As consumer habits shift, brands must provide an increasingly cohesive, personalised approach through consistent messaging that speaks directly to the needs/demands of their customers. Brand growth hinges on your ability to craft a story that resonates with your audience, and today’s guest has extensive experience doing this…
In this episode of Building Brand Advocacy, Paul is joined by Barry Wolins, Ex President CEO of Ripcurl, Ex President of Quiksilver and CEO of Wolins Consulting. They cover:
If you’re interested in digging into how purpose-led brand builders drive exponential brand growth, tune in to this episode of Building Brand Advocacy.
Paul Archer: Hello. Welcome to the Brand Builders Podcast. My name is Paul Archer, and I'm really excited to be joined by Barry Wolins. How're you doing?
Barry Wolins: Great. Thanks very much for inviting me to do this. It's not often that all guys get to talk about some of the whole crap that we did.
Paul: This is the opportunity. This is it. You had a storied career working with some incredible brands, some of my favorite brands for when I was growing up. I'm excited to learn, how did it all start, and how did you come to be working in the world of brand building?
Barry: Well, firstly, let me just ask you, what year were you born in?
Paul: I was born in 1987.
Barry: Okay, so that's long after I started in the apparel business and the surf way business. A lot of this stuff might be a little archaic and a little bit new to you, but I started surfing when I was young when I was about 12 years old in Durban, South Africa. It just hooked me. It really did. We didn't live that close to the beach. It was quite a mission to get to the beach. All I wanted to do was surf. I was doing really well in my beginning of high school academically. Then I started surfing and it all fell apart. I just used to go surfing. I hardly ever went to school. I managed to get through high school by the skin of my teeth.
Long story, I've always been quite artistic, I could always draw, so when I started, you've got to go back into-- There was no graphic design computer, anything. The technology highlight was, well, it's going to make me sound really odd, but I remember the one job I had, this was like this new thing, they gave me an adding machine. I don't know if you even know what an adding machine is.
Paul: Is it a calculator?
Barry: Well, it was big, and it had a whole lot of numbers on it, a handle, and a roll of paper. What you'd do is, if you wanted to add, you'd enter a number then you'd pull the handle, then you add, and you pull the handle. At the end, it gave you a total, and if you screwed up one of those numbers, it was a whole big nightmare. There was technology in those days. When I started, I was pretty good at art and stuff, and I used to draw things. I was quite into fashion and I got a job as a trainee buyer for a big clothing apparel retail company, EDGARS. When they found out I could draw, I would have to design stuff and try and give the manufacturers an idea of what they wanted to buy. I started designing at that point.
Then they moved me to Johannesburg, which is an inland city like Chicago, right off the beach, and I couldn't cope with it. My boss actually got me a job at this factory back in Durban as a patternmaker and a designer. I moved back to Durban and then I signed up to the Technicon to do design. I walked in on the first day and I was the only straight guy there. I had no concept. Having finished high school, I never did any other sort of-- this was my first entry into some sort of further education. I walk in and I'm the straight guy. The non-straight guys were very flamboyant, and the first lesson they were draping like a chiffon dress onto this figure. Pretty much I went there for one day and I said, "This is not for me."
I ended up working in this factory as a patternmaker and a designer. From there, some friends of mine had the only real cool surf shop in Durban, it was called Larmont Surfboards. Actually, one of the guys there, Paul Naude, he was the head of Billabong in America. He took them public or he was part of a team that took them public. He's got, in my opinion, the coolest surf brand in the market right now. It's called Vissla. Anyway, so Paul Naude and Mike Larmont, they had this surf shop. They had just received the Lightning Bolt license, but they had no clue about apparel or about design on things.
I was the only person they knew that surfed that had any background in apparel, so they asked me to come and join them. I ended up going there. Pretty much as I started, all those Soweto riots-- that was a neo-Apartheid era in South Africa, and Lightning Bolt pulled out. Everyone was sanctioning any kind of stuff against South Africa, so Lightning Bolt pulled out. I ended up working in the surf shop, working in retail, and then designing a few things for the store. We were limited in our production abilities. I worked at Larmont's Surfboards. Through that, I got to meet pretty much all the international surfers.
While I was doing the clothing thing, I couldn't afford it. They were paying me not a whole lot, so I got a job as a bouncer. In the end, I was being the DJ at the coolest club in Durban at the time. That's where all the kids wanted to go. Between the surf shop and between the club that I was working at, I used to work at the club maybe four nights a week and I also used to do mobile discos to try and earn money, and I got to meet pretty much everyone. Everyone knew who I was. You've got to understand, pro surfing at that point was in its infancy. It was like pioneering. What it is today and what it was then is completely different.
There were four big major surf contests in Durban over July, and all the Australian surfers, and Hawaiian surfers, American surfers used to arrive. Because I could talk on a microphone without being intimidated, they asked me if I wanted to be the commentator at these events, so I ended up being a commentator. You have to understand, in those days, people used to plan their vacations around these events and come to Durban to watch the surfing because it was a huge thing. Surfing was really cool. It was a whole different era as it is today. It was new. The evolution of surfboard design was just in its infancy and people were trying all these different things. The music was cool.
It was a whole different vibe to before where it was a whole different generation coming out of the hippie era into professional surfing. Surfing was up there with any other kind of aspirational thing. Amongst that demographic of beachgoers, it was the biggest thing ever. I ended up being the commentator and I met pretty much all the legends, Mark Richards, Rabbit Bartholomew. Shawn Tomson was a guy I grew up with. He was South Africa's only world champion, and pretty much anyone.
Paul: What year was this?
Barry: This must have been '78,'79, around about there, into the '80s.
Paul: It's like just coming to the beginning of the '80s you're working in apparel, you're DJing, you're a bouncer as well, and you're the MC at the surf competition.
Barry: Yes. Those surf competitions were a huge part of how I ended up where I did end up. Anyway, one day I had a bit of an argument with my boss, Mike Larmont. At best, he was a dick. He just didn't know how to deal with people. Anyway, we had this argument and I left. I didn't really have anything to do so I started making T-shirts just with surf designs on and stuff like that. I ended up opening a little factory. I think I had three sewing machines which I bought. I traded in my motorbike and I bought three sewing machines and I rented a little space. I had this lady she was sitting on a-- I didn't even have a chair, I remember. She had a tin can and she would sew these things up. It started that way and that grew.
I started making pretty much products for Gotcha, Instincts. Those were the two big South African brands. Just general, just CMTs where the CMT is cut, make, and trim. People supply you the fabric, the patterns, and everything, and you just cut it, sew it together, and give it back and there's a little cash. That grew then I started my own brand. I had a brand and it was called Barry Robert Designs and then my accountant one day-- I say accountant very loosely, he was just a friend of mine who knew how to keep books. He just said, "If ever this thing grows, it won't be worth much because it's your name." My middle name's Robert. It's Barry Robert. Wolins is just too hard to spell and pronounce and so he just said, "You won't be able to sell it for much." He says, "You need to find another name for what you're doing."
At the time, Lacoste was cool. It was the big brand. I remember seeing people had alligators tattooed on their chests. I was trying to find some sort of logo symbol and add some type of animal because-- but in Africa, the crocodile or an alligator's not a cool thing, it's got all sort of tribal tradition and it's not a cool thing. I was trying to find an animal that would cross over genders or would cross over age groups. That's one of the things in branding. You got to look at who your target market is. No disrespect because I had the utmost respect, Liquid Death is the cool canned water. I don't know if you have Liquid Death in England. You don't have Liquid Death?
Paul: I don't think we do. What is Liquid Death?
Barry: It's a phenomena. It's a canned water. You need to Google it and you need to look at the-- I've got pictures of it if you want me to send you, but it's a can, it's a black can with a skull on it. It's got in big gothic letters, Liquid Death, but it's actually water. They have water and mineral water, sparkling water. They have plain distilled water and sparkling water. They've marketed this Liquid Death.
This is getting back to finding a niche. What they did is they figured out there's a whole lot of people in bars that don't drink, and you don't want to be sipping a glass of water. They've got this hectic looking can. They supplied bars, tattoo parlors, barber shops. They didn't go into the mainstream supermarket. They figured out who their target market was and they started in I think 2019, right before COVID. I looked them up the other day, they're now valued at $525 million.
Barry: Now they're in Whole Foods. For anyone starting a brand, there's a gap. Whatever you want to do, you just have to figure out how to get there and who your target market is. Now, what's even more-- I don't know. I would say no, I don't say funny. I would say incredible and it's something that you guys should look at is they get hate mail from all these Christian people because it says Liquid Death. The mineral water is small. You don't even see it. If you didn't know it was mineral water, you would think it was hell in a cat. [laughs] Most of their advertising and their marketing comes from these Christian environmental people. These environmental people going, "Well, cans aren't cool. It takes more energy to make an aluminum can. It does--" Their marketing thing is based on their hate mail. [laughs]
Barry: It's incredible. Anyway, I was looking for an animal, and this is going way back. Then I found a bear and then and I thought, "Well, a bear is cool, but it can't be a cuddly little teddy bear. It's going to be just--" I could draw, so I drew this bare head. In those days there was no click on and you got a font book and you can choose your fonts and you could do that. The only way you could get-- and hand drawing is really difficult to get the exact. I don't know if you know what Letraset is.
Barry: [laughs]. Anyway, Letraset, if you want any kind of font, you would go into a stationary store and Letraset was a list-- There was a page of fonts. You'd choose that font and there was a page and you would rub it and you could spell out your own word. You'd rub the A and then you'd find the next letter, and you could create a word using that font, but it was a mission. Anyway, I found this Letraset thing and I put bare underneath it. Right at the bottom of the Letraset thing, it said Letraset International Limited. That's cool. I just took the International Limited and it fitted exactly under this head that I had drawn. It was Bare International Limited.
Paul: Into the worldwide appeal?
Barry: Those days, Africa was under the embargo list and the sanction list and stuff like that. All the big brands had sanctions against South Africa. I'm talking about Nike. Any brand that you could think of didn't want to have anything to do with South Africa. Suddenly I was an international brand just by the virtue of literacy, I'd had that word underneath the thing. Then to make it even better, I moved out of my factory. My first little factory wasn't in a little lane called Badger Lane. Then I moved into another factory. These premises was in a road called Canada Road. On my neck label, I put made in Canada, and I put the road RD in a circle that looked like a registered sign.
Suddenly, my brand was Bare International Limited made in Canada. [laughs] Everybody thought it was important. Suddenly just by virtue of the fact that it was imported, it became a little bit cooler. That was just how that labeling thing. Getting back to the surfing events. Being the commentator at those events, what I would do-- the main contest was the Gunston 500. That was a huge contest in those days. I was a commentator and I was friends with all the guys. I would make all the Gunston crew Bear sweatshirts and tracks that I'd give them all out and then I would give out-- some of the surfers, I'd make them a cool-- I used to give out a lot of stuff to the pro-surfers.
Suddenly you'd see Michael Tomson or Mark Richards, he thought the stuff was so cool. He ended up asking me to Mark Richard's stuff in South Africa. Then during the event we'd have what we call a Bon fight. There's 50,000 people on the beach and I would say, "Okay, we're going to throw out some bear T-shirts." You wouldn't be able to do that today. It was [laughs] crazy. There were people who are fighting over this stuff. During those Gunston events and those surfing events, that was my big marketing push because I didn't really have the budget to do anything else. It became really cool.
That's how through that surfing event and through sponsoring all those core crews that worked at the events and some of the surfers, we became a surf brand. Which was so amazing because we didn't make pair of board shorts. My factory just made t-shirts, hoodies, sweatshirts. They were all just knitted fabrics. Suddenly we were this international surf brand that didn't make any surf product, but because of the people that were wearing it and that whole aspirational surfing demographic, we became a surf brand.
It grew so much that I joined one of my customers who was a huge company. I couldn't finance it anymore. I didn't have the money to because the biggest problem when starting a brand or starting a company, as I'm sure you know, is financing the growth. You can be cool. Michael Tomson, I don't know if you know who Michael Tomson is.
Paul: Pro surfer?
Barry: He was a great surfer and he started Gotcha. He's Shaun Tomson's cousin. Gotcha had to be the most forward fashion brand, never mind surf, in the '80s. Gotcha just broke every rule. Michael Tomson's quote, which I always remember, he had a couple of quotes that I always remember, but the main quote was, "Size is the enemy of cool." It's true. You're cool when you're small to stay cool when you're big. Suddenly you got to finance things and you got to do things. You got to appeal to a broader market and a bigger demographic. Suddenly you start losing your cool because you're growing.
Paul: Let's double-click on that for a second. Brand building and being cool, are they the same? Is this a surf industry thing or do you think that's the same for every single brand in the world? You have to be cool and having a brand is having to be cool.
Barry: I think if you're in the aspirational market like surfing, it's such a limited market. It's not a big sports brand like Nike or Adidas, they've got soccer, they've got these big sports, which if you've got Messi or Ronaldo or Michael Jordan, you're cool anyway. You have the number of followers, people who follow football or golf or basketball is way bigger. When you are a small brand and you're in a demographic that is very aspir like surfing, suddenly, if your dad's wearing Quicksilver, it's not cool. It takes that individual part of it away. Michael Tomson quote, "Size is the enemy of cool," in those small niche markets, it is real.
Paul: You said earlier that the surf brand Vissla is the coolest surf brand going right now. They're pretty big. What is it that makes something like Vissla cool?
Barry: Well, I think it's because the surf brands that I was involved with are Quicksilver and then the other big brands, Billabong, Rip Curl, and Volcom became-- Suddenly, at Quicksilver, we were the boardshort company and we were the cool surf company, then they made some-- At the corporate office, because it's a publicly-traded company and you have shareholders, they made some decisions that were and that's where the enemy of cool is the size. Suddenly, you start making jeans, and you're competing with Diesel and those days Diesel and all those other cool denim brands, but you're a surf company.
Like Rip Curl, when I took over Rip Curl in America, it was insolvent. Rip Curl was an ASU company. The other thing they made was accessories like backpacks and wetsuit bags and stuff like that, but the biggest problem that Rip Curl had when I was doing it was getting into stores with apparel because they looked at us as a wetsuit brand, not as an apparel brand. For the apparel, they would look at Quicksilver and Gotcha. Vissla, when Paul Naude because he was the head of Billabong, so he understands this hobby. Why Vissla, I think is cool is because it's surf. It's not skate. It's not streets. They don't even try to appeal to anything except surfers.
Their whole marketing thing is, their tagline is creators and innovators. It's all about surfboards. Paul Naude himself is obsessed with surfboards. He makes surfboards in his garage. When I started working with him, they were making surfboards. The surfboards is the driving part of what they do and they're not interested in mass producing. They make some cool boards, asymmetrical tails, and flex tails. It's not about conventional stereotype mass production surfboards. They're not as big as you might think. They are big, but they still-- and they remain so true to what they started out being. That's what I think is what makes them very cool.
Paul: Do you think that has crossover appeal because it's so specific that people who might not even surf would wear Vissla gear? Or do you think that that sits firmly with people if you're in the know, you know, and that's all that matters?
Barry: I think it's a bit of both actually. [laughs] I think if you're in the know, you definitely know. Then that comes down to your distribution and that's one of the problems with creating a brand. Especially in the apparel industry, when you're starting off and you're just making a few T-shirts, and you're making a few other things, it's easy to do. Suddenly, you start getting orders from these-- when you become cool, everybody wants you. Now you have the problem where you have minimums on production. If you're going to China or anywhere else, no one's just going to make you 100 that shirt you're wearing. No one is going to make 100 of those.
Just to weave that fabric and that pattern, they're going to say you need to order 1,000 minimum, 500 of a color. You can order that flannel that you wearing. You can either order 1,000 of that color, or you can order 500 of that color and 500 of another color. If you want to order a third color, it's another 500. If you've got three colors and if you're a brand, you're suddenly competing with the big brands. You can't just walk in and say, "We've got one shirt." You have to have 10 shirts and each shirt has to come in at least two colors. Suddenly, your numbers just become huge.
Then you go to a store or you go on your sales, the sales guys will go to the store and the guy buys six of those and eight of those. Suddenly, you've got 1,500 of these in your warehouse or they're coming. What do you do? The only way you can grow your brand nowadays is to open your own retail store because then you can showcase all your products. If you're just in a big surf shop, the big surf shop might take three boardshorts, two flannels, a hoodie, and something else. Meantime, you're making 10 pairs of boardshorts and you're making eight flannels. The only way you can really showcase your brand and that's where the hardest part about growing a brand becomes the minimum. Then with that is the financing.
Vissla have done an amazing job at controlling their distribution. They had in the Huntington Beach these two huge surf shops, Jack's Surfboards and Huntington Surf & Sport. They're across the road from each other and each one is like a Walmart. You won't find Vissla in any of those stores, but just around the corner, Vissla have their own store with all their wetsuits, all their products all nicely displayed, so you can see what Vissla are doing. That's the difference between Vissla and the other brands.
Paul: It's the proper D2C channel. It's the early '80s and you've got Bear International. It's going pretty well, people want it, it's just become this incredibly cool brand in South Africa because actually, nobody can get an international brand and then they realize that it's actually made locally. What happens next? How do you start scaling it?
Barry: I joined this other company who were willing to finance it and I gave them more shares in it, and we were part of this big company. I used to go to America to the trade host to see what was new and see what was cool just to keep my finger on the pulse. I thought, "Let me go and see these people, see if they want to license Bear." Then I was in love with California. Since I started surfing, I used to see these California surfers come and I used to read the magazines. In South Africa, those surfer magazines and surfing magazines were like the Bible. I was in love with California. All I wanted to do was move to California.
I went to see this company about licensing Bear, my brand. I thought, "That'd be cool if they licensed it. Just get to California could, you know. Anyway, I went to see them and they were quite impressed with what I was showing them and we spoke about it. They said they'd get back to me. One of those, "We'll get back to you. Thanks for coming," kind of thing. The next thing, that was about a couple of weeks later, they contacted me and they said, "Look, thanks very much. We're not interested in Bear, but we've just acquired the license for Rusty apparel." Rusty was one of the best surfboard brands in California. All the top pros were riding Rusty boards in those days.
Then they were the Gotcha licensees for certain categories, but they've just acquired the whole Rusty apparel as a licensee and they said, "We don't want your brand, but we want you. We want you to come in and head the Rusty apparel." That was like, "Oh, crap. What do I do now?" Anyway, long story, I ended up selling my shares in Bear and I moved to California to start Rusty apparel, which was a shock to me because I thought I knew everything. You've got to understand, in South Africa, the apparel industry is completely different to the American apparel industry. I was used to doing everything. Yes, I did pretty much, I designed the products, I oversaw the production. I was involved in sales. I was involved in pretty much every part of the thing.
Suddenly, I get to America-- In South Africa, you'd put a range your clothing, you'd go and see the customers and you get some sales. Then you'd come back, collect your orders, and then go and buy the fabric and production. In America, it's a whole lot different. You have to have the product before you even sell it. You have to go into production-- In America, everyone's a specialist. You've got, "I'm a boardshort designer. I can't do that. This is what I do," and then, "I'm--" stuff. They have all these different titles for different people where I design boardshorts, I design shirts, I did pretty much the whole thing. There, you got a specialist, you got a designer. In Quicksilver especially, they were over the top with all this business they had.
Anyway, I went to America and started Rusty. I remember the guy said to me, we're sitting in a sales meeting and the guy says, "This is going to be 1/15 start, 3/15 cancel," and I'm just nodding. I had no idea what he was saying because I never heard. It was like Greek. I swear. I didn't want to act like a complete asshole and pretended I didn't know what they were talking about. 1/15 start, 3/15 cancel, in America, the month comes first. South Africa, usually you're writing 15th of January, you write 15/1/'22. Here, you write it 1/15/'22. 1/15 start was the 15th of January start, March the 15th cancel. Just little things like that. I had no idea what people were saying. It was a learning curve. I was trying to fake it when I got there. I was faking it properly. I think the accent helped quite a bit.
Paul: What was Rusty at the time? How big was it? What sort of stage was it? You were going to launch their apparel side of things, is that right?
Barry: Yes. Rusty was one of the bigger, better surfboard companies. I think that the only kind of apparel they'd made were a few t-shirts, so they were nothing in the apparel business. That goes back to what I was saying about Rip Curl being a wetsuit company. The hardest thing about that, suddenly, you're a surfboard company and now you're just jumping in on the apparel bandwagon, you're in all these companies that got clothing because Quicksilver and those guys were doing such a good job. When we started, it pretty much was nothing, there was no sales. I think we got-- I'm not 100% sure. I think we might have got to I would say 15 million in the time that I was there, which wasn't a lot. It was a lot for that brand because at that beginning stage, you're competing with all those other companies.
The easiest thing to sell is a T-shirt. When you're selling a pair of woven shorts and you're selling a technical jacket or something like that, now you're competing with proper apparel companies. Selling T-shirts was easy because everyone wants a logo. The guy can afford a T-shirt. He might not be able to afford the $40 pair of shorts, but if the T-shirt is covering up, nobody knows what shorts he's wearing anyway. It doesn't really matter. Selling T-shirts is a great branding exercise and it's great for any kind of branding, but it's not really good if you're trying to be a legitimate apparel company.
It was tough. We had to get to salesforce together and you go to trade shows.
Rusty is a person. His name's Rusty Preisendorfer. It's not like it was just a brand. He's a very creative person and he's very artistic. He drew his logo, and he held the corner of every page for anything that had anything to do with art. I remember quite a funny story. We are in this trade show-- In America, the trade shows are huge. Those days, action sports retailers was a huge event. When I was in South Africa, I used to go to the shows to see what was happening. Rusty had just seen this Superman movie. I don't know which one it was, but it was one when he's in the cave with all those icicles and it was like-- I don't know. He had this idea that he wanted his logo to look like these icicle things that was in this cave.
He had designed and had this logo made, but the logo was-- It was as big as a VW car, right? It wasn't just a little logo. It was made out of perspex. It was really amazingly cool. We went to the trade show. In America, they got all these unions. You're not allowed to pick up a hammer. You got these union guys who do nothing and it's such a rip-off because you're not allowed to do anything. You have to call a union guy to do it. We were just going to hang this thing from the roof. Long story short, it ended up costing more to hang this logo above the booth than it did for the whole booth because we had to get union guys in there, we had to get a forklift truck and there was a different union guy and it was insane.
Paul: Let's sort of hover back and see. You've just sold your shares and joined Rusty, you're launching an apparel brand and it's taken into a decent size about 15 million or so turnover. What was the next phase? What comes after that?
Barry: While I was at Rusty, Rip Curl, it's an Australian company, and the two founders, Brian Singer, and Doug Warwick who's nickname was Claw, they started there. They had these different licensees in America. I think they had gone through eight different Presidents and they ended up that they were insolvent. The guys from Rip Curl contacted me and said, "Look, do I want to be the president of Rip Curl?" No, not really because everyone knew the situation they were in.
Paul: Poisoned chalice.
Barry: Yes. Actually, I was in Hong Kong on a buying trip, and seeing-- I got a call from Brian Singer. Suddenly, Brian Singer phones me. I didn't really know him personally, but I knew who he was. I was in Hong Kong and, "Hey, Barry. This is Brian Singer here. I know you're in Hong Kong. Would it be possible? Wouldn't you like to come down to Torquay in Australia? We want to talk to you about maybe taking over Rip Curl. We'll send you a ticket." I just said to him, "Look, I'm here on Rusty business. I'm not really that interested and I don't think it'd be cool if while I'm here, I went to Australia because as much as I'd like to go and serve bells, thanks but no thanks."
I left them there and I went back and Rusty was going on. Then maybe four or five months later, they called me again. I went and had a meeting with Rusty and I said-- Rusty was the head of Rusty, but I was looking for C&C Apparel, which was the licensees, so my bosses were the licensees, and they'd formed a different company just for the apparel. I went to Rusty and I said, "Look, what are the chances of me ever getting any kind of equity in Rusty because I've had this offer from Rip Curl and they've offered me equity in Rip Curl?" Anyway, he said, "Look, I don't think there's going to be any opportunity because their shares are so diluted." I took the job at Rip Curl.
Paul: You've just joined Rip Curl. You've been given that they're insolvent, they're not making any money, but they're going to give you a chunk of it. What year
Barry: I worked at Rusty from '88 to '92 and then I worked at Rip Curl from '92 to '96.
Paul: As the president, you were in charge of what? The whole company?
Barry: America. Yes. I had to report to Brian and Claw in Torquay in Australia, but yes. It was tough. It was tough because I didn't realize how insolvent they were, and what a bad reputation they had, and it was really difficult to convince people that-- The stuff they made was crap. The American stuff was terrible. I remember I made a pair of boardshorts and I remember I did the metal button on the snap of the boardshort and I drew it and tube-tested and everyone loved it. It was tube tested. Riding in the tube and stuff like that. They were little things that they just never did anything with--
Then I think from a marketing point of view, Rip Curl got really smart because Derek Hynd, he's like a legend pro surfer and he's such a forward deep thinker. He thinks out of the box all the time, but he convinced the Rip Curl guys to do this campaign called The Search. The Search, because everyone if you surfing, no one wants to go and surf in Trestles with 100 other people and have fights. The Search was the search for these uncrowded waves and they used to do--
The advertising campaign was pretty much a lineup shot of an empty wave and then they got-- Rip Curl had always sponsored some really amazing surfers with their wetsuits. Here's another thing, with Rip Curl and with Rusty, a lot of the success came with other people advertising. The guy from Quicksilver was riding a Rusty board and run an ad with him and you'd be in quick, soft top but the board would, the logo on the board was prominent. Rip Curl was the same. Rip Curl would supply people with wetsuits.
Then you get Brock Little who was sponsored by Gotcha, riding these huge waves in Hawaii. It was wearing a Rip Curl wetsuit. Not in Hawaii. He wasn't wearing a wetsuit in Hawaii, but he'd have a Rip Curl sticker on his board because he was sponsored by Rip Curl wetsuit, and then you'd have-- A lot of those early days and in those days, brands like Quicksilver and Billabong didn't make wetsuits, they just made apparel.
Rip Curl started doing these ads called The Search, and they got-- Tom Carroll was the world champ, four times a world champion, I think, four or five or three. one of them. And, um, they got and he was kind of a recluse and a very private person, and he hated the limelight of the industry. They hooked him up with this young South African guy, Frankie Oberholzer who they paid him not to turn pro. He was a phenomenal surfer. Him and Tom would get on a boat, and they would go, and Rip Curl would document it. Sandy Miller was doing all the photography, made all these Search videos.
In those days, I think when I spoke to you earlier, there was no internet, there was no social media. You created your own heroes. Quiksilver had pretty much a huge stable of pro surfers that were doing things. They would advertise it to Tom Carroll and these guys, but Rip Curl did an amazing thing where they just made it cool. It wasn't about standing up with a trophy and claiming you're the best in the world. They just went searching for cool waves. Tom Carroll is a gifted musician, and Frankie played the guitar.
Where everybody else was on this pro trajectory, Rip Curl pivoted and went into Kuhl. When you're a big brand, and that's the size of the enemy of Kuhl, staying cool is difficult, when you're big and suddenly everyone looks at you as this huge corporate company. Then you got this cool thing. Everyone wants to be on a boat and into surfing uncrowded waves, playing the guitar and eating fish and that sort of thing.
That Search campaign was really good for me, being the president of Rip Curl in America, because we could tag onto that, and suddenly Rip Curl became a little cooler. It doesn't come down to the product. It comes down to the image and how cool you are in this niche industry because everybody can make a pair of walk shorts. What's the difference between a Quiksilver walk short, Billabong walk short or Vesla walk short? Nothing. It's either canvas or twirl either fits you or it doesn't.
It's nothing special. It's not brain surgery or rocket science making a pair of shorts. Although, Fabletics and Lululemon might tell you differently.
Paul: What is it that makes it cool? Is it the advocate, the ambassador that makes the brands cool by proxy?
Barry: The ambassador, yes, has something to do with it. I think if the company is cool, if you believe in a company, like Vissla is a cool company. They're environmentally conscious, they're not trying to be everything to everybody, and their product is nice, and it fits well and stuff like that. As I said in the beginning, they don't make skate, they don't make anything.
I think it's the company because Vissla don't have any huge ambassadors. They don't have anyone on the pro tour, but they have these cool guys that surf. They get a mid-length board or a long board and their whole mission is just simple surfing. It's not doing an air reverse. Some of the people that they sponsor, I wouldn't call them team riders, some of the people they sponsor can do that. It's not about that. That comes down to the brand and creating your brand.
They don't have one ambassador that I can think of off the top of my head. I can tell you who Rip Curl sponsor, and I can tell you who Billabong sponsor. They sponsor. excellent Ferrera, RCO, you Gabriel Medina, they're both World champions. Quiksilver, right now they've got a couple of cool young kids coming up, but I can't tell you who Vissla sponsor. They sponsor a lot of cool board builders, people who make surfboards. To answer your question, is it about the ambassador? Not really. It's important to have those cool guys.
Paul: Okay, that makes total sense. It's not that they're necessarily the biggest ones, but they are the coolest ones. Actually, it's that sort of inferred coolness, reflective coolness that actually makes the brand cool.
Barry: That's a very good way of putting it.
Paul: Nice. Cool. You're pulling Billabong out of the doldrums.
Barry: Rip Curl
Paul: Sorry. You're pulling Rip Curl out of the doldrums, ready for the next phase. How did that end and what came after that?
Barry: It's a good story.
A very good story. I was doing pretty much everything. I was designing, I was merchandising, and I would be the one traveling. At one stage, I remember in six months, I spent I think it was 17 nights at home, but not consecutive. I was either in Australia, I was in India, and I was running around doing all this sort of stuff. My strengths are creative design, products, marketing. I'm not an accountant. If you want me to run the finances of your company, rather put your money on a black or red at the casino. I understand a bit of it, but I'm not the financial guy and I'm not the operations guy. Although, I think it's important.
I used to work in a warehouse on a regular basis just to figure out what was going on, which I think a lot of people don't do that. A lot of people don't understand the whole picture of the business. Brian Singer is one of the founders of Rip Curl. He's an amazing person, but he's out there. When I say he's out there, he gets shitfaced, and he does things that if he lived in America, he'd be arrested. If he wasn't rich, he would be arrested.
I remember they used to have the contest at Bells. Bells Beach is the big Rip Curl events over Easter. They used to have a big media night. Brian Singer rode a camel through the offices and this thing was shitting all over the place. He was so pissed.
Paul: Where do you find a camel? You had a few jars. Where do you find a camel?
Barry: This media night was a huge event in Australia, huge. He would bring in these exotic dancers and camels and fire things, and he would make a huge thing of it. Then he got shitfaced and he got hold of this camel and he rode it through the offices.
I remember one time-- Here's another example of how-- I mean, he's brilliant, he's a really genius, almost. He called me and he goes, "Hey, Barry, you need to get down here." I go, "What do you mean?" He goes, "I haven't got the time to tell you. Just get on a plane and get down, it's urgent." Now, I'm in California. He's in Torquay. I go, "Brian it's the middle of his." He said, "I haven't got time." and he puts the phone down. I go, "Okay, shit, there's something going on." I book a ticket, and yes, lastminute.com tickets are not that cheap.
I fly to Melbourne in Australia, and this guy, this pro surfing guy, Michael Ray, picks me up at the airport because Torquay is maybe a two-hour drive from Melbourne. I'm in the car talking to Michael Ray. I go, "What does Brian want, what's going on?" He goes, "What do you mean?" I said, "He told me I need to get on here quickly." He goes, "That's strange." I go, "Why?" He says, "Because he had asked me where am I going?" I said, "I'm going to go pick up Barry at the airport." He goes, "What's he doing here?"
I got to the office, and I go, "Hey, Brian, what's going on?" He goes, "What do you mean?" I said, "You told me I need to come down here urgently." He goes, "Oh, shit. I can't remember." That was it.
That was it. Why I'm telling you this is because this is a buildup too. I got to the point where I was just getting stretched thin. I remember sitting down with them and I said, "Look, we need to employ somebody because I'm not in the offices all day. I'm traveling everywhere. We need to employ somebody with a financial background and who's got some organizationals." They agreed. We got a headhunter, and we got all these people, and we found this one guy, which I'm not going to mention his name because he ended up being all right, but anyway, we did this whole thing and we decided that he was the guy.
I sat with him, and I had made a list and I said, "Look, these are all the things that I do, and these are all the things that I don't do well, and this is what you need to do." He had a list and at the time, I moved-- I was still going on my Christmas holidays, I would go to South Africa, and I'd surf Jeffreys Bay and Cape St. Francis. St. Francis Bay is my sanctuary. Anyway, I had planned this trip to Jeffreys Bay over the Christmas holidays.
This guy arrives, and I take him down. We had just opened a factory and moved a factory to Mexico because the American one, it was inefficient and expensive. I was doing all these different things. Anyway, I leave, and I said, "Okay, see you. I'll be back in a couple of weeks." Then I'd been for a surf. I had this great surf. It was Christmas Day and I came back and whoever was at the house said, "Hey, this guy Brian Singer called you." I went, "Oh, I see, maybe Brian's just calling me to wish me Merry Christmas." I phoned him thinking just to say, "Hey, Merry Christmas." I go, "Hey, Brian, what's going on? Merry Christmas." He goes, "Yes, Merry Christmas."
He said, "How's Jeffreys Bay?" I say "It's great, waves are good." He said to me, "Yes, that was one of the things, seeing that you're all the way there, I was talking to--" I won't mention his name, "He seems to think that your and his management styles are going to clash. While you're in Jeffreys, all the way there, you might as well stay there. Just don't rush back. Just maybe spend a bit more time with your family or whatever." I said, "Hang on, what are you saying? Are you saying that I'm out and he's in?" He goes, "If you want to put it that way."
Pretty much I got fired on Christmas Day.
Paul: Oh, no.
Barry: What had happened, this guy had gone to my assistant who I had employed and grew, this young guy. He had no experience in apparels, but he worked really well and he was good. Anyway, he had gone to this young guy and said, "Look I'm thinking of if Barry wasn't here, could you do this, this, and this?" He had this list that I'd given him and the guy said, "Yes, I could do that." He said, "I'll pay you more money," and that sort of thing.
Then he went to Brian Singer and he said, "I was going through this, we could save a lot of money if we didn't have Barry. I could do this, and then James could do that." Brian, he goes, "Yes, that's a great idea. Do it." He hadn't spoken to his partner, Claw, Doug Warbrick, who was his equal partner. Doug thought I was cool. He really liked me. Anyway, I got fired on Christmas Day. I was shocked. I really was, because we had turned the corner of the Rip Curl. We were starting to be profitable, and we were getting some inroads with the apparel and with watches and all sorts of things.
Barry: Prior to that, I've got to go back maybe a month or two, I'd had a call from-- Now Quiksilver and Rip Curl are both in Torquay, their head office. They both started-- In fact, Alan Green and the founders of Quiksilver, and Brian Singer and Claw, they had one company in the beginning. They were all from Torquay and that sort of thing. They were all doing, and then they split. Doug and Brian took Rip Curl and Alan Green and John Law, this guy's name, John Law, they took Quiksilver. They're across the street. You see where your back window is, where you're sitting is Rip Curl, your back window is Quiksilver. They're in the same street. They're across the road from each other.
Barry: Yes. When you go to Torquay, I used to have to go to Torquay a lot, when you're in Torquay, you're surfing with the Quiksilver guys and the Rip Curl guys. You go into the pub and you hanging with the Rip Curl guys, everybody hangs together. They have a annual Australian football match between Quiksilver and Rip Curl. It's like a little town. I knew all the guys from Quiksilver, and they knew I was the South African guy that was running Rip Curl.
Quiksilver had fired their licensee in South Africa because the guy was just useless. No, he was making crap product and he was not paying his royalties and he would be drop shipping into territories that weren't his. He was just doing everything a licensee shouldn't do. More importantly, he was just an asshole. The problem with that is because everything with me is a story because it is a story. His name was Barry as well. [laughs] His name was Barry Dave. Anyway, the Quiksilver guys called me, and I was still working at Rip Curl,
they said, "Do you want do Rip Curl in South Africa? We can inform a little consortium and maybe take it over and do it ourselves." This wasn't the owners. These were a couple of the sales guys and people at Quiksilver in Australia through Ahmed. I said, "No, no, I'm very happy at Rip Curl. Thanks, I don't want to move back to South Africa." Then I got fired.
Just after that, I was trying to do a little startup thing in California and the guys from Quiksilver called me back and said, "Hey, you know that thing we were talking about? We're not going to do this thing, but if you wanted yourself, you can have it."
I called the guy that, he used to be my sales guy in South Africa. His name's Arthur and Borriss amazing, amazing guy. Arthur, besides being an agent, he had formed a big clothing company. I called him, I said, "Hey, do you want do Quiksilver?" He said, "Yes, when Barry Dave lost it, we applied for it, but they haven't given it to anybody." Long story, Quiksilver wanted somebody who had a bit of global experience, not just a South African company because they'd really had an experience with Barry Dave.
I said, "If you want, we can do it." We pretty much started Quiksilver without a contract, without anything. It was just a phone call. There was nothing. I moved back to South Africa and we started Quiksilver.
Paul: How was that? How many years were you there running Quiksilver in South Africa?
Paul: 13 years, wow.
Barry: Before that, the marketing and the brand building, I wasn't that directly involved in Rip Curl. They were doing it mostly out of South Africa. I would get involved in magazines and running ads and stuff like that. It wasn't something that we were creating. When we started Quiksilver, and now Quiksilver, because the guy had messed it up, they didn't have a licensee for maybe 18 months. They wanted everything to calm down.
When we started, it wasn't at zero, it was below zero, because the product was so bad, and they had left such a bad taste in people's mouth. Also, South Africa was stuck in hippie land. The surfing was pigment-dyed crap, and it was these big, oversized T-shirts. They really hadn't progressed. Me having lived in America and having lived with those brands, I understood. When we started, the first thing we did is we opened our own store. We ended up having 26 stores. Our marketing, we authorized sets it. I'm not sure what it is in England, but the rule of thumb in marketing is between 5% and 8% of your turnover. I think in the first few years, we were maybe at 35% or 40%.
We knew we had to establish the brand and we were coming in on a load base. We built stores. Our stores were unbelievable. Where the old surf stores in South Africa at that point were still in some wax, an old board and everything crammed together, we opened these stores because Quiksilver had just started opening down stores in America. We came and we built these lot boxes that nobody had ever done. In South Africa, I remember the Rip Curl guy in South Africa was charging the stores $60 for a piece of plywood, do the sticker on it. That was a POP. We came in and we were building sections in retail stores, putting lot boxes in.
Then our end stores, we went overboard. We had a marine tank in the middle of a store in Johannesburg, which is 600 miles from the beach. It had little baby sharks and octopuses in it. The stores were destinations and people would walk in just blown away. The one store we did in La Lucia, I remember that's in Durban, I got these people, these two women. They were amazing artists, but we built an octopus out of this. It wasn't polystyrene, it was out of this foam. They crafted this octopus. It filled the whole ceiling of the shop, which is bigger than your showroom there.
In this octopus, they had painted it to look like a proper octopus, but in each tentacle, there was a fiber optical light. When you looked up, there was this huge octopus. We spent so much money on that store. It was crazy. It was so revolutionary. After we did that, suddenly Billabong and those other people started amping up their stores and building sections. The guy who was charging $60 for the sign, he just didn't progress. He just fell apart. Then the problem is we became so corporate. Suddenly we had Tony Hawk arrive. We built the skate park in Durban and Tony Hawk came arrived with his circus and did this whole-- There was this Tony Hawk skate park that was built there, it was huge and then we would do big things and I just said to the guy, I said to Arthur, I said, "The problem is we're becoming too corporate. Everyone looks at us as this huge, big company." I came up with this idea, it was called The Good Waves, where it was this event that was only open to locals and it was by invitation only and I chose who the competitors were. It was on the best day in Durban.
The waiting period started the 1st of January and it finished on the 15th of December. We could run the event at any time and the entry fee was $1 and you had to pay it in the coin and the prize giving was, I think in those days it was like the equivalent of $100,000 for first prize. It was like the most money anyone had ever received and it's a one-day event. We had jet ski assists, but we became cool because it was a local thing and it wasn't this big corporate.
We didn't build big tents, we came in there, we put up a-- The waiting period would start two days before we'd watch the charts, we had watched everything and we'd go, we put on it was an amber alert. We had a website with amber alert and a green light. When the green light was on, suddenly people were scrambling from Cape Town, from Jeffreys Bay. They had to get on planes and it became down to the beach was a one-day event. You'd get there, we'd feed everybody, give them beers and it became like a cool little vibe on the beach but it was a big prize.
Everybody wanted to be invited to the good wave and it wasn't about Tom Caroll or Kelly Slater or any of these guys, it was just about the local crew. We did that and then we got this big bus and we filled it up with our pro surfers and surfboards and we would go to these little coastal towns between Durban and Cape Town, which was the whole entire coast. We had stopped there and our guys would take the locals and let them try out the new boards and go for a surf with them, let them wear one of the new wetsuits.
We started doing these grassroot marketing things which made us a whole lot more legit to the local people. We weren't suddenly just this big corporate company that didn't care about the local people. I think when you build a brand and you grow that big, you lose sight of how you started. No one looks in the rearview mirror, they're just looking forward and sometimes you do have to look at the rear-view mirror for certain things. What made you successful and how you started, suddenly you become successful and you forget about that crap.
Paul: That kind of grassroots thing that doesn't scale but is that what makes it cool to use that term which we talk about, that's what makes it cool, and cool is what the brand is built on?
Barry: Yes. Exactly. It's hard to do when you're part of a global brand and they have their marketing and suddenly you doing this. We still obviously did some of the big corporate things but it was a big lesson to us and that Good Wave thing, just that little-- There's 25 surfers, that was it, and they had jet ski assists and it suddenly everyone-- Every swell that arrived in Durban and it was held at the same beach all the time, it didn't move around, it was in Durban. Every swell, if the surf was good, the guys would say, "Hey, the waves are really good today." The first comment would come and say, "Is it Good Wave good?" because everyone was waiting for the Good Wave. People would take off work. The day we ran it, and we ran it pretty much every year because it wasn't the best wave or the biggest wave, it was just the good wave. By definition, it just had to be good. It didn't have to be great.
Paul: It's amazing. You're getting all this kind of word of mouth that's coming through these grassroots communities who are just like you're just embedding yourself into it. What do you think other brand builders can learn from that experience?
Barry: Goes back to Michael Thompson's thing. Besides, it is the enemy of cool.
Paul: You got to do the things that don't scare us.
Paul: Then in terms of your experience, what did you learn? What would you have changed? What would you not done the same?
Barry: Because it was pioneering, there was no examples that we could follow. Then when I moved to America, Quiksilver bought us out and retired, and then came here. This guy who used to be my agent, the sourcing agent in South Africa, he used to source out of China and I used to go to these factories in China. There was one amazing factory and they used to make, I think they still do, Gymshark stuff, which is an English brand.
He used to see how much they were making and what they were making, and he showed it to me and I thought it was the worst product I've ever seen. It really from an apparel point of view, from a technical point of view, it was badly designed, badly fitted. I don't know if they've made it better up to now.
Paul: Is this Gymshark you mean?
Barry: Gymshark, yes.
Paul: Well, I don't know, they're something a billion-dollars worth of it something these days.
Barry: I know, and that's what we saw. Those two guys that started Gymshark, they were staffing social media geniuses, they're incredible. I'll take my hat off now. I'm not saying that they're not a successful company and they have grown and I'm sure they've fixed up the stuff that they've done, but the product was crap from an apparel manufacturer's point of view, maybe not from a consumer's point of view but their marketing was genius. They were a marketing company, not an apparel company.
They found a niche and they found like Liquid Death, they found a gap where Nike and those people weren't servicing. They are marketing geniuses, those two guys, but their product was shit, in those days. I haven't seen it for a long time, I'm sure they might have fixed it. I saw how crap the product was and I saw how much money they were making and how big they had gone.
We started a little company, we called it, it was fast as do, do you could figure out, you could add whatever you wanted to it. We made, and we thought we were going to go in and just be an internet brand, which a lot of people are trying to do now. We had amazing product. I would say it's the best product that I've ever made and I've been making product for a long time, from a fit point of view, from a fabrication point of view, we had these Japanese quality standards, it was perfect.
The difference is, how we would do things differently. Firstly, we were underfunded. Secondly, our internet or tech partner was a stuff in fraud and he was sourcing everything out to the Philippines and to India. We had a huge issue with him. I go back to the garment you're wearing, and you walk into a store and you see the garment and you try it on and you feel it and you look at it, it's great.
When it's on the internet, it's the same as everybody else's. You can't tell the quality, you can't feel anything. You can't see anything. I thought if we made the best product and we came in cheaper than the big brands, suddenly everybody was going to claim us and we would be like Gymshark. [laughs] We didn't have those two tech geniuses with social media and we hooked up with this guy, Rob Richs, he's an English bodybuilder that lives in LA and he had followers, more followers than anybody.
He wanted $3,000 a month to be our ambassador or influencer, whatever you want to call it. We went, "Oh, okay. He's the guy." In the meantime, all these followers were from Bangladesh and from Malaysia, and places like that. We had no idea about internet marketing. I'd come from a brick-and-mortar big brand, where, in those days, there was no internet, there was no social media, so your forms of advertising were magazines, in-store promotions, events, and stuff like that. Now it's a whole lot different.
Suddenly, we had all this product arrive from China thinking we were-- We knew Gymshark's figures and the same thing that I said earlier, you suddenly, you need to have a hoodie, you need to have it in four colors in each, you have to have 500 other colors and suddenly we had all this stuff and the only people who were buying it were our friends. "Oh, yes, Barry's doing this, that's cool."
Biggest mistake we did was not researching the particular market we were in. We didn't understand enough about social media marketing and I had never heard of Google clicks or any of those things before and suddenly, here we had Google. The cost of acquiring a customer on the internet here in America is more than it would be in a brick-and-mortar store. It's crazy. It's crazy. I think as we spoke to you earlier, or the first time we spoke, Google clicks, if you want to be on that Google thing, you bid. It's like the stock exchange, you have to bid for words. In one time, you want to sell a flannel like that, flannel is suddenly $5 a word. All someone has to do is click on it, not buy anything, and it's $5.
Paul: The rising cost of acquisition is the biggest problem that every single of the brands we talked to has right now. It's just unsustainable. They're looking for ways out, ways to build brands and I think probably learn a lot from your experiences and actually having doing it previously, because you didn't have the luxury of buying clicks and buying ads, so you had an instant source of revenue.
You had to invest in building a brand. You had to invest in the reputation piece of it. Actually interesting, Gymshark, the ones who are inspiring have just opened up their first store as a marketing endeavor, as a brand-building endeavor. The world is really coming full circle back to the world that you helped build.
Barry: Well, I also think, and I look at my kids, but I think the day of these expensive influencers and whatever you want to call them. I mean, it's over. The OGC is more important than what you can do. The owner-generated content. If some kid is promoting, is surfing, and wearing something, you don't have to tell everybody what you're doing. People are so tired of internet ambassadors pushing shit on them that they don't even believe in. That credibility no longer exists, I don't think, anyway.
These people that call themselves, there's Kim Kardashians and there's a few people that do have these idiot followers that will buy any shit that they promote. People aren't that stupid anymore. I see these young guys, they want to start a clothing company and the internet things, but they're ripping people off. My son bought, and I'm not going to say which one because they pump, bought a hoodie the other day for $108. You got to understand. I know how much things cost.
$108 hoodie and I saw the quality of it, maybe at best if you are buying small quantities, would've cost that company maybe, and this is a stretch, $12. They put a print on it for $3 and they sell it for 108. They're very limited in their-- Maybe they're only going to make 10 and they have to justify it. That company can't grow to the extent where they could become a brand. They might become this cool little-- My son could go into a concert and he'd be the only person out of 10,000 wearing it. If that's cool, then that's cool, but they're never going to be a brand like Gymshark. As much as I hate to say it.
Paul: Well they're doing very well for themselves.
Barry: They do. Amazing company.
Paul: I think that sounds a really nice place to leave it, is just the way that it evolved from your very early careers into now and actually where everything is going. If there's one piece of advice that you would give to aspiring brand builders beyond who are looking to get into this space, what would you say to them?
Barry: I would say do proper research as to who your target market is and how you're going to fund the growth of it because starting it is the easiest thing in the world. Continuing and growing it is the hardest thing. I'm sure that's what you guys do. You help people build their brands and grow their brands. If you're under-financed and in a space you know nothing about, there's only one way you can go.
Paul: Yes, that's good advice.
Barry: Just one thing for me. I think I've always been, I'm not going to say successful, but I've always been involved in things that I'm passionate about. If you're not passionate about something, don't do it. Unless you want to make ball bearings and nuts and bolts and it's just a commodity. If you are in a brand, unless you actually live it, unless you're passionate about it, unless you understand it from a grassroots level, don't do it just because everyone else is doing it, because you will fail.
Paul: I love that because you want to do it. You got to have to do it all day long, every day if that's going to be your job. If you're starting a business, you may as well want to love what you're going to do.
Barry: Sure. You have to understand it.
Paul: Got to get it. You've got to intimately understand the customers because if you are one of them, then it makes your life a lot easier.
Paul: Well, let's leave it at that, Barry Wolins.
Barry: It was fun talking to you and uh, I hope somebody gets something out of it. I don’t know
We can't wait to meet you.