The Board Room: Pro-Lite Execs Download On 30 Years Of Surf Accessories

The Prolite team: Hendo(Sales and Marketing Director), Matt(Customer Service), Mark DiRado(President, owner), Micah Bundy(Vice President, owner).

Pro-Lite was founded in 1982 by two nomad surfers, Dave Neilson and Dave Hapgood, who were working for an airline company and traveling the world. The idea for a company sprung to life when the two realized mid-way through a surf adventure that they needed a way to protect their surfboards from the hazards of life on the road.

Since its humble beginnings in Costa Mesa, California, Pro-Lite has put itself on the map by manufacturing the first travel-grade surfboard bags, and continuing to build on that business model for nearly 30 years while expanding and introducing a range of other accessories including board racks, leashes, and traction pads. Today, the brand is still striving to make the most innovative products possible within its niche.

“We have solely been focused on creating the best product possible, rather than focusing on marketing and team riders,” says Michael “Hendo” Henderson, sales and marketing director. “That will change in the upcoming year. We are the brand that created the surf travel bag, and the fact that we have not told that story is criminal. Most brands would love to have that authenticity, and here we are sitting on it for 30 years.”

As part of celebrating its three decades of heritage, the brand is also reintroducing the “StormProof” series, a bag collection created during Prolite’s early years. The new twist on a staple product will feature the incorporation of new materials and  a few additional bells and whistles, according to Hendo. The company’s creative team has also been working on several exciting projects to commemorate its 30 year milestone, including a Kid Creature collaboration on traction pads and leashes with a percentage of the proceeds going to Cystic Fibrosis research.

We caught up with Pro-Lite ‘s Hendo and VP and Owner Micah Bundy to learn more about how the company plans to keep building momentum behind its products, implementing new strategies to tell the brand story, and positioning the brand for another 30-plus years of success.

Congratulations on celebrating Pro-Lite’s 30th anniversary! How has Pro-Lite evolved over the years?

MH: First off we are covering more categories. Starting with leashes and board bags, it was a natural progression to go into traction, then Stand Up Paddle bags and accessories, and eventually into luggage. We have always been cautious to know who we are and where we stand, and not dive into categories that are not authentic to the brand. You will see more rider driven products from guys like Josh Kerr, we just signed Timmy Reyes and will be working on some travel backpacks and bags with him, and some big wave product that we are working on with Kohl Christensen due out in 2013.

We feel like we have a well rounded roster of athletes who are hyper involved with product and product development. Josh Kerr who is a Top 10 standout on the WCT, Timmy Reyes who is a well accomplished world traveler, and competitive surfer, and Kohl Christensen who will be working to develop some big wave specific product. There are a few others, all contributing to the evolution of the product, while staying true to our brand story.

Most surfers are traveling light nowadays, so we developed some product for the guy traveling with 1-2 boards. And a lot of those guys are traveling with fishes and hybrids, but we still want to offer product to cover each and every surfer. From the traveling competitor, to the casual weekender, we got them covered.

The past several years have also seen a change in our philosophy. Customer service is more than just high fives and shakas, and we are well aware of that and delivering on our promise to be a customer service brand.

With our change in philosophy, reestablishing the brand was our top focus, and that needed to start on the back end. We started by reestablishing our production through finding competent vendors who paid close attention to the quality and construction we have come to expect.

We have reevaluated our distribution through our east coast warehouse, as well as our international distributers, and making sure that there are no hiccups in our supply chain. You cannot sell what you don't stock, so we have made inventory a priority going forward.

Talk about the change in ownership back in 2005.  Who heads things up at Pro-Lite now? has the brand direction shifted since then and how so?

MH: Mark DiRado is the primary shareholder in the brand, along with Micah being a partner in that as well. Micah has been with the brand for 12 years, has seen the good and the ugly in the past, and has positioned the brand well with good product and attention to detail. He is the motor that keeps this thing running.

Mark was born and raised surfing in Carpinteria and initially came to Pro-Lite as an investor. He quickly saw that there was an opportunity to fix a few things, and really grow the business by cleaning up the back end of the business, and investing in inventory and managing distribution. He then bought out the previous owners, and he and Micah went to work. Mark also owns a large computer and printer distribution company in Ventura, and was able to apply some of that distribution working knowledge into our business model, as well as give us the capital to get inventory, a second warehouse, and all the things that you need to grow an at-once business.

What will be the brand’s focus for 2013 and beyond?

MH: Having weathered the tough economy and cleaned up our distribution, deepened our inventory, and opened up an East Coast warehouse and distribution center.

Pro-Lite has always been a product-focused brand, and we will continue along that path, but now we will also be more focused on branding and marketing.

Our consumer now tends to be a bit older, as the guys familiar with our product tend to stay loyal to it and stick with what they know. We want to get in front of the younger consumers, so that they can grow up with Pro-Lite the same way their parents did.

We plan to expand into a broader offering in the luggage realm of travel, drawing from our experience in making quality board bags, and also get into making back packs and luggage. All in good time, though. We want to make sure the market is ready for us, and we have something new and unique to offer, rather than just adding another logo bag to a saturated market. It is important that it is authentic; we have seen a lot of companies chase segments that they really have no business being in.

Let’s discuss the new line of premium grade products under the StormProof label that you are launching next year. What are the details on the product and which retailers will be carrying them?

MB: The Stormproof™ line is two years in the making and is a super premium line of products that we've designed specifically for the hardcore traveler. We've really taken our time developing this line and plan to incrementally release the range of products under the Stormproof™ name over the next 2 years.

This first bag which is expected to be released in the third quarter of 2013 is a fully split convertible coffin style bag. It's essentially two bags in one; perfect for the person that travels with 2 boards or 7. It can be used as one bag for traveling with up to 7 boards or split up and used separately with two-to-four boards in each bag. It features our new TECH-Lite sandwiched foam technology which utilizes a more rigid high impact closed cell foam as well as our SNEEK-It system which makes 4 boards 3 when you're checking your bags at the airport. There are a lot of other cool design features on this bag but I don't want to give up too much too soon.

This Stormproof products are going to be very high-end and the price will reflect that. It's not going to be the highest volume products for us in terms of sales but we see it as an opportunity to reinforce our image as high quality travel brand. We're really excited to see what the response is on the products once we start showing them in 2013.

How much of the business is dedicated to traction pads, leashes and racks? Have you seen these categories expand at retail and if so how much?

MB: The core of our business is board bags, that's what we're really known for. That being said though, we are a full accessory brand and we have solid success in the other categories of our line.

Leashes have always been really strong for us. We make a quality leash with the right features. Racks and all of the accessories that go along with the racks are always consistent performers. We make a ton of different items within this category and they're a great addition to the product line.

Traction was always our most difficult category. Up until really about the last year this was really the slow mover for us. Not due to the quality or design of the product, it really came down to us not pushing it as hard as other categories and the lack of some key signature pads. This year with the addition of Josh Kerr to the team and the release of his pad we've seen a steady amount of growth. We've also really been pushing our MICRO-DOT™ traction technology which is a very thin and super light weight traction which a lot of our team riders have been using and loving.

What sets you apart from other surf accessory brands, besides some of the obvious reasons like being the first to market in the US with surfboard bags?

MH: I would have to say our attention to detail.. There are guys with better teams, there are guys with better pricing, but at the end of the day, we pride ourselves on product and service. That is why we have been able to maintain for so long, and grow with limited marketing spends.

We may have cut corners on ad buys and team riders in the past, but we never sacrificed quality. We stand firmly behind what we build, and often times it is not in the best interest of profits. But we do deliver a quality product, and that is how we have stayed in the game for 30 years, and how we will continue to do so.

What do you see as the biggest challenge for the brand at the moment? The greatest opportunity?

MH: I think the biggest challenge for the brand is the over saturation of the market, and going against the bigger guys who have someone else's deep pockets to draw from. We aren’t going to be a sponsor of the Triple Crown, and we aren’t in the running to sign Dane, Dane if your reading this, let’s party! But we do have a core group of passionate people who believe and love what they do, and come to work every day to build better product, and get it in the hands of the retailers who can provide value to their customers.

I would say our biggest opportunity right now is that we are independent, and that we control our own destiny. We are not affected by the hardships of a parent company that is pulling resources from us and hurting our ability to conduct business the way we see fit. We are masters of our own destiny, and have a good foundation of accounts that are successful with the brand, believe in the brand, and continue to grow their business with us.

What are your thoughts on the current state of the surf market, and how do you think brands can help strengthen sales at core retail?

MH: This is a tricky question and I think there are a lot of strange things going on at retail now.

I think that the surf industry is poised for resurgence. That being said, our business is count and fill. I think by educating the retailer and by becoming a true partner, everyone says this, by managing inventory levels, making sure that everyone is making money, and staying  knowledgeable in the way they do business. And then actually deliver on that promise!

Know your inventory, know what is selling, and know how to sell it. I see guys like the Froghouse in Newport Beach who have a small square footage, but turn more hard good products than most of the multi-door stores around them combined. And they do it by being knowledgeable, and having great customer service. Those guys are authentic and personable, and never roll their eyes at a customer or their question, and if they dont have something, they have no problem calling another store or sending you down the street to a competitor. A lot of that is lost at some retailers, and it needs to come back in a bad way.