Brian Cregan: The last man standing (and surfing)

Stu Nettle
Talking Heads

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.

Cregan's 'Band On The Run' alumni included producer Harry Hodge (founder of Quiksilver Europe), plus co-stars Bruce Raymond (ex-Managing Director of Quiksilver), Paul Nielsen (co-founder of Brothers Nielsen), and Rabbit Bartholomew. The movie itself was a flop, yet four of the team went onto succesful business careers, and the other a world title and enduring career orbiting pro surfing

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.

Brian Cregan at home in his office, surrounded by spreadsheets and samples of new products

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”.

Comments

gavin007's picture
gavin007's picture
gavin007 commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 12:58pm

Love his spirit!
On another note, that must be the biggest tape dispenser I've ever seen !

surfstarved's picture
surfstarved's picture
surfstarved commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 3:03pm

False perspective Gav, it's just a lot closer to the camera than Brian. Like they did with Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings movies when he was in a scene with the hobbits...

Don't let the bastards grind you down

boxright's picture
boxright's picture
boxright commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 1:38pm

Priorities, yeah?

zenagain's picture
zenagain's picture
zenagain commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 1:43pm

Good gear O&E.

I wish them many years of continued success.

Watashi wa metabo oyagi desu.

joesydney's picture
joesydney's picture
joesydney commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 1:44pm

Awesome work!

andosbf's picture
andosbf's picture
andosbf commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 2:05pm

their resin for board fixes is the greatest! good to see surfing made by surfers!

Blowin's picture
Blowin's picture
Blowin commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 2:06pm

Best leggies in the world.

Ape Anonymous's picture
Ape Anonymous's picture
Ape Anonymous commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 5:04pm

Reliable

Terminal's picture
Terminal's picture
Terminal commented Saturday, 19 Oct 2019 at 7:08am

Just bought two more of them a couple of days ago for Europe survival kit.

velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno's picture
velocityjohnno commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 2:17pm

Was using an O&E leggie this morning. Great article and well done, I'll look for more O&E gear in the future.

Elliedog's picture
Elliedog's picture
Elliedog commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 2:25pm

Good to see....a surf company built for surfers by surfers...a line used often by the big guys and the fluff apparel companies....in Brian's case rings true. And good gear to boot. I just returned from a month in Indo where my 15 year old O&E triple board bag is still working fine. A bit of duct tape here n there but working well.

Luba

Phil Jarratt's picture
Phil Jarratt's picture
Phil Jarratt commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 2:40pm

Good on you, Gecko! Keep the stoke alive!

Phil Jarratt

Laurie McGinness's picture
Laurie McGinness's picture
Laurie McGinness commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 6:16pm

Still the same relaxed bloke I knew in the 70s. Mortein! For those who remember.

shauntomson1's picture
shauntomson1's picture
shauntomson1 commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 3:04pm

Good one Gekko. Been using the leggies exclusively, since he started the company in the late 70s. In all that time I busted only one leash on a monster cleanup at Sunset - well not a monster by today's standards. Awesome quality, great design and hard core distribution - bigger brands could have learned a lot from him - hope there are many more years of O and E to come.

cycd's picture
cycd's picture
cycd commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 3:12pm

Pretty much the best quality hardware on the market in my opinion... probably because they haven’t sold out

brownie48's picture
brownie48's picture
brownie48 commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 3:25pm

The best gear by far of any surf related company, still got stuff that is over 30 years old and still works.

The only accessories I ever buy are O&E, they really support south coast surfers and the area.

Love the integrity of Gecko and his team, long live O&E and never sell out

Hey Stu - did Gecko mention the fabled camp fire story....

arnie's picture
arnie's picture
arnie commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 3:53pm

Will definitely purchase O&E products to support these guys.

Arnie

ringmaster's picture
ringmaster's picture
ringmaster commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 4:33pm

Ditto for all comments above. Used their surfing hardware for years and all top quality that does what it's sposed to do. Good on Brian and no doubt a very relaxed and stress free life he lives as a result of the path he's chosen.

NDC's picture
NDC's picture
NDC commented Friday, 18 Oct 2019 at 10:41pm

Love O&E leggies n board bags _ my #1 go to brand for core hardware

spencie's picture
spencie's picture
spencie commented Saturday, 19 Oct 2019 at 3:55am

Ditto for their products.

easterly

Bsm17's picture
Bsm17's picture
Bsm17 commented Saturday, 19 Oct 2019 at 4:35am

Been using O&E prducts since i was a kid, had no idea though they are so grass roots still. Will continue my support as much as i can. Especially there legropes, they are the best out there in my opinion.

jimmy.long's picture
jimmy.long's picture
jimmy.long commented Saturday, 19 Oct 2019 at 9:07am

Good gear top lifestyle well done mate.

memlasurf's picture
memlasurf's picture
memlasurf commented Saturday, 19 Oct 2019 at 10:22am

From memory they started leggies about the same time as Balin down here and were the only two brands around. Sort of parallels with the Balin brand as they got into apparel and got burn't and now back to the hardware with a factory out the back of Rosebud. Balin = Bali Indonesia. Great leggies as well. Both brands still owned by their founders although Balin is now only John as Ian got out some years back. Great story.

mugofsunshine's picture
mugofsunshine's picture
mugofsunshine commented Saturday, 19 Oct 2019 at 11:29am

Where's the picture of Nuku?

stunet's picture
stunet's picture
stunet commented Saturday, 19 Oct 2019 at 12:00pm

Didn't get that, but he was a spaniel cross poodle if you must know. Think they call 'em a Spoodle, but he was a way better looking dog then that name would indicate.

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo commented Saturday, 19 Oct 2019 at 12:21pm

If you got a Rhino chaser or D.S you like to protect- $200 for a boardcover up to 11ft
thats value !

blower's picture
blower's picture
blower commented Saturday, 19 Oct 2019 at 2:12pm

Will never forget a photo in an early SW of Brian threading Torpedo Tubes with his namesake reptilian quality on full show.... Near to upside down in the tightest, upper part of the tube all crunched up but hands free and guaranteed he was gonna make it. Sick shot.
Industry and just all time surfing icon.

peter.wiska's picture
peter.wiska's picture
peter.wiska commented Sunday, 20 Oct 2019 at 8:57am

THE CoolCurlCruiser.

DeathToCompSurfing's picture
DeathToCompSurfing's picture
DeathToCompSurfing commented Monday, 21 Oct 2019 at 1:03pm

Don't change, O&E !!!

PeteH's picture
PeteH's picture
PeteH commented Monday, 21 Oct 2019 at 4:27pm

Nice to see integrity of the product to be the priority. Once the Corporates take control, it is all about how to manufacture cheaper and sell more each month. Also the investor market likes to see lots of new products released which means considered and real product testing is discarded in favour of short cuts to market. Means more flops and products that don't work well or fall apart too soon.

xasperations's picture
xasperations's picture
xasperations commented Monday, 21 Oct 2019 at 11:37pm

Never had a bad product from O and E, pleasantly surprised that they are still in touch with surfboards as opposed to boardrooms. Their new rashies are awesome and clearly designed by someone who surfs.

Panman's picture
Panman's picture
Panman commented Tuesday, 22 Oct 2019 at 6:29am

I reckon full bore were the best leggies and O&E a close second
He would be a valued industry in that area for sure its a tough gig manufacturing in Aus

udo's picture
udo's picture
udo commented Tuesday, 22 Oct 2019 at 7:38am

But is he manufacturing in Aust ?

rondoggie's picture
rondoggie's picture
rondoggie commented Wednesday, 23 Oct 2019 at 7:53pm

had the pleasure of working for Brian at one stage.
a true gentleman !

ronron

aretomato's picture
aretomato's picture
aretomato commented Thursday, 24 Oct 2019 at 10:14am

Still got the same Board travel bag from first trip to Fiji in the 80,s. since used it all around Australia East to West, Indonesia a dozen times, Europe, Africa, Samoa and lent it to mates heaps, most since bought there own.
Great hardware, great attitudes.
Thanks.

emrico1's picture
emrico1's picture
emrico1 commented Friday, 25 Oct 2019 at 1:21pm

I must admit I had stopped favouring O&E stuff over other brands, they always had great quality but they had become a little old hat. I'll be sure to go for O&E over other stuff again knowing they are still grass roots

MRsinglefin's picture
MRsinglefin's picture
MRsinglefin commented Monday, 28 Oct 2019 at 8:06am

Leggies and travel board bags are the best. Great reporting on a grass roots legend who keeps a good life / work / family balance.