The New Normal: Matt “Mayhem” Biolos’ Learnings Weathering Three Rounds Of Surf Industry’s Beatings
“We were at our financial peak in 2008 for the meltdown, and that tore our business apart”
As Matt Biolos tells Stab in the interview below, this will be the third wave of economic upheaval his generation of Surf Industry vets ride out.
As pragmatic and dynamic a thinker as he is a cunning and durable entrepreneur, the Creative Director-disguised-as-surfboard shaper comes at situations like the one we’re currently enduring together, internationally, from myriad points of interest.
We caught up with Matt early this week, and the conversation went something like this:
Hey, Matt. Have you been in San Clemente through all of this?
I drove to mammoth last Friday to get the storm. We got on the mountain Saturday and they closed by noon, due to high winds but everyone know it was coming down and by that night they closed it for good. We hung out a couple more days, hiked in the forest around our neighborhood.
When the rumblings came through that they were going to shut down Orange County, I raced home Monday night.
I spent all week freaking out, and by Friday the big one came.
Do you feel like it’s an appropriate response? Like what is your sense of all this?
What’s good for the goose is good for the gander so they shut down all these businesses—they have to make broad strokes to shut everything down. They can’t go, Oh, these guys make surfboards, that’s safe so they can stay open.
But the problem is, meanwhile they didn’t shut down the bus systems. Thousands and thousands of people are moving around Southern California on buses, with barely any precautions.
Then there’s people in Mammoth or outside of the cities saying, don’t come, don’t come. They need to shut down the Airbnbs and the VRBOs, the hotels, because people are flocking to places they’d like to be and they’re renting and going to those communities. Hotels, planes, trains, automobiles—what’s more dangerous than that? What does more damage than hotels, trains, buses, and airplanes.
Draw a hard line, basically. Cause all they’re doing now is affecting business while not really controlling the spread?
They’re effecting a lot of things, but they’re not addressing the major problems. Now you have all these fancy sit-down restaurants in San Clemente going all of a sudden, “Oh, we’re open for takeout.”
So you have the wealthy people in this town standing around on the sidewalk of the nicest restaurants, drinking $16 cocktails and eating $22 bison burgers, because they want to be considered a necessity. Yeah, that ain’t no fucking necessity.
So you’ve had to make some pretty heavy decisions this week.
We laid off 95% of our staff. We closed our warehouse, we clipped our retail stores, we closed our glassing facilities, we closed our shaping rooms and we gave everyone a link to unemployment. We’re doing what we’re told and we’re staying within our community.
The whole Lowers thing was pretty illuminating.
But Lowers we were seeing family groups showing up at the beaches and posting up for the weekend. Camping and shit. Campgrounds are open. San-O and Old Man’s was open for business on [last] Saturday, with a line to get in as long as the 4th of July, two days after I was told to close. Hundreds and hundreds of cars parked door-to-door along the beach. That’s a state business. It’s okay to exercise in your community, so go out and exercise and stay within your community.
So what are you doing to get through this, personally?
Building surfboards on my own, for fun. I’m hanging out with my kids, trying to get my family to watch all the movies that ever won Best Picture at the Oscars. My son and I watched Wizard of Oz, he’d never seen it.
Oh, I watched all 10 episodes of the Vietnam series. By what’s his name, Ken Burns? Incredible.
How good is it!? Did you watch that with the kids?
The kids couldn’t handle that. Just 20 hours of bludgeoning with government mistake after government mistake, I mean five presidents got sucked into that fucking nightmare.
What blew my mind about that film was the way diplomacy failed like twenty years before that!
Yeah, after World War II? When frickin Ho Chi Minh wrote a letter to Truman asking for America’s help and support and thirty years later we’re fighting him in the jungles.
How long have you felt the effects of this, realistically, already?
Maybe just a couple of weeks. I didn’t pay much attention to it. Everybody’s guilty of being wrapped up in their own world. A couple of weeks ago I said, ‘Wait, this is going to start affecting my business and my livelihood…’
If you could do this over again, anywhere else that you would rather have been stuck for a month or two?
I think everything’s going to get shut down, but I mean the warmth is easier for sure.
I feel like I need to be here to protect my business and my livelihood. But yeah. Who wouldn’t want to be somewhere else, but a lot of other governments are far more radical and strict.
Where’s the first place you’re going to go after they open travel and it’s safe to move around again?
Depends on when that is. My first inclination would be Australia, but I know they don’t want us. I think other countries might not be quite so inviting for a while. Waco? Is Waco open right now? Of course, Texas don’t give a fuck.
So what do you think happens now? What happens in the surf industry?
I personally don’t think this thing’s over until next fall. If they have a vaccine next fall, they can probably put it to bed. But it ain’t over. We might get a reprieve this summer.
As far as my little mom and pop business—I’m big fish in a small pond, but I consider myself a mom and pop business—and I think board builders, we’re going to run a much more conservative business. Less marketing, smaller everything. But I think we’re going to be fine.
For the big, big publicly held apparel brands, they are going to completely restructure the size and scope of their businesses.
You have to look back at the depression and how people were really, really conservative with money.
But it’s also worth thinking about the last big downturns. People my age, because you’re barely old enough, but I was in business in 2001, 9/11 full stride, 30 years old, I’d already made all my classic surf movies, we were already selling and manufacturing boards around the world, it was right after we signed the biggest licensing deal of our lives…
9/11 didn’t really affect our business that much. The surf apparel thing just kept booming through that.
But we were at our financial peak in 2008 for the meltdown, and that tore our business apart, decimated our apparel, decimated the energy drink, and took everything down to square one. I had to go through that.
Now, at 50 years old, we’re in the top pack amongst surfboard manufacturing and distribution around the world, and we’re kind of at the top of our game going through this. People my age, a lot of the heads of the surf industry guys, all those guys that came up in the nineties, we’ve now gone through three of these things. It’s a pretty interesting age bracket. As a businessman, it’s pretty gnarly.
But businessmen went through Vietnam, businessmen went through the Korean war and Vietnam, a few businessmen that went through World War II, Korea, and then 25 years later went through Vietnam. It’s gnarly.
But listen: People are going to surf, people are going to live through this, and the world’s going to be fine. I have faith in science. I have faith in not only a vaccine, but also treatment. There’s going to be a vaccine, there’s going to be treatment.
The world’s going to change. We never used to have to take our shoes off in an airport. Shit, we used to smoke on airplanes. Things are going to change forever. Certain things are going to change forever after this; we’re probably all going to have to have a stamp on our driver’s license that says we’ve been vaccinated and on my passport to do international travel. I don’t know.
I’ll tell you what: all those families on the beach at Lowers this weekend thinking their kids are going to be pro surfers, they might wanna fuckin rethink that plan. There’s not going to be as many pro surfers. That’s going to get a nice rope burn around the waist. We’re already probably close to 50% from 10 years ago, and it’s going to get worse.
There’s still quite a few brands that aren’t really feeling the burn as much, Red Bull, Monster, Vans. Like, it’s discretionary, but they’ve got big budgets to cushion it and basically keep operating for a year and a half before they have to start reconsidering things. They just work that far ahead.
What else is getting you through the isolation?.
We’re playing all our classic videos.
Yeah, we blew up 5’5 19 1/4 all last week, and The Decline this week.
Not on Instagram. Not on stories.
You’re impossibly demanding. I’ll tell Mikey [Ciaramella]. Who would you not want to be quarantined with?
Mikey Ciara-melly (sic)
Thank you, Matt. I’ll talk to you soon, man.
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