international headquarters in the future, he says, “but America will have a greater emphasis than in the past. Many of the decisions that were made globally were driven out of Australia without the U.S. being able to take lead.

Sharp says his goal is to Americanize the brand from both a marketing and merchandising point of view. “We are this fantastic global company, and we’ll be globalizing the brand a lot more, but we recognize that the U.S. markn the road 90 percent of the time, says Sharp. “We’re going to dedicate a lot more time, effort, money, and resources to developing and diversifying our in-store displays and P.O.P. We’re putting more focus on racking, build-outs, hardware, and fixtures. We’re supporting our retailers on the sales floor, where it counts most.

Sharp says there will also be more of an effort to integrate the marketing and merchandise stories on a global level: “In the past, we had our marketing people and our sales and merchandising people, and a lot of the time they were running off in different directions. Now we’re trying to integrate the overall package so we’re supporting our sales team and our design and merchandising people and vice versa.

While change is a central theme to this ongoing Rip Curl story, Sharp says the company’s current distribution strategy will remain in place for the time being.

“Our focus for the short term is with our core accounts, our existing account base, he says. “There are plenty of opportunities for growth there and to strengthen the brand and our relationships. From there, we’ll move forward. Like everyone else, we see that down the track there will be opportunities for us with other types of specialty stores and chains. In reality, that’s where the future growth of the industry really lies.

Not A Gimme

Sharp is excited about the brand’s chances to make a bigger splash in the U.S. market, but he says he understands the challenges it faces. “One of the reasons the American market is the leader is that it’s more competitive, he says. “The cost of business is higher. Turnover is higher. A fundamental difference is that in the U.S. we produce four apparel lines a year, while in Australia and Europe we produce three. There’s a lot of debate right now as to whether that’s a good or bad thing.

“In terms of turnaround time, though, and being able to recover from any mistakes, the U.S. market is way less forgiving, he continues. “Sticking to schedules and working with deadlines — and having a good staff who can work with you autonomously to meet those deadlines — becomes incredibly important. But what makes it challenging also makes it exciting.

More than pride is riding on the U.S. effort, too. Rip Curl’s market share is far more developed in Australia, Europe, and Brazil than it is here, and closing that gap is key to maximizing the global reach of the brand.

“We always wanted the U.S. to play lead more and drive more of our global business — since we’re a global company, says Sharp. “Long term, Rip Curl certainly wants to be up there fighting with Quiksilver and Billabong in the U.S. like we are in Australia and Europe. But the brand is also willing and able to take it one day at a time. We know we’re not going to double our sales in six months. We need to be patient.

“Hats off to Quiksilver and Billabong, he continues. “They’ve done an amazing job. But there’s a lot of market share we’re going to take back through working with our retailers, through new potential distribution, through new retail stores from ourselves. Those are all things that lie ahead, but we can’t get cocky. We want to make sure that the foundation is solid.

In talking to retailers and with Rip Curl’s competitors about the company, a common critique was that the brand took too many of its design and marketing cues from Australia. Sharp say the company is well underway with addressing those issues.

“Australia is the international headquarters and will remain the international headquarters in the future, he says, “but America will have a greater emphasis than in the past. Many of the decisions that were made globally were driven out of Australia without the U.S. being able to take lead.

Sharp says his goal is to Americanize the brand from both a marketing and merchandising point of view. “We are this fantastic global company, and we’ll be globalizing the brand a lot more, but we recognize that the U.S. market is the most important. It will drive more product initiatives and more global-marketing initiative worldwide. The U.S. has to play lead, and it will increasingly become more important to the brand and the company.

In terms of focus, priorities, funding, and resources for the next few years America will be the number-one priority for the company. “It will be an exciting time, because it’s going to be a very fresh lease on life for the brand, says Sharp.

“One of the positives that I have is quite a bit of international experience, he continues. “Before I worked with Rip Curl, I worked for the ASP for a number of years running international events. I traveled on the tour. I judged events. I’ve seen a lot of the world and have spent a lot of time in America in the last ten to twelve years — enough to value how important America is as a driver of the global industry and the global business.

Part of Rip Curl’s effort to globalize will be found in small details, like the upcoming move to global hangtags. Other changes will be harder to miss, like a new trade-show booth and revamped marketing program that will take point around the world. “We’ll be globalizing more of our advertising and in-store P.O.P. to support our new product initiatives, says Sharp, “so when you go into a store in Brazil, Australia, France, or Florida, you’re seeing the same global message.

Sharp says U.S. retailers will notice both a new product and marketing story. “In America, now more than ever, you need to have your marketing and product working side by side, he says. “In Australia or Europe, it’s different. Those markets can be more forgiving. Here, if you have something and you’re launching it tomorrow, you need to tell the market about it today. An incredibly important thing you need to do here in the U.S is create hype and buzz about the brand — more so than what you need to do in Australia or Europe. So it’s one thing we’ll be focusing on.

He says Rip Curl is looking for different ways to get the word out to a larger, more mainstream consumer. “Things that we see as being increasingly valuable here in the U.S. are the television and entertainment opportunities, PR opportunities, and product placement and editorial opportunities, says Sharp. “The amazing thing about America is that there’s so much land and so much potential in the Midwest that no one has tapped into yet. Quiksilver is doing a great job reaching out to the broader market, but there’s a lot of market territory that still needs to be opened up.

It’s quite a swirl, what with all the talk of new employees, new product, and new opportunities. Sharp agrees with a smile, but then gets more serious when asked what he would like retailers to remember most. “I want retailers to understand that the brand is moving forward, he says. “We’ll be delivering a product offering that has increasing levels of quality and sophistication. The range will be integrated better across both marketing and merchandising. Globally, Rip Curl is setting the platform to move forward by leaps and bounds. I guess the message is, our time has come. market is the most important. It will drive more product initiatives and more global-marketing initiative worldwide. The U.S. has to play lead, and it will increasingly become more important to the brand and the company.

In terms of focus, priorities, funding, and resources for the next few years America will be the number-one priority for the company. “It will be an exciting time, because it’s going to be a very fresh lease on life for the brand, says Sharp.

“One of the positives that I have is quite a bit of international experience, he continues. “Before I worked with Rip Curl, I worked for the ASP for a number of years running international events. I traveled on the tour. I judged events. I’ve seen a lot of the world and have spent a lot of time in America in the last ten to twelve years — enough to value how important America is as a driver of the globaal industry and the global business.

Part of Rip Curl’s effort to globalize will be found in small details, like the upcoming move to global hangtags. Other changes will be harder to miss, like a new trade-show booth and revamped marketing program that will take point around the world. “We’ll be globalizing more of our advertising and in-store P.O.P. to support our new product initiatives, says Sharp, “so when you go into a store in Brazil, Australia, France, or Florida, you’re seeing the same global message.

Sharp says U.S. retailers will notice both a new product and marketing story. “In America, now more than ever, you need to have your marketing and product working side by side, he says. “In Australia or Europe, it’s different. Those markets can be more forgiving. Here, if you have something and you’re launching it tomorrow, you need to tell the market about it today. An incredibly important thing you need to do here in the U.S is create hype and buzz about the brand — more so than what you need to do in Australia or Europe. So it’s one thing we’ll be focusing on.

He says Rip Curl is looking for different ways to get the word out to a larger, more mainstream consumer. “Things that we see as being increasingly valuable here in the U.S. are the television and entertainment opportunities, PR opportunities, and product placement and editorial opportunities, says Sharp. “The amazing thing about America is that there’s so much land and so much potential in the Midwest that no one has tapped into yet. Quiksilver is doing a great job reaching out to the broader market, but there’s a lot of market territory that still needs to be opened up.

It’s quite a swirl, what with all the talk of new employees, new product, and new opportunities. Sharp agrees with a smile, but then gets more serious when asked what he would like retailers to remember most. “I want retailers to understand that the brand is moving forward, he says. “We’ll be delivering a product offering that has increasing levels of quality and sophistication. The range will be integrated better across both marketing and merchandising. Globally, Rip Curl is setting the platform to move forward by leaps and bounds. I guess the message is, our time has come.