Can This Man Make Artisan Surfboards for the Masses?
WHY YOU SHOULD CARE
He might have found a lucrative way to marry high tech and craftsmanship.
By Laura Secorun Palet
Video by Melanie Ruiz.
With his long hair, tanned skin and super-model grin, Hayden Cox looks the archetypal Aussie surfer. But behind his laid-back demeanor hides a businessman with ferocious ambition.
Cox, 32, owns Haydenshapes, which builds surfboards a whole new way: by replacing the traditional wooden stringer with a high-density type of foam and a carbon-fiber frame. (Cox has patented it as “the FutureFlex” technology.) Sounds technical, but aesthetically, it’s an elegant mash-up of “modern minimalism and, like, surfing philosophy of the ’70s,” says Shaun Tomson, a world champion surfer and surf industry expert. The designer Alexander Wang has incorporated Cox’s minimalist designs into installations, but Cox aims beyond aesthetics. Professional surf brahs use his sleek boards; three-time world champion Tom Carroll calls them “Ferraris.”
His strategic, global-minded approach is somewhat of an anomaly among board manufacturers, most of whom keep things simple, local and patent-free. Many of the skilled Thai workers who build Haydenshapes boards don’t even surf, and as Cox scales up — as he intends — he might have to make some controversial trade-offs between craftsmanship and volume. Cox talks about the challenge with almost childlike excitement: “I’m trying to build a company for the modern era, that embraces technology and is able to adapt fast,” he says. His Australian accent is strong, and he has a penchant for combining motivational quotes with business jargon.
If ever there were a time to reshape the surfboard market, it is now. The retail surf industry is just bouncing back from a dip during the height of the global financial crisis, according to the Surf Industry Manufacturers Association, which pegs the U.S. market for surf-related products at $787 million in 2013, up slightly from 2012. Surfboard sales account for only 11 percent of that number, but there’s growth potential, especially if the craze hits Brazil and Indonesia. The board industry is fractured between painstaking shapers, who craft boards one by one, and companies that mass produce them, like Lost or Channel Islands. Cox is trying to marry individual craftsmanship with volume.
Mass producing a handmade product poses a delicate challenge.
Cox didn’t see all this opportunity at first, of course. When he was 15, his own board snapped in two, and he couldn’t afford a new one. (He was working at Pizza Hut for $4 an hour.) So he ingratiated himself with a local board shaper, who repaired it — and gave him his only lesson in the trade. His serial entrepreneur grandfather, who ran several importing companies, provided some inspiration. (His business stories “almost felt like a Hollywood film,” Cox says.) Otherwise, there was a lot of trial and error, hustling for orders from friends and teachers, and painful flirtations with bankruptcy. Until 2007, that is — the year of the FutureFlex breakthrough. With the arrogance of youth, Cox challenged common shaping wisdom and developed the technology, which uniquely combines materials to generate a faster, more responsive board. At up to $1,000 a pop, Cox’s boards are aimed at mid- to high-level surfers, not Pizza Hut part-timers.
Cox now has 30 full-time staff and 300 people in manufacturing — but he intends to take on the world. (That’s why he shifted his base from Australia to the lucrative Californian shores, which is where Wang noticed his boards and commissioned the installation.) Mass producing a handmade product poses a delicate challenge, though: Cox’s bet has been to move production to Thailand, where he personally trained shapers on the assembly line. He insists his Thai shapers use the same process he does, but there are skeptics — among them Dr. Andrew Warren, an Australian academic and co-author of Surfing Places, Surfboard Makers, who says “he will find it difficult to maintain a customized experience for surfers on Sydney’s northern beaches when his boards are being manufactured outside of Bangkok.”
Like Warren, Cox’s toughest critics are surfers. Some say being perceived as a “sellout” could hurt his brand. “If you have a strong local following, most often you will lose customers because your brand will become associated with ‘Made in China,’” says Steve Boehne, founder and master shaper at Infinity Boards in California. Others have criticized his decision to outsource production, arguing he’s only incentivized by cheap labor and his actions hurt the local surf economy. Cox’s response: “If I sell more I can give local retailers better margins, spend money in buying materials from the U.S., and employ more people locally — isn’t that good for our economy?”
For now Haydenshapes is growing at a steady clip, with more than 500 boards produced a week. But will Cox be able to continue to walk the line between craftsmanship and mass production, or someday have to choose between quality and quantity? He admits the day might come, but thinks there’s plenty of room to grow and profit before then. He’s gearing up for the launch of two new models and a new website this year, as well as experimenting with a tracking device to measure a surfboard’s speed and performance. But first he will go on his first real vacation since he started his business to marry his co-worker Danielle Foote, who leads Haydenshapes’ marketing.
It won’t be a beach wedding. “I know it’s ironic,” says Cox, “but I don’t like sand.”
- Laura Secorun Palet, Laura is a foreign correspondent obsessed with borders and everything that crosses them. Born in Barcelona, based in Nairobi, she writes about national identity, migration and trafficking of all kinds. She considers herself a professional eavesdropper. Which is ironic because she is known to speak loudly. Follow Laura Secorun Palet on Twitter Follow Laura Secorun Palet on FacebookContact Laura Secorun Palet