A Strong Grip On The Market: Rip Curl’s Doug Warbrick

Rip Curl employs more than 1,000 people worldwide; has offices in Australia, France, and the United States; wetsuit factories in Australia, Mexico, and Thailand; and sources apparel and products from countries all over the world. Although Rip Curl has been a top-three surf brand for years, a renewed sense of momentum among senior management and regular staff has recently given the brand an even greater degree of energy and strength.

TransWorld SURF Business caught up with Rip Curl’s Owner Doug “Claw” Warbrick and U.S. President Leigh Tonai at the February ASR show in Long Beach, where we were lucky enough to give Claw his first-ever interview in a U.S. surf magazine.

In a distinct Australian accent, Warbrick took his time to answer questions and spoke candidly about the differences and similarities between the Australian and U.S. surf markets, and explained where he thinks Rip Curl is headed.

TransWorld SURF Business: How will you grow Rip Curl in the near future?

Doug “Claw” Warbrick: The prime area where we seek to grow Rip Curl is within the surf industry itself. We only want Rip Curl growing as a brand at the same rate as our retail-to-store base.

At the moment, Rip Curl doesn’t have any requirement to grow faster than that — we never have. Over our 30 years, we’ve never seen any need to grow any faster. Of the big surf companies — I know Rip Curl isn’t particularly big in the U.S., but worldwide there’s only one surf company bigger and we’re at the same level as two or three others — I’d say we’re still very hardcore and grassroots. We’re not broadly distributed and we’re really only making products to meet surfers’, snowboarders’, freeskiers’, and windsurfers’ needs — but primarily for surfers’ needs.

And we surf a lot. People in the company surf regularly, so it’s easy to focus on those products. We want to enhance the surfing experience. One of our slogans is “products of the search,” and we really want to enhance that search experience.

And from a selfish point of view, we’re still the customers. As you get older — like myself — you find it harder to paddle, so you need a better wetsuit. So we are intensely driven to make real technical breakthroughs and real innovations that make the products enhance the surfing experience.

TransWorld SURF Business: Do the surf markets around the world differ that much?

Doug “Claw” Warbrick: They’re all distinctly different, but there’s a lot of common ground because a surfer is pretty much the same worldwide. They might speak a different language or surf in a different climate, but the basic needs and basic attitudes of surfers don’t change much. So we don’t have to concern ourselves with market differences. But we’re aware that the markets are different, and it’s a bit of fun trying to analyze those factors.

TransWorld SURF Business: How would you characterize the difference between the U.S. and Australian markets?

Doug “Claw” Warbrick: Generally, the U.S. leads the world’s youth culture. Surfing is pretty much domiciled in California. California is probably the center of the world youth culture, so it’s probably not surprising that California surf has a big lead. In California, surf, street, skate, snow, are all part of a big melting pot.

I’ve got to say that as Australians, we’re very aware of that. We constantly look at the U.S. market from the outside. To a fair degree, we’re a competitor, too. Surfing is more important and has a much bigger significance in the Australian society than it does in the American society. Surfing is an important component of the Australian lifestyle.

Australians are very competitive, and we would like to believe that we are trying to take the lead. We know the game and we know the U.S. is in the lead at the moment.

TransWorld SURF Business: A lot of U.S. surf companies and pro surfers are fed up with competitive surfing. People think that competitive surfing just isn’t working for our marketplace. To top it off, Australia has the top-two surfers on the tour. What’s going in your country?

Doug “Claw” Warbrick: I’d have to say the freeride movement in surfing is just as strong or stronger on Australia than it is here. And that might seem strange when you see how well our surfers are doing competitively. But surfing for the pure essence of surfing is a lot more important in Australia than competitive surfing and most people surf for the pure enjoyment of all those other challenges that exist in surfing.

It’s just that we’ve got a bit of a new breed. We’re a very competitive nation, so you see only our competitive surfers, but most of them are not just competitive animals. They those types of surfers are in the minority.

TransWorld SURF Business: With Rip Curl recently hiring a new president in the U.S., would you say that you’ve transformed the whole U.S. organization?

Doug “Claw” Warbrick: I certainly haven’t transformed the whole organization, but there is big change. And it’s not just here in the U.S. — it’s worldwide. We’ve got a much younger management team now. Plus, a lot of our designers, product managers, artists, and general staff are in their twenties — which is probably a natural evolution. This younger staff gives you new energy, new ideas, and new product. That’s happening worldwide.

You’ll probably see a lot from Rip Curl in the next five or ten years in the U.S, because it’s a different company than it was in the past.

TransWorld SURF Business: Will it take that long to see changes?

Doug “Claw” Warbrick: I’m talking on the macro scale. You’ll also see a lot of things within twelve months or so and the new EST wetsuit technology we debuted at this ASR show is one example. We’ve got a few more phases planned out. A lot of our other products are in a sort of fast evolution.

TransWorld SURF Business: With Rip Curl’s expansion into watches, accessories, and women’s apparel, are wetsuits still a majority of Rip Curl’s business worldwide?

Doug “Claw” Warbrick: We have great balance. If you just divided the year into winter and summer, we have about 50 percent of the business in one and 50 in the other, which is really good. Most surf companies are heavily loaded toward summer.

We’ve learned a lot over 30 years, and it took a long time to learn the lessons of how to focus on surfers’ needs. Wetsuits are our main focus, but we use the same principles with our watches, our mountainwear products, and a lot our bags and accessories. We like to have a technical base.

TransWorld SURF Business: How would you describe Rip Curl’s position in the market?

Doug “Claw” Warbrick: On a worldwide basis, Rip Curl would be closer to the ‘core market than any other major surf brand. We haven’t gone to broader distribution yet and we don’t intend to. We haven’t had the need to because — and this gets back to that first question — the industry seems to grow and we’re growing together with our specialty stores, the specialty magazines, all those who are in this same industry together.TransWorld SURF Business: Do you think this is an exciting time for the market?

Doug “Claw” Warbrick: Yes. Particularly here in the U.S. We’re part of the renaissance, like you guys at TransWorld SURF, because there’s a big shift and repositioning in the market. We’ve been able to re-shift our positioning, consciously and to some degree organically.

TransWorld SURF Business: What’s giving you the ability to do that?

Doug “Claw” Warbrick: Younger people. There’s probably a strong globalization across all the continents and a lot of new, energetic people in the companies. So we’re shifted around like that.

But I wouldn’t say that we’ve shifted like the Volcoms and Hurleys of the world. We’re probably a part of their transformation that provides the technical and ‘core products, but some of those others provide something else for the market, like more style or hype.

We still have the biggest list of world champions, if you look at the surfers sponsored over
the history of surfing. We’re proud of the relationships with our surfers and their achievements, but now our whole surf team is under twenty. Now we’ve got all these young freeriders and they’re a part of this transformation.

If you said to people five years ago that Rip Curl would have all these young surfers — they’re not ranked on the WCT and they’re not world-title contenders — they’d say you’re bloody crazy.

In some respects it’s a deliberate strategy, in others it’s just organic, part of the lifestyle, the way things go, and the way we feel about it. We feel pretty good and happy about it. I think we have a group of surfers that are, and will be, as influential as any in modern history.