Geoff Rashe has been shaping surfboards for two decades. Over the years he’s kept a keen eye on the ebb and flow of the market, and adapted his Santa Cruz, California board building business to survive. Transworld Business asked Rashe a few questions about the challenges surfboard manufacturers are facing in today’s economic environment. Here’s what he had to say.
How has your business been affected by the economic downturn in the US?
The recently acute crisis has slowed orders a bit, but I think most of it is out of fear generated by the doom and gloom in the news, and many of my customers don’t watch the news, read the newspapers, or listen to NPR. But they are still surfing, and a new board might be more of a necessity than a luxury for them.
What are you hearing from your retail partners in this regard?
Retail has been bad for some time, and it may be a bit worse now, but not much, because it has sucked for a good two years.
Do you think there are issues with retailers being over inventoried?
I think that is not the case, because as I said, surfboard retail has not been good, and retailers took steps to control inventory many months ago. But for sure it was a problem last year. And there is definitely a glut of boards out there, but the shops just don’t have room for them and aren’t willing to allocate their resources in that direction.
How did this become an issue?
What happened is that Clark Foam went out of business, prices shot up, everybody and his brother thought they could get rich by producing boatloads of surfboards, they made way too many, there weren’t enough people to buy them, and we wound up with shit loads of boards in shops, garages, storage units, and warehouses everywhere. We’ll be dealing with the aftermath for a couple more years.
What are the biggest problems facing the surf hardgoods market in the US?
I think we are getting back to the basics of the pre-boom of surfing. The problems we real board manufacturers face are the same as always: low margins, lack of skilled labor, no profit, etc. The big players are screwed, because they depend on retailers. But the market, the people who buy the boards, will have no problems. Those who want C.I. will always be able to get C.I., those who want a custom can order one from their local shaper, and the beginner can always find a used board or a Chinese one. What else does anybody want? So at the end of the day, there are no problems.
How has the state of the market affected your production?
The core surfers are out there and will always be out there. They have always been our market, so we are relatively unaffected. I tried to go big a couple of times, and it never worked. What has worked is a steady production of around a hundred boards per month. It’s sustainable and almost profitable.
That’s what keeps surfboards real. If there is no money in it past the actual production labor, it can be pure. It can be an art. Because people do it for the love of the craft, the lifestyle and the sport. Bring money into it, and greedy bastards get involved and make it so the real craftsmen can’t even do what they do best. How many people have quit since the Clark Foam debacle? How many have gone bankrupt? Can we blame the whole thing on Gordon Clark, the guy who wrote a State of the Union to the surfboard industry every year as though he were the fucking president of us all? Could he not see what would happen? Did he not spend his whole life manipulating us? I quit using Clark Foam a year and a half before he closed. That was the best year and a half of my career, up until now, when things finally seem to be getting back to normal.
Back to the original question; enough guys have quit this business that we have enough custom orders to replace the lost wholesale, and keep our volume constant.
Have you guys seen any major trends developing in surfboard sales?
Custom manufacturing direct to end user, like it used to be.
What materials (PU, EPS, Sandwich) are selling well at retail?
We do all EPS for our retail accounts. Polyester is common and we try not to be common.
How have material costs changed over the past 12 months?
Surprisingly, not much, but they have definitely gone up.
How has the demand for custom boards changed over the past 12 months?
How have boards produced in Asia affected your business over the past 12 months?
We are no longer making boards out of the country, so my Surftech royalties have died on the vine. In terms of competition, I don’t feel that Asian made boards compete with ours. If we are talking about Japan, business is as good as ever, but again, it’s 100% custom orders for Core surfers. We shape them here and ship them to Japan, where they glass them and deliver them to the customer. So our boards are going out to Asia, not the other way around.
Overall, how would you rate the current state of the surfboard market in the US?
I think it’s getting back to the cottage industry that we all know and love; surfboards hand-crafted by surfers for surfers. It seemed like the whole thing was about to die, and look what happened. I’m very optimistic about this downturn in our economy. It’s like a big forest fire where everything had to burn down in order to fertilize the soil, let in some sunshine to all the little plants that were trying to survive under that big oppressive canopy, and generate new life. It’s really inspiring.