Global Surf Industries: Mark Kelly

MARK Kelly may have helped to revolutionise the way surfboards are made and sold but there are some elements of the traditionally laid-back surfing culture that just won't rub off.

You might imagine the world's biggest surfboard supplier to be based in a big corporate office by now but, no, Kelly still boasts that his company's global headquarters remain where they were when he started off at home.

"I can still go for a surf then come back and sit here in my wet boardies with my towel around me and work and it doesn't bother anyone," he said.

Since he started his Global Surf Industries business six years ago it has evolved into three companies, with separate entities in Australia and the US and another distribution business covering the rest of the world.

It remains a tight operation with just 16 staff in Australia and the US all of whom work from home but it has a big reach, selling its 11 surfboard brands to 47 countries.

Kelly describes GSI's meteoric rise as "a hell of a ride" but declines to divulge exactly how many surfboards it now sells, saying only that it outstrips all its global competitors and is "well into eight digits". And it continues to grow at 30 to 40 per cent a year. "It adds up pretty quickly because of all the countries we sell into," he said.

Kelly, who left his previous job as international sales and marketing manager for Mona Vale surfing accessory company Surf Hardware International to start GSI, staked his business future on being able to accurately predict where the board industry needed to go and then to make it happen.

His business plan revolved around introducing factory production to an industry where traditionally everything had been handcrafted and there was little price variation to cater to different user levels.

But, critical to the plan was to find the right manufacturer. He said that happened when the owners of Cobra, the world's biggest surfboard factory in Thailand approached him to form a joint venture. It continues to own a share of GSI.

Kelly said as he plotted his future he saw a clear opportunity in an industry that had changed little in 50 years.

"I tried to visualise what the industry might be like in 10 years what were the big changes that would happen and how could I make that happen in five years, not 10 years," he said.

`This stood out because the surfboard was at the centre of this `ginormous' surf culture boom around the world, yet it was like the forgotten cousin. It was still made up of all little domestic manufacturers in this cottage industry. It was obvious that it needed a really professional player.''

He said GSI also stood out from its competitors because of its multi-brand, multi-layered approach and its quest to supply boards for every level of surfer, from beginner to high-performance.

``It's really weird, every local manufacturer wants to get the next Kelly Slater on their boards but no one at that time wanted to make boards for every 13-year-old boy or girl who wanted to learn to surf,'' he said. ``There are a lot of families out there where the kid wants to learn to surf but, do they really want to spend $1000 on a board, whereas you'll have a 40-year-old guy who has been surfing for 20 years, who really loves technology and he will have a completely different price orientation.''

Mark Kelly said because GSI was manufacturing offshore, one of its early challenges had been to differentiate itself in the market's perception from the cheaper, poorer-quality surfboards coming out of other parts of Asia.

``We really wanted to let people know that we're all surfers, we understand what the product is about, we don't make cheap boards even though we might have some boards in our range that are more economically priced,'' he said.

He said his main consideration when selecting a manufacturer apart from production capacity had not been pricing but quality concerns. ``We would have considered having them made in Australia. I have said heaps of times that we want to be with the best manufacturer in the world and if that manufacturer was in Brookvale or Connecticut we would be dealing with them, but the best factory in the world is actually in Bangkok and we choose to do business with them because they are the best. They're the only (surfboard) company I know that has an ISO 9002 certification.''

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