on the job...
Backdoor began in 1988 and now has 14 stores currently, from Takapuna and Northwest Mall in Auckland through the Waikato and Bay of Plenty and also Rotorua, Napier, Palmerston North and Wellington. We caught up with Geoff Hutchison to talk shop...
How would you describe the vibe of your stores and what your customers can expect to feel?
We’ve got quite a mix of stores from some that are more specific hard core surf like Takapuna that carries over 500 boards and 1000 wetsuits in stock through to some stores that are in malls and based around apparel and accessories. So the vibe in different stores can be quite a bit different. Our board stores will always have WSL events playing live in store if they are on and will be a bit more relaxed than say an apparel store in a mall where we strive to maintain a very high standard of customer service. We’ll always attempt to do our best at offering the right advice whether you’re a total beginner or a top NZ surfer. We get a lot of feedback from customers around how certain new models of surfboard go in NZ conditions and we’re always keen to pass that on. There is often something funny that happens in store too and we can sometimes laugh about the things we get asked for or when a customer tries on a wetsuit backwards and comes out into the store saying it doesn’t fit right. Or the customer that brings a board back with the bottom waxed and the fins backwards. Even with stuff like that it’s important not to embarrass the customer as many people simply don’t know or get told the wrong information from someone else who is a professed expert.
Is there a story behind the store? How did it come about?
When I left school I got a job as a civil engineering technician for the NZ Railways and it had quite a bit of flexibility in it and I was able to surf quite a bit. However after 7 years, our department was restructured and we were all offered voluntary redundancy. I really didn’t know what I wanted to do after that but the chance to get money to leave was too good to turn down and so I took 14k to finish up. This was just after the stockmarket crash in 1987 so I sunk all my money into shares(hoping for a big bounce back) and quickly turned 14k into 12k before I realised that I needed to preserve my cash before it all disappeared. Anyway Chris Banks from Raglan Surf Shop had set up this little store called Backdoor in the back of a crappy mall in Hamilton (which was a play on words with Backdoor Pipe) a couple of years earlier and he wanted to retrench back to Raglan so he offered to sell it to me for 12k. And seeing that was all I had it seemed to make sense and after getting a bit of advice from some accountant mates I charged on into it. The first day in store I sold 2 stickers and a hacky sack. So not exactly ripping and by late afternoon on the second day I had only sold a tee shirt then I sold my first surfboard so felt like I was on my way! Yeehaa!
You could start a surf shop anywhere in NZ why choose Hamilton – was it the warm winters and great night life?
Many people wouldn’t know this but Hamilton is one of the hot beds of surfing talent over the years. Many of NZ’s top surfers have come from Hamilton including Glen Campbell, Gav Kelly, Dean Williams, Kelly Lovelock, Braedon and Ella Williams, Taylor Hutchison and others. But seriously it was more about the opportunity that presented at the time rather than any specific location. It helps that it’s close to Raglan and there’s actually more than 1000 surfers that live in Hamilton. It’s also pretty close to the east coast and there’s quite a few Hamilton guys that don’t even go to the west coast. There also wasn’t much competition there at the time so that worked out OK.
What’s unique to Backdoor?
I guess the big thing that we work hard at is having the best boards in the world that the pros ride in stock in large numbers so that you get a great selection to choose from. If you’re after a 5’11” then we want to have not 1 or 2 to choose from but at least 10 different models in various brands to choose from. Our staff in our board stores are all pretty clued
up on what boards work best in NZ conditions and we’ll call up another staff member from another store to get specialist advice if we need to. But more than that we also want to have a huge range of boards for beginners and intermediate surfers too. We would like to think that you’d never feel intimidated coming into one of our stores if you don’t know much about boards or surfing in general. We’re more than happy to help out and give advice if people want it. I’m pretty sure we’ve got by far the largest ranges of wetsuits in NZ too to choose from.
What have been the biggest challenges for Backdoor over the years?
In the early days there were heaps of challenges around just trying to operate a business. I pretty much came into it from an engineering background and had not much of a clue about buying apparel for instance. For much of it I figured it out as I went and learnt from my mistakes. Made some whoppers with buying what I thought was hot and it completely dudded out. Bought 100 Billabong polar fleece vests once with no collars and sold them eventually for 90% off and made a huge loss. But generally the biggest challenge was getting finance to grow when we thought it was the right thing to do. Only having a house in Raglan as collateral was not too hot when you wanted to borrow heaps of money. But then having borrowed heaps of money and then having the whole world melt down in the GFC in 2009 was super tough. We were locked into a bunch of leases in shopping centres for a few years that ended up being way above market rate and we had to ride it out until we could renew the lease at a fairer price. Got there in the end though.
Tell us about your down time and other things you get up to, Surf store owners just surf all day whenever is good right?
I’d like to think that I could surf all day but I’ve had a bung knee the last year or so and it’s made it a bit hard. But then again the whole idea of being in a lifestyle type business is the idea that you can drop everything when it’s on. And I’ve also got a wife and kids so like to spend heaps of time with them. Taylor is doing pretty well with his surfing these days so it’s good to travel with him and do a bit of coaching when he needs it. I’m also involved with Christian Surfers NZ and help with the Point Board riders club as well.
We know all surf shops are a gold mines (hahaha), how come you still work so much?
This might sound weird but I actually love it. It just doesn’t seem like work to me and I really enjoy coming into the office and catching up with staff and see how we can make things work better. I’m always trying to foster constant improvement in our business. We’ve got about 8 or so staff at our HQ in Hamiltron and they’re all top notch and challenge me too to constantly strive to get better at what we do. I also love getting out on the road in our big van and doing a delivery run either to the east coast or down through Hawkes Bay to Wellington and catching up with our store staff. I’m constantly looking at the weather maps and seeing if it’s a good week to go to Hawkes Bay and get a river mouth on or through to Wellington. It’s not always possible but whenever I can I’ll try to time a run with a swell. I’m probably still averaging 60 hours a week but much of it is driving or just having fun so it doesn’t seem like work.
How does Backdoor cement itself in each community when there is so much competition?
For us we try and have a really good selection of boards and wetsuits that our customers want. And for our apparel brands we try and keep the mix right with brands that our customers want to buy from us. At the end of the day, our customers want to buy what they want to buy so if we stock the wrong stuff then we all get the sack. We try to remember this as much as possible. We’re constantly looking at reports that give us feedback on what’s selling and what’s not. We also try and sponsor a few surfers and skaters and have a bunch of crew that we’ve looked after over the years. And another thing that we like to do is put on skate and surf events and we sponsor the Backdoor Grom Bash at Raglan every year and also the Bay Bash in Hawkes bay.
Plans for the future, what would you like to see change in the industry?
We’re just going through some of that future planning currently and looking at a really long term view of things. We currently have 14 stores and we’re looking at whether we may add a bunch more in the next few years. Surfing itself is going through huge growth in numbers right now and we want to be part of that. We operate on the philosophy that what we stock should be the same price as it is in Australia after allowing for exchange rates and we have an extra 5% GST in NZ. What I would love to see change would be for much of our industry to operate with a longer term view point. Many (but not all) of our apparel companies are so focused on the very next range and the sales targets that they have to hit that brand integrity at times goes out the window. I’d love to see more of our brands look to longer term and build up the brand image rather than allowing practices that undermine the brand. I’d also like to see more support from our brands for key surfing and skater athletes. NZ is often the poor cousin to Australia with marketing support and while some brands are very good at this (Billabong grom comp series etc) many of our Australian based surf brands seem to put very little into NZ.
Shout outs & 20 cents worth?
I got some great advice early on from Mike and Lynley Court who were the original surf retailers in NZ and went on to run a successful Billabong agency here. Katherine from Hydro was also helpful and BJ from Seasons helped me out with boards and advice. And of course we couldn’t have grown like we have without excellent staff. I really can’t name all of them but Cam, Alana, Jamie, Hanna, Aaron and Kye have been with us for years and have been a huge part of our growth. I’m very grateful for the opportunities that have come our way and we look forward to many more going forward.
"The big thing that we work hard at is having the best boards in the world that the pros ride in stock in large numbers so that you get a great selection to choose from."
From there to here - still leading the way as NZ's #1 core surf store