Dispatches From A Sinking Ship: Kelly Slater
Pre-crash stories from riding out high times on the mid-2000s Quiksilver Death Star. Volume One.
Quiksilver had an aura.
The guys at The Magazines called it “The Firm.” It was big business, corporate—somewhat intimidating.
People inside referred to the company’s large glass, high-ceilinged Huntington Beach HQ as “The Death Star.”
Inside, it had the look and smell of success. Money. Power. Dreams. The first time I walked in the door, I took in the thirty foot aquarium and the polished concrete floors in the lobby. A blonde assistant who looked like a swimsuit model led me back into the inner sanctum, past a gleaming row of surfboards from every era of the sport.
It felt like entering a secret club.
Quiksilver began as Rip Curl’s scrappy younger brother in the hippie days of 1969. Alan Green and John Law founded it in Torquay, Australia and then entrusted Bob McKnight and Jeff Hakman to take it global in the mid 70’s. Legend had that they started by slinging velcro fly Quik boardshorts down the coast in McKnight’s van.
Quiksilver went public in 1986, launched Roxy in 1990, and hit a 2 billion dollar valuation when I arrived in February, 2005. Little did I know at the time that the company’s future—of Chapter 11 bankruptcy— had already been sealed.
So what happened?
Inkwells of digital blood has been spilled on post-mortems since the industry’s staggering fall from such great heights—about what went wrong at Quik, and in the surf industry as a whole during the last decade.
There are a million reasons: the global financial crisis of 2008, over-distribution, the rise of online shopping, Fast Fashion, and the death of retail, the “hip” kids eschewing big brands and logos, a millennial generation more interested in spending money on gadgets than clothes.
All of these are true in a general sense, but Quik really took a dive because of one very, very, very bad business decision.
Did I say “bad”?
It was the worse than you could possibly imagine.
In 2005, Quiksilver purchased Rossignol—with financed money—for $560 million. Immediately, Quik poured an additional $300 million of mortgaged cash into Rossignol, building them a new factory in France and trying to rebrand them as a clothing company.
Not even three years later, in November, 2008, when the ZQK stock was at valued at a whopping 89 cents right after the crash, they sold Rossignol for 37.5 million.
Pennies on the dollar. Almost five pennies, actually.
It’s simple: You borrow 860 million dollars of money you don’t have to buy a company, then sell it for less than 5% of what you paid three years later… no matter what you do to try and fix things, you’re fucked.
Had Quiksilver, led by Bernard Mariette at the time, decided against buying a flailing French ski company in 2005 (as every Wall Street analyst had strongly advised them), the brand would have survived the financial crash, the pesky online shoppers, the even peskier “hip” kids, and even those iPhone worshipping, meddling millennials, largely intact.
In fact, Quik would probably still be killing it.
But c’est la vie. Things change and we are left with only memories.
But what memories!
If you worked at a big surf brand in the mid-naughts you were riding high.
There were trips, tours, expense accounts, free clothes, pretty people, boozy dinners, leisurely lunches, and mid day surfs. At Quik, especially in the notoriously hard-partying Marketing Department, Fridays were basically a write off. Kegs would arrive at 10am, the stereo would blast, Guitar Hero and ping pong, and by early afternoon the affair would move offsite.
At 3 pm, the office was a ghost town.
The movie premieres, sales meetings, and soirees for campaigns like The Crossing were full on ragers. Executives, staffers and athletes felt comfortable getting as plastered as they pleased. The occasional arrest, fight and unplanned pregnancy that often resulted were simply swept under the rug.
The funnest people usually made to the prized “friend of Bob” status—those who got tapped to go on one of McKnight’s hallowed corporate retreats to Tavarua and Tyax.
I never rose to that that rarefied air at Quik, but still had the privilege of doing some pretty rad shit in the 7 years I was there, sitting front row for a private brand-only Pearl Jam show in Hawaii, on a private jet with Kelly Slater to Puerto Rico, filming Danny Fuller and Mark Healey shotgun beers before riding actual bulls at a Plaza de Toros in Mexico, paddling out at empty G-land with Travis Rice, nervously giving a speech with Clay Marzo, before a sold out crowd of 3000 at the premiere of a movie I directed about him.
I got to work with some amazing people.
At the time, Quik was a bubbling petri dish of creative talent. I was alongside M&D gurus like Erik Joule and Matt Anderson; the creative genius and iconic skater, Natas Kaupas, who made the hugely influential handwritten “impaired” Quik logo. Josh Katz was doing LA-based experiential marketing experiments in Venice and Silverlake that were way, way way ahead of their time; product marketers like Eddie Anaya pushed hard for many of the boardshort innovations we enjoy today, while forward-thinking VP’s like Greg Macias and Greg Perlot believed in me enough to move me from lowly copywriting contractor to co-lead of the Creative Department within three years.
You probably don’t care much about which minions were doing what at a surf brand ten years ago. So I’ll tell you about the team riders.
The place felt like it literally had thousands of them. A succession of Marketing Directors tried and failed to make an accurate accounting. The Huntington office alone had 10 team managers across all sports, including the razor-witted Strider Wasilewski, Todd Kline, and Chad Wells, to keep track of them.
Basically, at every single surf spot around the world, if a guy ripped someone was paying him real money to put a red box mountain and wave sticker on the nose of his board. That was the business model—kid sees guy ripping who’s sponsored by Quik: kid wants to buy Quik clothes.
The fact was, it worked. It fed the machine. Employees worshipped at the altar of team riders at Quiksilver. Time stood still when they would pop by the office. Guys would elbow each other out of the way to shoot the shit with them, get them gear, take them to lunch, or if they were ultra lucky, go for a surf the pier with them.
The team back then was the best any brand ever had: Slater, Dane Reynolds, Julian Wilson, Clay Marzo, Ry Craike, Jeremy Flores, Fred Patacchia, Fuller, Healey and Reef McIntosh. Tony Hawk and Alex Olson headlined skate. Snow had Travis Rice. It was beyond stacked. It was Murderers’ Row.
I knew Slater already. He briefly dated an old female roommate of mine, and I’d periodically play golf with him when he’d pass through So Cal. But I got to know him in a different way on the job.
Kelly was always cordial and professional, but was never the easiest guy to pin down. If you were able to cajole him to do promotional things for the brand, it generally helped your career.
Of course, when you mix a friendly social relationship with business it gets awkward quickly.
I was tasked with the on the ground marketing for his 7th through to 10th world titles. Europe was the memorable scene for the clinching of #8 and #9. “Sl8R” in 2006—that was a lot of fun. We stayed ten people to a room in Mundaka, drank beer from the World Title trophy, danced in the streets.
The next night we rented out his favorite restaurant, Tantina de la Playa, in France. Mick Fanning/Eugene, gave a hilariously incoherent speech and started a food fight.
The KS9 campaign in 2008 got a little weird.
The idea was to shoot a moody black and white portrait of Kelly, film an interview about his year. We had Steve Sherman on hand in Hossegor, it was all set. But Kelly seemed over it. This stuff was old hat. His mind was elsewhere.
Each morning I would text him, ask if we could do the shoot. A couple hours later he’d respond that he’d rather golf instead, and ask me if I wanted to go.
Invariably my boss, Greg Macias at the time, would call me while I was on the course and ask for an update.
“So he doesn’t want to do it today?” he’d ask?
“No, I’m hoping for tomorrow,” I’d reply.
“What’s he up to?”
“Um, he’s playing golf.”
“How do you know that?”
“I’m, um… with him.”
[Long painful silence.]
“He says he’ll do it tomorrow,” I said.
What could I do, right? I wasn’t exactly working, but at least I was trying to.
I figured if I was persistent enough, in a friendly way, Kelly would break down and get the job done, and that’s what inevitably happened—after two weeks. But everyone walked away stoked—especially yours truly who thoroughly enjoyed an extended French holiday.
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