Soul Survivors

Prevail and prosper in increasingly difficult times.

It’s one of life’s greatest goals: make a living by following your true passion. Doing what you love to do, instead of chasing the almighty dollar. It’s a beautiful thing when it works out.

A lot of people have chased that dream into the sometimes dubious career of owning a windsurfing shop. Many have tried, more have failed, but some have survived, even thrived.

Often, when I was a shop owner in the Bay Area during the 1990s, I would hear comments from customers along the lines of how great it must be to do what you really love for a living. I would usually smile and feign agreement, not wanting to shatter the illusion that running a windsurfing shop really was the Shangri-La it appeared to be. And the truth is that in my case anyway, it wasn’t all bad, and may unknowingly have been the best time of my life though it often seemed the farthest thing from it.

The pitfalls for the independent guy are many: even if you are lucky enough to have wind and weather, you have competition from mail-order, suppliers who insist on overloading you with inventory, magazines that hype stuff you don’t sell, competition from “vendor-direct” companies, employee nightmares, a declining market, garage shops, product dumping, theft, vandalism, taxes, insurance, insane landlords, and, I hate to say it, but some very difficult customers who appear to have as their singular goal in life the creation of endless misery for the shop owner (y’all know who you are, I haven’t forgotten). And those were just some of MY problems. Others may have had it, or still have it worse.

On the flip-side, however, the shop owner usually strolls to work well after rush hour, (in bare feet if he or she and the climate are so inclined), takes “business trips” to Maui, the Gorge, and Hatteras, gets the new state-of-the-art gear before anyone else, and, if the shop is well managed, the owner usually gets a fair amount of “product testing” time on the water.

Nine years of this lifestyle was enough for me, but many shop owners have been in it twice that long and appear to have at least that long to go. These are the pros, the heart, and soul of the sport, the ones who will keep us all on the water until we are no longer able to hold a boom.

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A glance back in history highlights the selection process these hale and hardy few have had to endure. A dealer list in the back of Wind Surf magazine from 1985 took up a full page of six-point, single-spaced, six-column type. Over five hundred in all, in the US and Canada. Today that number is a mere fraction–less than ten percent–of what it once was.

At an American Windsurfing Industry Association (AWIA) meeting in Ocean City, MD in 1995, a hired “analyst,” after studying the windsurfing industry for a long period of time (and probably for a large sum of money) predicted two things: one was that by the end of the decade windsurfing retail would be reduced to less than ten windsurfing superstores in North America, AND that in order for the sport to survive long-term, a large network of small, independent shops and schools must also survive. In other words, the sport was doomed.

Well, windsurfing is still here, and making a comeback at that, so at least one of those prognostications proved incorrect–at least so far. And, arguably, it’s the little guys still around who we have to thank for that. The ones who are too tough, too stubborn, or maybe just love windsurfing too much to give up and go away.

We took the time this summer to talk to a few of these “survivors” about how they have maintained their motivation and passion for the sport over the years, listen to their gripes and struggles, and find out what practical things they have done to overcome the melee that took down so many of their peers. What keeps these people stoked? Why are they still crazy for windsurfing after all these years?

“I guess I’m just kind of a boring guy because I can still go out windsurfing, on the Sound or in the ocean, and still have a really good time,” says Barton Decker of Hatteras Island Sail Shop in Waves, N.C. Decker has been at it at least as long as anyone. He took his first shipment of stock Windsurfer boards in the fall of 1973, exactly 29 years ago.

Decker’s self-deprecating humor belies a close connection to the sport that runs as a common theme among shop owners.

“I still do it for the love of windsurfing, plain and simple,” says Jackie Butzen of Windward Sports in downtown Chicago, another veteran of the retail trenches. “I can’t help it, I want to share it so much because I’ve gotten so much out of it for so many years.”

Butzen got into windsurfing over 20 years ago because she needed a distraction from a divorce she was going through. She quickly found herself in business with her instructor, and has been operating one of the country’s only truly urban windsurfing shops–less than a stone’s throw from the Chicago El train—ever since.*

Chris Kelly, owner of Storm Warning in Hood River, shares Butzen’s passion: “Sometimes I wonder why I do this, I really don’t know,” says Kelly. “I stay in it because I love the sport, that’s what keeps me going. And I think that anyone that’s in this business, I hope anyway, that’s what keeps them going too. Because it doesn’t seem to me that there’s a whole lot of money to be made, so you have to have a passion for the sport. Even though I’ve been windsurfing all this time (since age 12) I still love to do it, for some reason, I don’t get bored of it. And now I’m stuck in it anyhow…(laughs).”

“It’s a great business and a great place to live,” says Scotty Freeman of the Gorge Surf Shop in Hood River. Freeman, a Minnesota native, has been in the business since 1989 and bought his shop from his boss seven years ago. “I think a lot of people who started out in this business were in it as a hobby, to get gear and stuff. Now you have left the hardcore business people, so it’s starting to change to where it’s a business instead of a hobby. So you’re getting the people who are in it now as a business, they’re not running it out of a garage, they’re not running it out of the back of a car, that’s what you’re seeing these days.”

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Brad Miley of Ebb Tide windsurfing in Montgomeryville, PA gets a little deeper into the question: “If you get philosophical, I guess it’s because we’re stuck with ourselves,” says Miley. “I don’t want to burn this bridge, you get so far into the sport. Also, I’m pretty optimistic, with the wide boards these days, the statistical chances of someone getting sailable wind on their off time is much higher. We’re seeing people getting more fired up, and their skills are going up rapidly.”

Optimism turned out to be a common theme: “Everything has peaks and valleys,” explains Freeman, “Last year, the sailing sites were busier than I’ve ever seen them. People are sailing on old gear right now, and they’re going to have to start buying new stuff, and that’s going to happen real soon. I mean, skateboarding disappeared for five, six years, then came back with a vengeance. Windsurfing is going to do the same thing.”

Staying stoked on windsurfing is one thing, but staying in business is quite another. The two don’t necessarily go together, unfortunately. For most of the shop owners we talked to, diversification was a major factor in their survival.

“I couldn’t do this if I just did windsurfing,” says Scott Wilson of Sailsport Marine in Traverse City, Michigan. Wilson’s shop is the type of small-volume semi-rural Midwestern outlet that is so important to keep local sailors on the water. Sailsport does mostly Hobie and other performance dinghy business, but Wilson estimates he gets almost 10% of his annual revenues from windsurfing. “It would be nice to be able to make it just on windsurfing, but in my market, that’s just not possible. Boats and boat parts are what pay the bills here.”

The king of diversification would have to be Windward Sports, whose windsurf section is nicely tucked away in a store that sells just about everything beach, board and skate related.

“All sports have their cycles, so you keep adding things,” says Butzen. “Basically, what we’ve done is keep adding our favorite toys. We have surfboards, in-line skates, skateboards, snowboards, we just keep adding things that we personally enjoy, and it just happened to work out to be mostly ecologically friendly sports.”

Windsurfers may have opinions about kiteboarding one way or another, but there’s no denying that kiteboarding, at least so far, seems to go well with windsurfing on the retail level. Many dealers are using their kite revenue and growth to keep their windsurfing business afloat.

“We got into kiting early on,” says Storm Warning’s Kelly. “That was a bit of a risky thing that I hope and I think has paid off. The first year kites came out, nobody knew where it was going. Ram-air, inflatable, two-line, four-line, we were trying to service our customers and trying to learn at the same time. You can make some expensive mistakes. I’ve got some ram-air kites that I ended up losing money on. Now I think it’s paying off. Everyone knows we love to windsurf, but we also have probably the most knowledgeable staff in the Gorge when it comes to kiting.”

Having a knowledgeable and service-oriented staff equates to customer service, something that is extremely important in the windsurfing business.

“I think customer service and honesty are the real keys to my success,” continues Kelly. “There’s a lot of smoke and mirrors in the windsurf business and a lot of hype. At our shop, we try to be straightforward, even if we talk someone out of a sale. The sport is hard enough without somebody selling you the wrong gear. I think what makes us successful in the long run is that the customers sense that and they buy into it. Hopefully, they keep coming back – we have a really good return rate on our customers and that’s what we strive for.”

Going the extra mile seems to count for a lot. Brad Miley at Ebb Tide does on-site sail and board repair by himself for his customers. Barton Decker has gone back to teaching again, taking the customer all the way from uphauling to equipment selection in an integrated process. All of the retailers we talked to stressed that customer service, and the relationships they have built over the years, are paramount factors in their success.

Not all of the retailers felt the same about the importance of teaching, however. Is teaching an extension of customer service, or is it a separate entity? We got some varied answers on the role of windsurfing instruction in modern day windsurfing retail.

“Sometimes I wonder if with the emphasis on telling people entering the sport that they MUST have a lesson over and over again, I wonder if we’ve shot ourselves in the foot a little bit,” says Ebb Tide’s Miley. “I mean, we’re telling people indirectly that it’s a very difficult sport, and that it’s inaccessible unless you take a lesson.”

Jackie Butzen is of a different mind. “In order to keep the windsurfing business alive it’s a necessity,” says Butzen, who, not able to find enough capable instructors has gone back to doing it herself. “And for that reason, I keep doing it, and will keep doing it, as long as I’m in this business.”

For others, it’s just not practical. “There’s no way with my volume I could support or staff a school,” says Sailsport’s Wilson. “I give rigging clinics to my customers, lend out videos, and I have a couple of people I know that I send people to sail with and learn from.”

“Teaching is, unfortunately, something we neglected initially,” admits Chris Kelly. “These days, however, it’s something that’s really rewarding, because with the new gear people can actually learn. We use the START board, if we had that maybe 10 years ago, the windsurfing industry would be twice what it is now, three times maybe.”

Teaching, while difficult and not without its own hassles, is one thing that separates the independent guys from the big mail order catalog houses. Mail order takes a lot of flack from many dealers though the opinions are not universal. Barton Decker sees mail order as a plague on the sport, while Scotty Freeman, who started out at one of the larger mail order houses, is not bothered by it. Other opinions range between the two.

“I think mail order basically started us down this path of killing the smaller inland retailers,” says Decker. “And by killing the smaller retailers there was no one to give lessons, and the sport started to decline. I think in the long run mail order probably accelerated the decline of windsurfing.”

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“It’s a big problem,” says Scott Wilson. “There are still a lot of people who mail order stuff. I think it’s good that there is somebody that has everything, a big warehouse that has every part there is, so if somebody has an old board and needs a centerboard, I can send them somewhere. But I see it all the time where people might get a sail and a mast from somewhere and they don’t know how to rig the thing, they come in asking questions and stuff, then they can get frustrated, they don’t know what they’re doing, and then they might get frustrated with the sport altogether.”

“I think there’s a certain amount of it that’s needed,” says Jackie Butzen. “In my area, the only issue I have is that they don’t have to pay the taxes I do, so my customers have to pay nearly 10% more, plus I have a lot more overhead in this location.”

“Absolutely it hurts,” says Chris Kelly. “That’s something that’s a little disappointing with the industry. The way it’s set up, the small shops really have a hell of a time of it. I don’t know how to change it, but there really are effectively no small windsurfing shops anymore. There’s a part of me that’s not happy about that. When I grew up windsurfing there were a lot of little hole-in-the-wall shops, and now it’s simply not going that way, it’s going the other way.”

“What happened with the mail order guys is that someone like Mickey Kerbel (Windsurfing Express – now defunct) would cut a back-room deal with one of the suppliers,” explains Decker. “The small retailer would see the stuff advertised in the catalog for approximately the same price he paid for it ‘wholesale.’ After you do that for a while you go out of business. If you look at the sports that have maintained a strong base, all of them have really strong instructional programs and anti-mail order policies.”

An equally volatile object of disdain among dealers are the windsurfing periodicals, including yours truly. The complaints about magazines generally fall into two categories, one being the overall image of the sport being portrayed, and the other, equipment tests and reviews. As far as image goes, the general complaint is that the magazines do not represent a realistic view of what windsurfing is to most people.

“I think what happened with the sport is that it went high-end as far as its image way too soon, before they got enough people into it,” explains Butzen. “There are way too many people that look at Robby Naish jumping off a wave and thinking that they could never do that, so they don’t even consider trying it.”

Brad Miley was a little more sympathetic: “It’s a free-market thing, they do what they have to do. If they get a poor response to showing somebody uphauling on a lake in two miles-an-hour of wind, then they have to give the consumer what they want.”

On equipment testing, there was no sympathy.

“The magazines put so many resources into doing those gear reviews, and they do nobody a service,” says Chris Kelly. “They certainly don’t do the public a service, they don’t do the retail shops any service, and I’m not convinced that they do the manufacturers any service.”

“You can’t have dealers going in and testing their own products,” complains Scotty Freeman. “The other thing is that they get a lot of sailors who can’t sail, plus they test boards sometimes in the wrong conditions.”

Barton Decker even blames the equipment tests for slowing the development of user-friendly equipment. “Back when the sport started on the decline and we could have used a shot in the arm, in chasing the good reviews from the two or three individuals who were writing them, we ended up with boards that were very specific and had narrow ranges. Everybody was chasing the board reviews. If Ken and Tom liked your board, you got all smiley faces, and life was peachy. If they didn’t like your board, you were screwed. We kind of lost the idea of these really broad range boards. By the time we got back to the concept in the late ‘90s, we’d already lost 80% of our base. Now we have all of this great really broad-range gear, and hardly anybody to sell it to.”

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We did get some love, however: “Magazines are great, though,” admits Freeman. “People love looking at them, I love reading them!”

Another love/hate relationship that can be a make or break for the retailer is his relationships with his vendors. A trend in the later ‘90s was for companies to insist on larger and larger pre-season commitments, often requiring a dealer to take a full container of product to receive maximum discount. The idea was not only to sell more product but to leave less room in the retailer’s “open to buy” budget for smaller vendors. The result could often be a disaster for the retailer, the consumer, or both. Often these incentives would entice the retailer into biting off more than he could chew, and leave him with a store full of product and past-due invoices at the end of the season. And even if he or she could sell through the stuff, his customers often lost the benefit of the free market. With all of the product in the store coming from one source, there was not much room for choice or innovation from some of the newer, smaller companies.

“Minimum order requirements are one of the things that I think contributed to the demise of a lot of shops because they couldn’t afford to place big orders,” says Butzen. “They could order a few boards, and replace the boards they sold, and work it that way. I was very happy to see that some of the minimum order requirements were lowered this year.”

“Obviously, you get a lot of pressure to take a lot of product,” says Kelly. “‘You can’t sell it if you don’t have it,’ is the old adage. Now, when you get stuck with it at the end of the year, you hope that the vendor is going to be willing to work with you, and either extend the dating or take back some of the product. And they should realize the situation you’re in. It doesn’t do anybody any good when the vendor gets their full margin on everything, and the retailer ends up selling stuff at below their cost. All the weight of those bad decisions gets thrown onto the retailer’s head.”

“Most vendors are really good,” says Scott Freeman. “Though, in this sport, there’s a big loyalty problem. That’s the only thing I see hurting in this business is that there’s no loyalty with most manufacturers and distributors. I mean, they just pour the stuff on to anybody they can.”

Brad Miley has another view. “I don’t know anybody in this industry that’s a supplier who’s selling so much that they can force me into something that I don’t want to do. I can just say, ‘no thanks,’ and go over to another supplier. So I don’t feel the pressure there.”

All retailers have at least one pressure in common, however: overhead. It’s “Business 101” to reduce your fixed costs at all cost. Creativity can play a huge part here, as well as location. Brad Miley has a sewing table suspended from the ceiling. He can lower it to do sail repairs, thus saving a lot of space when not in use. Jackie Butzen’s store has merchandise stacked and racked to the high ceilings, making use of a system of rolling ladders like old-time hardware stores and college libraries used to use.

Scotty Freeman and Chris Kelly have gone another route: renting out floor space to compatible businesses. Storm Warning now hosts a Taco Del Mar restaurant, and Gorge Surf Shop is the new home of Air Time custom outdoor clothing. Both ideas have worked well, each attracting more walk-in traffic while reducing mortgage payments.

Scott Wilson simply closes up shop for several months in the winter to cut his costs, opening by appointment when necessary.

“Saves money not heating the place,” says Wilson.

Everyone has heard the saying that the three things necessary to survive in business are location, location, and location, but there seems to be no exact formula for success in this area with windsurfing.

Barton Decker boasts he has one of the best on-site sailing venues on the East Coast. “Without being on Hatteras, I would have given up retailing years ago,” says Decker. “For southwest wind, it’s the best location on the Outer Banks. If you look at the iWindsurf data, there’s a pretty good case for it being the windiest spot on the East Coast.”

Contrast that with Miley’s shop in suburban Philly. “We get asked all the time, ‘what the hell are you guys doing here?’ We’re here for the same reason the ski shops are here—basic business reasons: there’s money and people here. Everybody that’s from Philly goes to the shore all the time, and we have a lake that’s a half-hour from the shop.”

Stranger still is Butzen’s downtown Chicago setting. “Being in an urban shop is actually pretty exciting. We do get a lot of walk-in traffic, which helps, but it has its pitfalls too – there’s no parking. Water access is also difficult. Out of 30 miles of beaches we have two that we can windsurf off of.”

Time has proven that it takes more than a storefront in Hood River to make it in windsurfing, but Kelly and Freeman both think they have it made.

“We have the best location in the world,” claims Kelly. “It’s right where I like to be: we are the center of Hood River, we sit right here and see everything.”

“The Gorge is great!” exclaims Scotty. “My location is perfect, I’m the only one with parking on Oak Street. I’ve lived all over, and I wouldn’t live anywhere else but Hood River!”

Hmm, we’ve been hearing a lot of that lately….


 

Associate Editor Will Harper is the former owner of Berkeley Windsurfing. He now resides in the Gorge.

by Will Harper

Associate Editor Will Harper is the former owner of Berkeley Windsurfing. He now resides in the Gorge.

photos by John Chao

Publisher / Editor is a former photojournalist for GEO, National Geographic and Time-Life Magazines

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