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The Board Room: Penny Skateboards Founder Ben Mackay

Ben Mackay, Penny Skateboards Founder
Ben Mackay, Penny Skateboards Founder

The inspiration behind Penny Skateboards came to life inside the imagination of Ben Mackay at age five, as he spent countless hours riding around on his very first skateboard—what he describes as “an old, beat-up second-hand clunker.”

“Skateboarding has always been and will always be a massive influence in my life,” says Mackay.

Not much has changed with Mackay since age five, besides a lot more experience and insight garnered from years working with his specific passions. For several years in the ’90s, Mackay dialed in his wood-working skills and appreciation for timber as a cabinet maker, and then in 1999, his career path took an all-together different turn. Operating out of his parents’ garage in Australia, the young entrepreneur began building his own presses and a glue machine, and importing supplies like Canadian Rock Maple from Besse Group in the Great Lakes region.

His own skateboard company rapidly took shape, as Mackay built his own boards and began pressing timber skateboards for local skate shops as well as a large Australian skateboard distributor, KWALA SKATEBOARDS, who he credits as giving him his “first break.”

“I would drive and sell to skate shops up and down the east coast of Australia every day, then head home and press skateboards by night,” says Mackay. “It was tough to say the least. When I ran out of money I would have to go concreting to pay for more timber supplies. It was super hard work!”

That hard work paid off for Mackay, and in 2011, after a little more than a decade building his own boards, he created Penny Skateboards, which is a throwback to that original board from his childhood. As a result, in a little less than a year, the brand has taken off—not just in his native Australia, but also Stateside.

Mackay answered a few questions for TransWorld Business about how Penny got its start, what its core focus has been in the US, and the overall direction of the brand moving forward.

How would you currently describe Penny’s position in both the US and International skate markets?

It is a humbling feeling recognizing that we are in more than 35 countries around the world. So I guess our position is strong and I can't express enough just how passionate I am about the quality of components and parts. I guess that is the very reason for our position. If the product was crappy or junky then we simply wouldn't be where we are today, right?

Good point. Where do you see Penny headed in the next six-to-12 months?

Man, it's just the beginning for Penny. As you have seen with our Organic range, we are more than just a plastic skateboard. Anybody, and it seems everybody, can produce a rip-off plastic board these days. However one thing you cannot dismiss is the absolute fanatical attention to detail in product quality and a hard-out passion and love for skateboarding. In short we have so much on the go for the next 12 months you'll have to stay tuned…

Hear how Penny got it’s start in his own words right here:

Do you foresee Penny making product that competes directly with traditional skateboard hard goods?

Not at all. In fact I see that for the first time in many years skateboarding has flavor! I am sure that if money was no concern we would all own different cars for different occasions. Skateboarding and surfing are no different. I love jamming on my street board or cruising on my Nickel… Compete, no. We are all skateboarders…

What is the biggest challenge in the skateboard market as you position the brand in retail shops and market Penny boards?

Mate, that's a great question. I would have to honestly say that we face a lot of challenges in this area. One of course, being Penny is such a new brand and in addition we have created a whole new category in skateboarding—plastics. We have found it difficult to feel out the exact boundaries in the retail space. Especially seeing as there are so many unique and individual retail experiences these days.

What about the greatest opportunities that exist for Penny?

The greatest opportunities lie ahead for us. Penny has quite literally started a whole new category with plastics and time will tell, and as leaders, the onus is on us to do so. And not in a calculated or forced way because there is a fiscal benefit. I know we will naturally get there because at the core of our team we all have the belief of building the very best skateboards that we can. It would be very easy to be shortsighted at this stage and be pushed and pulled to new markets if we did not have such a strong standpoint.

The Penny boards seem to blur the line between skate and surf, and I’ve seen them in quite a few surf shops and lifestyle boutiques. What would you say Penny’s core demographic is?

As a skateboarder and surfer it makes sense to me to be in those spaces, so personally it is not a literal line. We are not saying that Penny is strictly skate or Penny is one type of surf/lifestyle brand. I want skaters and surfers and anyone else to enjoy this board. I don't only listen to one genre of music, I like to listen to music to suit my mood. To me skateboarding has that same translation.

What is the driving force that continues to spark your passion around Penny boards? What keeps you passionate about skateboarding and this industry?

 I guess it is the very same drive that made me start skateboarding. There was a sense of acceptance through peers; it gave me an underlying sense of being. I am an uneducated high school dropout. In fact my teachers told me I would not amount to anything or I'd be in jail by 21. Skateboarding has always been there for me. So now, to actually be a contributor to the skateboarding community, is completely humbling. I eat, breathe, sleep, and sometimes dream skateboarding,  just ask my wife and kids! [Laughs]

Skateboarding is my life.

What have sales looked like in the US market since you made your debut? How many retailers are currently carrying the product stateside and any particular standout boards as far as sell through goes?

Sales have been very strong since we started in the US last year. We were the first company to introduce plastics back into the US market. A lot of our retailers and distributors have thanked us and have said that their Penny sales have helped keep their lights on through probably one of the toughest trading environment in years.

What’s your favorite board, and why? I love my Nickel board. Black on black, and it's all beat up and battered, super flexy and a great no comply. Now you can customize it at our online shop. You can choose everything custom, even breaking down the hanger and baseplate colors. It’s rad!

Anything else you’d like to add that I haven’t touched on? Nope, I think you covered it all. Thank you for your time and support. And to all of you who have jumped on Penny's a big thank you! Keep rollin’…