Bob Hurley: Success built on everyone's inner surfer
Bob Hurley wrestled with the biggest decision of his career.
Should he continue his role as the North America licensee for Billabong, a company he and partners brought to the U.S. and grew into a $100 million business? Or should he start from scratch to bring something fresh to the surf industry – with the fate of more than 150 workers in his hands.
Hurley chose to strike out in a new direction and in 1999 launched his eponymous brand.
"It was very challenging, but it didn't feel like it to me because it felt like destiny," the 57-year-old Hurley said. "It just seemed like it had to happen, it was meant to be."
Destiny. It's a word that comes up frequently in a conversation with Hurley, founder of Hurley International and one of the surf industry's most successful entrepreneurs.
With recent announcement that parent company Nike has shifted its surf team to Hurley – creating a strong presence among the world's best surfers on the ASP World Tour – the Costa Mesa company likely will evolve even more in the near future.
"We'd like to be the best surf company that has ever existed," said Hurley, who lives in Newport Beach and surfs regularly. "And there have been some great ones."
Hurley sat down with the Register to talk about his start in the surf world, his challenges along the way and the future of the company.
Q. How did you get started in the surf industry?
A. I begged my way into a job at Wind and Sea Surf Shop. One thing I really wanted to do was make boards. I liked trying to figure out what people wanted and tried to give it to them. The satisfaction of giving a board to someone is so neat. It's instant gratification. You can look at it and think 'Wow, I made that.' But then if it doesn't work, it bums you out. You have to learn how to deal with rejection.
Q. But you ended up starting a pretty successful business, right?
A. It was my full time job for about 10 years. I started Hurley Surfboards in early 80s. There was a transition in the market. The culture was shifting so fast, and I happened to embrace the new. I liked punk rock, all my friends were in the bands, I liked the radical stuff. It was just a unique time, when everything changed. I was able to participate in that movement. It was really hard to make money, but I was successful. I was always backlogged six months.
Q. How did you transition into surf wear?
A. A few friends knew about this company called Billabong in Australia. I liked the shorts because they were long, and everyone liked short shorts at the time. I tried to import those shorts from Australia – and the owner would never get back to me. My grand vision for the brand was to put them in the store. Then one day this guy Gordon (Merchant) from Billabong showed up at my shop. They were tiny at the time. He said, 'If you want to buy Billabong shorts, you have to make it worthwhile to me. I'll sell you 3,000, they are $9 each.' So $27,000 – no worries, I'll do that. I had no idea, no plan. We didn't have a penny. Not a penny for baby-sitting, couldn't go to the movies, couldn't get groceries. It just seemed like the right thing to do, and that's how we always made our business decisions. So then, we made a deal. I had to beg my family and friends for money. For $5,000 you could buy 4 percent of this company I concocted. We got $45,000 together. We got those shorts, sold them, got more and sold them. We worked out of garages at night to ship orders.
Q. How successful did Billabong become?
A. The surfboard market was changing, the apparel market was changing. The old breed – OP, Lightning Bolt – were dying out, just grinding to a halt. So anyone who had new stuff, everyone just wanted it. I had a waiting list of people. We didn't really have a vision that it could be big. Our 10-year plan was to do $1.7 million in sales. Year 1 we did $80,000, year 2 we did $300,000, then next year we did $700,000 and then we did $3 million. It was very organic.
Q. With such a successful venture, why did you spin off to create Hurley?
A. We had the Billabong license for 16 years. Our last year, we were looking to do about $100 million. It was an incredible ride; we had no idea that could happen. It seemed like destiny. At the time, it was hard to say how or why (the change), it just seemed like something we had to do. It wasn't a plan to have our own company. Or to make more money. It became important to do what we were passionate about. Billabong's saying at the time was "Only a surfer knows the feeling." We realized other people in the world are really important too, not just surfers. We realized that if surfing is so beautiful, you don't have to act like you are a surfer all the time, you don't have to make everyone feel like an outcast because they don't surf. We didn't like the exclusive nature of the surf industry.
Q. How was Hurley different in the marketplace?
A. We came up with a line that was edgy, metallic and sequins, totally different. But it was a safe bet because we knew our friends loved it, and we trusted our friends. In 1999, none of the companies were doing great. The bands Blink 182 and Black Eyed Peas were good friends of ours, and they helped us; it was so exciting. We got to keep all the people here, no one lost their job. We were successful year one, then year two ...
Q. How did you come up with the name "Hurley?"
A. We had all these names and one of our partner's husbands said 'Why don't you just call it Hurley?' I said 'That sounds so stupid. Why do you think that should be the name?' He said, 'When people walk into a store and pick up a pair of trunks, the salespeople can say 'They used to do this; now they are doing this." Someone said I had to make the call. I said, OK, it's this ... . Everyone was like 'Really? You sure?' It worked out.
Q. In 2002, you sold the company to Nike. What went into that decision?
A. It was easy. It felt like destiny. I don't mean to sound glib, but it just seemed like it was meant to happen. We just always loved Nike. "To the criticism of our friends, we used to run Nike shoes in ads, because we thought Nike made the best shoes. And I always liked Michael Jordan and Bo Jackson, and everything Nike stands for about supporting athletes and innovating. We grew really fast within three years. Then we started needing capital. Should we take the company public, or should we get a partner? I didn't want to take the company public because I would have been fired within about six months, guaranteed.
Q. What are your thoughts about what Hurley has evolved into?
A. I'm super proud of the people who work here, and their work ethic and their ability to innovate and to stay excited.
Q. What is your work philosophy?
A. I like everyone to be positive and to have fun – but results matter. But you have to work hard; you have to work harder than everyone else.
Q. What is next for the brand?
A. I just think the next thing for Hurley as a brand and a company is to try to help stimulate retailers' business for them, make them successful by having innovative products and providing some sort of entertainment. We want to provide inspiration and continue being inclusive with our brand.
Q. Do you have any advice for aspiring young entrepreneurs?
A. Work incredibly hard and surround yourself with astounding people. Because you'll probably end up like the people you're around.
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