Rusty Preisendorfer shaped his first surfboard almost forty years ago, and the La Jolla, California based shaper hasn’t stopped since. After shaping his first board at the age of sixteen, Rusty shaped boards for well-known labels like Gordon & Smith and Canyon while he studied visual arts at U.C.S.D., and earned a reputation as one of the top shapers in the world by his mid twenties when he began shaping boards for 1976 World Champ Peter “PT” Townend.In 1978 a well-spoken South-African named Shaun Tomson rode Rusty’s designs to a World Championship, and in 1983 then sixteen-year-old Mark Occhilupo had one of the most memorable rookie performances in professional surfing history on a Rusty design. Two years later Rusty Surfboards was founded, and a few years after that (’88) Preisendorfer ventured into the apparel game. One of his earliest logo designs—a simple “R .”—has become an international icon.Currently Rusty shapes boards for athletes like Jamie O’Brien, Josh Kerr, and Nate Yeomans, and his EPS Range of surfboards was recently nominated by SIMA as Surfboard Model of The Year for 2007. Transworld Business caught up with Preisendorfer just before he took off on a surf trip to Tavarua. Here’s his take on the current climate of the surf hardgoods market.
How many years have you been shaping surfboards?
There seems to be this perception that you don’t shape anymore. Any truth to that?
It couldn’t be further from the truth. I am as passionate about shaping as I have ever been. When I am in town, I shape seven days a week.
How did you finance the business in the early days?
Retailers were very supportive of me back in the beginning. They seemed to have a little more compassion for a true start-up brand. Bills got paid promptly. I was very conservative and put everything back into the business.
How long did it take for the business to become profitable?
Has it become more difficult to grow and be profitable? Why?
We had good growth and profitability up until a few years ago. It has definitely become more challenging.Several factors weighed in. A few years ago we were doing so many boards I felt I had compromised my quality. I made a conscious decision to put quality before quantity.That includes customer service as well as the product itself. Bigger isn’t always better and in my mind we had reached a point of diminishing returns.I refused to use inferior glass shops and inexperienced shapers just to push boards out the door. This, unfortunately stretched out our delivery time to a point where that in itself became a problem. People will only wait so long to get their boards before they start look elsewhere.Clark foam unquestionably had an impact on the market. There was so much consumer confusion and uncertainty that the U.S. surfboard industry still hasn’t fully recovered.The other big factor was people who didn’t love making surfboards jumped into the business. People who loved money started bringing in cheap boards. Boards being sold in Costco, and other retail venues that weren’t core, started a domino effect. The good core retailers eventually had to react. Couldn’t beat ’em so they had to join ’em.
What has been your most difficult business decision you’ve had to make?
That it is a business.
What changes in the market have made the most impact since you first began shaping?
When I started building boards, most shops were centered on hardgoods. Early on, in many cases, board builders opened shops to sell their boards. They would sell wetsuits and T-shirts as well. The guys working in the stores were quite often owners or had been around a while. They loved to surf.They knew a lot about the boards they carried and usually only offered a couple of brands. More often than not there was a pretty direct connection to the shaper. A customer could walk in and get reasonably informed information about the boards.In the 80s more and more apparel made its way into the stores as the industry started to mature. This was actually a pretty good period. The profits from apparel sales allowed the retailers to expand and start to open more doors. They still embraced the surfboards and committed a fair percentage of floor space to them. Most were still somewhat emotionally connected to them.I saw the first real signs of change in the early 90s when surf shops started to bring in snowboards. The first few winters were unreal for them…the registers rang all through the winter. So surfboards became more of a seasonal product…more so than ever. Shops weren’t pushing to sell surfboards through the cold months. Surf shops became surf, skate, and snow.Instead of restocking the stores with surfboards at the end of summer they’d just switch out their inventory. Then, after a few years the snow market got saturated and surf retailers began looking for other products. Streetwear, shoes, you name it. Surf n’ Whatever Sells. The floor space became so valuable that surfboards virtually became a burden. But being surf shops there was still an obligation to carry some boards.In the last five years, with the imports gaining popularity, another factor has come into play. The margins allow the makers to have warehouses with surfboards ready to fill any holes in the retailers’ racks. So, over the last few years people are less inclined to prebook. Warehousing inventory is a daunting service to provide if the boards are made here. There just isn’t enough margin on our side.
What was your initial reaction to Grubby closing?
Just another silly industry rumor.
How did you cope?
We found a better way.
What tools, machines, materials, and technology do you have access to now that you did not before?
Necessity is the mother of all invention. Some of us just needed to be bitch-slapped and woken up—thank you Grubby. Most of it was already there.
What does that technology allow you to do that you couldn’t do already?
We have stronger, lighter boards. We now have a lot of latitude to experiment with balance points, flex, and the actual design of the board simply because the physical properties are so diverse.
What’s the most exciting board development you’re working on right now?
Custom composites, light cores with new skins and exoskeletons. Generally speaking, anything but outdated, dead cores, compromised polyester resins, and traditional I-beam structure gets my attention. At this point we are just building the custom composites for the team.
What are your thoughts on the current state of surf hardgoods market?
From a business standpoint: completely messed up. The bright side: there is a correction happing. From a creative standpoint: never been more stimulating.
How do you feel about boards coming in from China, Thailand, and other places overseas?
Where they come from is not the problem, it’s the mindset of the people who sell them. The majority of the consumer market is always relatively uneducated and at the mercy of the seller. The seller cultivates the buyer’s trust—trust that he or she getting the right thing. It’s the ultimate win-win bro deal. The price is right. Private label. Labels that have been created purely for commercial reasons—they have no foundation, history, or real design experience. Labels have taken precedence over brands because of margin. These boards have taken huge market share. Like it or not, the consumer has spoken: they want cheaper boards. The established and experienced surfboard brands have a real dilemma. Do we continue to surrender rack space to these poseurs? Or do we offer part of our product lineup in a competitive price tier? Damned if we do, damned if we don’t.Our long-term thinking includes some overseas product. I’ve been using the BMW analogy for a while. We will offer a well-designed, well-built, yet affordable 3 series, which will need to be made overseas. A 5 series, most likely a molded composite. Once again, these will probably need to be built somewhere where labor and overhead costs still keep the price in the mid range. Finally, at the high end, a 7 series, which looks to be a custom composite that we will build here. We will also remain very committed to building custom boards here with various types of construction.
Your take on how to address the demand for inexpensive boards?
A few years ago I sat on a panel, three years ago at one of the Cabo summits. I believe the topic was the future of board building. Randy French was on it along with Todd from ZJ’s, Josh from Hansen’s, Tyler Callaway from FCS, and Renny Yater if I recall correctly. This was a time when Surftech and GSI were rapidly gaining market share and momentum. Surftech is a whole different technology and not price driven. But the Asian-built poly/PU boards are all about price. I recognized the importance of affordable, entry-level equipment. I urged the retailers to adopt an up-and-coming local board builder and use them for this niche. To me it seemed like a win-win. There may be a little bit of management involved for the retailer, but the long-term view is that our great board-building heritage would be preserved and perpetuated.
Does the custom board have a future?
To me, it has a very bright future and it is also the most appealing part of the business. The challenge will be how to manage it. It’s important to keep the brick and mortar retailers involved. People need a place to go to touch and feel the boards. However, it would be impossible to physically stock a fraction of what we do here. Customs are a great option. My boards have become so technical and we have so much to offer in terms of design and forward-looking construction, it would be very, very difficult for anyone outside of my factory walls to guide a customer in the right direction.I think it’s important for us to talk to the end customer so that nothing is lost in translation and they don’t miss out on something that could profoundly affect their surfing. When the custom is ready, what better place to pick it up than a surf shop? The customer can get his decking, leash, wax, board bag, and new boardshorts at the shop. There just needs to be some equity in the board equation for all the extra time the builder needs to commit in order to fulfill the customer’s needs.
I’ll be checking the edges on my coffin.