How Rip Curl went from garage brand to global empire

It's 1962 in Torquay, a coastal hamlet of fibro cottages, tea-tree fences, and a population of around 1000 fishermen, farmers and retirees. On the town's popular back beach, a group of young surfers huddles around a driftwood fire to thaw out between determined dashes into the frigid Southern Ocean. The new craze of surfboard riding has drawn a growing stream of youngsters from Melbourne and Geelong, ever since the 1956 International Surf Carnival (timed to coincide with the Melbourne Olympics) showcased Torquay's consistent surf.

Among the group of regulars is a colourful character in a dressing gown, with a Beatles-style mop-top, Coke bottle glasses and a chipped-toothed grin, eating baked beans straight from the tin. Doug "Claw" Warbrick saw himself as a "nomadic beachcomber," already intent on a career that would allow for maximum surf time. Claw's idiosyncratic style caught the eye of another young surfer around that fire. Brian Singer was the son of the Ford motor company's chief accountant at its Geelong headquarters, studying science at Melbourne Uni, on track for a career as a high school teacher.

The unlikely pair bonded over their shared love of riding waves and nascent entrepreneurial instincts, but no one could have predicted that the garage surfboard business they started together would grow into a half a billion-dollar international brand, with 300 stores and 3000 stockists across 20 countries.

"He was eccentric, just a bit different … someone who was clearly not going to be interested in anything else," says Singer of Claw.

"Brian was pretty consistent in turning up when the waves were good. He had that entrepreneurial spirit. We were just like fellow travellers," counters Claw.

Perhaps Claw and Singer were destined to join forces. Both families had migrated south from Queensland to Victoria in the preceding years. Their uncles, they later discovered, worked together as linotype operators at the Brisbane Courier-Mail. And both were already experimenting with their own rudimentary forms of surf commerce in idealistic efforts to fund their chosen lifestyle.

In '67, they took a bold punt to capitalise on the demand for innovative, new, shorter surfboards produced by renowned shaper Bob McTavish in Sydney, and opened the Bells Beach Surf Shop.

Sitting around the shop one with a young artist friend, Simon Buttonshaw, they work shopped names for their own surfboard label. Simon painted a florid design on a board McTavish had shaped for Claw and included the words, 'Hot Dog, Rip Curl.' Hot Dog had been a common piece of American surf jargon for years, but Claw and Singer liked the sound of Rip Curl.

The new boards allowed surfers to ride up into the pitching curl of the wave and carve sharp turns, where once surfers cruised in straight lines, and the phrase neatly captured the zeitgeist. Simon drew up a lotus flower logo around the term, decals were printed and a brand was born.

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But it was difficult to secure a steady supply of the boards from Sydney, and the shop folded after a year. Singer retreated to the security of school teaching, but Claw wasn't to be deterred.

In the Autumn of 1969, Claw was walking down the main street of Torquay when he bumped into his old mate Singer, who had already grown tired of teaching.

"He said, 'Do you want to make surfboards?' and I said, 'Yes,'" Singer explains simply. His qualifications for this bold new business partnership were compelling: "I had a surfboard planer and a garage."

They still had Rip Curl stickers left over from the failed Bells Beach Surf Shop and so, with $500 a piece, they registered the business, set up shaping and glassing stands in Brian's garage. Trade was brisk and they soon moved into an old disused bakery in town, for $10 a week in rent, to upscale production.

The Eureka moment came entirely by accident. Another young entrepreneurial surfer, Alan Green, had recently quit his job as a bookkeeper at a diving equipment business, Australian Diver, after failing to convince his boss to try making wetsuits specifically for surfers.

Thus, Green drove into Torquay with a pile of neoprene rubber and some brown paper patterns looking for partners for his new venture. He called into the old bakery to pitch the enterprise to Claw and Singer and they decided to give it a go. Very quickly, they discovered making wetsuits was less labor-intensive and more profitable than making surfboards.

But three's a crowd, in commerce as in romance, and "Greeny" soon left to start his own business, making sheepskin boots and jackets and sewing boardshorts which he called Quiksilver. Remarkably, both businesses grew into two of the largest surf brands in the world.

By 1973 Rip Curl was profitable enough to tip a few grand into the long-running local surfing competition, the Bells Beach Easter Classic, transforming it into Australia's first pro surf contest.

By 1980, business was so healthy they moved into an enormous, purpose-built office, factory, warehouse and retail complex that was the largest of its kind in the Southern Hemisphere.

International expansion soon followed as the surf industry boomed through the '80s and '90s, and there were innumerable intrigues along the way.

A creeping corporatisation in the new millennium saw the appointment of mainstream "suits" to the Rip Curl board, such as ex-Qantas Chairman James Strong, and Ahmed Fahour, destined for a high-profile tenure as CEO of Australia Post.

"Claw is one of the sharpest marketing minds I've ever met. Brian is a business genius," says Fahour. "The understanding of how the branding industry works and how to make it click, his deep understanding of the business, is phenomenal."

The GFC and underperformance in the US scuttled plans to go public, like larger surf brands Quiksilver and Billabong, which ultimately proved a blessing in disguise.

While their rivals went on roller coaster rides of boom and near-bust, at Rip Curl there was a determined swing back to founding principles. Fifty years on, Rip Curl's proud company boast is, "No one at Rip Curl ever got sacked for going surfing."

Tim Baker's The Rip Curl Story is released through Penguin on April 2. Rip Curl Pro Bells Beach is from April 17 - 27.