on the job...

New Zealand Surfing - - Essentials -

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."

Hutch (Owner) back where it all be­gan

From there to here - still lead­ing the way as NZ's #1 core surf store

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