Brian Cregan: The last man standing (and surfing)
While not unexpected, the news still came as a surprise: Rip Curl had been sold to outdoor clothing retailer, Kathmandu. After a few false starts, owners Brian Singer, Doug Warbrick, and François Payot had finally sold their company for $350 million.
The sale made the mainstream news; Rip Curl is a classic rags to riches story that business editors love. While surf industry publications called it the end of an era as Rip Curl was the last of the big surfer-owned businesses to be sold off.
But that isn’t entirely true.
By chance I was staying at Sussex Inlet when the Curl news broke, so I made a phone call, organised a time, and arrived on cue.
The Ocean and Earth factory is located just off the main road into Sussex Inlet on the South Coast of NSW. Sussex itself is a funky little stretch of coast, often overlooked for the perfection of Black Rock to the north or the variety of the Ulladulla reefs to the south. Yet Sussex holds its own with a number of reefs and beaches, many of which blow offshore in the prevailing summer nor-easter owing to the coastline’s SW-NE orientation.
The nor-easter was just puffing when I pulled up in the O&E carpark. School holiday crowds were pawing at the racks of boards outside and a shop assistant called for extra help to serve them. Inside, O&E’s vast range of accessories were fashionably stacked in a large retail space. When the assistant was free I asked to see Brian Cregan and waited.
Taking pride of place above the stock were a number of vintage boards, mostly single fin pintails, that I assumed were Brian’s own. Cregan came of age at the same time pro surfing did - the late 1970s. He placed 41st in the world in 1977 and 39th the next year, which would be his highest placing. In 1979 he took some time out to film ‘Band On The Run’ with Rabbit, Paul Nielsen, and Bruce Raymond.
Though he did well on home turf, it was obvious Cregan wouldn’t be able to support himself through prizemoney and sponsorship, so in 1979 he registered Ocean and Earth and went into business. Rather than compete, he’d support his surfing lifestyle by making surfing equipment. It’s the same rationale that drove Singer and Warbrick to create Rip Curl, Gordon Merchant to create Billabong, and Alan Green and John Law to create Quiksilver.
When Cregan comes out to greet me he’s dressed in his carpark finest: black O&E tee, boardshorts, and thongs, with his dog Nuku trailing two steps behind him. We shake hands and head through the ‘staff only’ door and down the hall. Cregan’s office faces north-east, it’s surrounded by towering grey gums.
The news of the Rip Curl sale had given him pause to think, though if he was feeling self-satisfied at being the last man standing he wasn’t showing it. If anything he was disappointed at the way things had turned out for the surf industry, Quiksilver and Billabong in particular.
“Those brands,” says Cregan as he settles back into his chair, “they did an amazing job of developing their companies, they really did, yet they did an equally amazing job of fuc….”
Cregan checks himself, “....of mucking them up.”
Cregan’s main concern was what happened after Billabong and Quiksilver floated on the stock exchange. “As soon as they went public they had to maintain a certain growth per year to keep all the shareholders and finance companies happy.”
“And as soon as they did that they had to go mainstream.” It was the death knell for core companies, though the decline was slow. Quiksilver floated way back in 1986, while Billabong’s IPO was in 2000. In fact, Cregan remembers the very day Billabong went public.
“My Dad came in and he sat down right where you are and said, ‘Billabong have floated. The surf industry will never be the same’” recalls Cregan who thought the old boy was being melodramatic.
“I didn’t really think much about it, but he explained it to me and it was then that I could see what he was talking about. And as it turned out, yeah, he was right, the surf industry has never been the same.”
In the ensuing years, Quiksilver and Billabong were flush with funds but rather than grow by developing their own products and their own brands they hit upon a different strategy to appease their shareholders: acquisition. They bought up chain stores, shoe companies, watch companies, and yeah, surf accessory companies too.
“Over the years I’ve had a few offers [to buy Ocean and Earth],” says Cregan, “two of them from the companies we’ve just mentioned, but I didn’t take any of them up because they weren’t favourable to my staff or to my lifestyle - I don’t really want to have a boss.”
Instead, O&E grew slowly, organically. “We do hardware, the stuff surfer’s need. We’re not in the same league as the apparel companies, we don't have the same opportunities for sales and distribution.” Yet by staying closer to the core, O&E has been less susceptible to the whims of fashion or the body blows of economics.
“About 15 years ago we began doing some apparel, just limited lines, but we were fairly successful,” says Cregan, adding, “and then came the GFC. After that...well, we realised our heart was in hardware.”
Cregan turns the theme over: “When you’re in apparel, you’re competing against massive companies, and not just in the surf industry, so it’s easy to get lost, but with hardware, as long as you make a good product, one that surfers want, then there’ll always be a place for it.”
If hardware is O&E’s heart then it’s kept beating by employees like Steve Rayner, who for over 30 years has served as O&E’s Product and Design Manager testing all their equipment before it goes to market. Rayner is one of many long term employees at the O&E offices, including two of Cregan’s sons, Beau and Billy. The office is one of the major employers in Sussex Inlet.
If Cregan were to sell and inherit a corporate overlord, the location of the Sussex Inlet office wouldn’t be assured. Anything could change at the stroke of an accountants pen, a thought that clearly doesn’t sit well with Cregan. “Obviously I like it here,” he says and gestures with his arm to the grey gums outside his window. Below the window, Nuku is curled up on a well-worn leather lounge.
But how long can he go on? Cregan remains the major shareholder in O&E, he's now in his mid-sixties and he’s still working while all his ‘Band On The Run’ co-stars have long since cashed up and gone surfing. I ask him about family succession.
“Beau and Billy are young, they’re 20 and 18, so it’s a flip of the coin,” remarks Cregan. “But I’ve got some really good long term staff here, the place would run fine without me. They’re more than capable to look after anything that happens while I’m away.”
Retirement seems a while away, Cregan is reluctant to even play along with the suggestion, so I ask him directly: “But don’t you want to go surfing too?”
Cregan looks again at the tall grey gums outside his window, their canopy now getting blown around by the building nor-easter. “Yeah, I do want to go surfing,” he smiles. “I might head back down there now”.