Emigrating West

Hailing from the backcountry coast of Australia, West Surfing Products is taking the plunge into a booming, yet challenging, American market. Founded in 1982 as a wetsuit brand by West Oz surfers Patrick Leahy and Roger Illey, the company was originally known as West Suits. The label built up a strong presence in Australia, America, and abroad.

In recent years, however, the brand lost some U.S. momentum. Given its otherwise respectable global presence, an American relaunch seemed like just a matter of time.

Well, that time has come. Buoyed by the recent IPO of parent company Optima Corp—which raised 1.84-million dollars on the Australian Stock Exchange—West now has the financial support to make a play on U.S. shores.

West hopes to emulate the strength and expansion that other top surf brands have enjoyed in America in recent years. While entering the U.S. market is a daunting challenge, Jim Watson, the CEO and president of West Surfing Products America, believes the company has a unique identity that will resonate in America—and hopefully translate into growing sales as well.

He anticipates that part of its sales will come from wetsuits, but apparel will play a large role. “I see West as a big solid tree that’s been growing for the last 22 years, says Watson. “West Surfing Products America has the opportunity give it a little different TLC, better fertilizer, some pruning, and we’ll see what we can make out of it.

Watson is implementing a unique four-day workweek for its employees in exchange for a 6:30 a.m. start. He hopes this will recruit top talent—thanks to 52 extra days off a year. He also plans to have the office open on Saturdays with an abbreviated 8:30 to 2:30 schedule.

“Having different hours of operation will be a huge benefit—especially for East Coast customers. And while we might not get as much work done on a Saturday it makes a huge difference if you can get a package to UPS or FedEx that day so it can be back east for the next weekend.

Production will be guided by brand managers and focused on the cost effectiveness of diverse vendors—both domestic and foreign. Apparel and wetsuits will begin shipping October 1 of this year, but for now the suits will be limited to high-end styles to gauge market acceptance.

As for distribution, Watson says they’d like to keep retail channels close to the brand image. “We’re targeting the small, ‘core people, he says. “Especially places that have a relationship with less civilized places—like Baja, Central Cal, the Outer Banks, and Montauk.

And what about all that stuff that makes the boardsports industry cool: athletes, ads, and marketing? “I’m in negotiations with athletes as we speak, both pro and amateur, says Watson. “We’ve got some unique marketing ideas that haven’t been used to reach the core demographic we’re after. If people know the West name by this time next year, we’ve done a good job. If people don’t, I should be looking for a new job.