You may have seen the recent Microsoft commercial where the CEO of Quicksilver surfware, Robert McKnight, compares an economic tsunami to a real tsunami in the eyes of a surfer.
"A tsunami in surfing is a thrilling prospect whereas in business it is a terrifying one," he said. "Yet, in both circumstances we rely on the best technology available."
Although this short interview is used to sell Microsoft products, it's a good glimpse into the business of surfing and the mindset of the people who make these companies successful: Fearless, out-of-the-box thinkers with drive to promote and advance their true passion, catching waves in the ocean.
Quicksilver started by selling board shorts [shorts to wear while surfboarding] out of a van at Newport Beach in 1976 and is now a publicly traded company employing over 7,800 people. During this time, surfing has transformed from an activity performed on a select number of warm water beaches into a worldwide phenomenon. You can now find surfing destinations along the Pacific from Alaska to southern Chile.
So, how does a company with annual revenues of $2.36 billion relate to the local surf industry? They actually have more in common than one might think. Just ask David Koller, general manager of Cleanline Surf Co. in Seaside.
"Surfing 30 or 40 years ago was slowly growing, mostly in Hawaii and Southern California," said Koller, an employee at Cleanline for eight years. "Then wet suit technology advanced. Surfing is now practical on most beaches worldwide, which has tremendously helped the popularity of the sport."
Wetsuits were key because as they became warmer, lighter, more comfortable and just plain safer, they became more of an advantage than an obstacle to surfing. Surfing moved from a region-specific activity to the new hot sport that could be done in the cold.
"When Josh (the owner) started Cleanline in 1980 he was serving the few local surfers who needed wetsuits and leashes for their boards, items that weren't necessary in warm water surfing," he said. "As coldwater surfing became more accessible, Cleanline became one of the more prominent wetsuit dealers in the country because they had been selling them for years."
More than just selling wetsuits, Cleanline was truly helping with the advancement of the technology. The business served as a satellite store for the research and development of coldwater and women-specific wetsuits for Hotline Wetsuits of Santa Cruz, Calif. They have also worked with other major wetsuit providers like O'Neill and Billabong.
Since Cleanline's beginning as a coldwater surfing gear company, it has evolved into a major retailer of other board sport supplies, including items for kiteboarding and skateboarding. They are also a local institution, with stores in both Seaside and Cannon Beach.
Besides selling surfing supplies, they offer equipment rentals and surfing apparel, which has become a major fashion trend all over the world with its bright colors and unique patterns.
Although most would view local surfing- based companies as tourism specific, the industry is unique in that it is serving three important audiences: local surfers, out-of-town surfers who visit the area regularly and tourists who decide to surf when visiting the area on vacation.
"We enjoy both sides of this because we couldn't do one without the other. We get to expose people to the sport in the summer and supply those already in the sport during the winter."
Then there are the weekend warrior surfers from Portland and Seattle who surf regularly but don't live here.
"I think the surfer tourists are some of the most beneficial tourists who come to our area because they wouldn't come if it wasn't for the surfing," he said. "These people come every weekend for the sole purpose of surfing. They fill up their tanks, buy lunch and buy supplies all in our area."
Cleanline saw this trend early and has tried to become the home surf shop of these people by offering specific products and expert knowledge of the area. Other entrepreneurs have also seen this trend. In response a mini economic cluster of all things surfing has developed on the coast in recent years. Other local surfing businesses include Seaside Surf Shop, Cannon Beach Surf Shop, Skookum Surf Co. in Long Beach, Oregon Surf Adventures in Cannon Beach and Cold Water Surf in Astoria.
Surfing lessons have become a major industry as well.
One person on the local forefront of surf lessons is Lexie Hallahan, owner of NW Women's Surf Camps and former Cleanline employee.
Hallahan started her business six years ago after offering a women's surf weekend through Cleanline. She now offers surfing camps and retreats for women, men and couples between Fort Stevens and Pacific City. They also offer a yearly retreat to Kaui, Hawaii.
"During the second day of my first event I had an epiphany," she said. "I saw these women transforming into surfers before my eyes. I knew that day that this is what I wanted to do."
Hallahan was a major contributor to the early development of women's wetsuits through her time at Cleanline. She noted that the women's surfing revolution started with the introduction of Roxy (the female version of Quicksilver) and exploded after the movie Blue Crush was released.
"The growth of women's surfing was really slow until those two events," she said. "Women's sales basically went from 15 percent of the industry to 30 percent in the few years after."
"It was great that we had the interest of females and the gear for them, but women didn't have any way of learning how to go out and surf in the Pacific."
The business has grown organically over the years from five events the first year to now having weekly events from April to the third weekend in September.
When asked about the impact surfing has on the local economy, Hallahan suggests counting the number of cars with surfboards on top of them while driving over Highway 26.
"In the mid 80s our vehicle would be the only one with a surfboard on it," she said. "My husband and I have recently counted over 200 just heading west on a nice Saturday trip over Highway 26."
She also suggested looking at local businesses like the Stand, Goose Hollow at the Cove, Ter Har's and Phannie Phatts. They are all located next to local surfing spots and the bases of their customers are primarily surfers.
This is a sentiment also shared by Mikaela Norvall, the tourism director for Seaside, which has been branded a surfing destination. This is made apparent by the overwhelming number of surfboard- shaped key chains with Seaside printed on them that can be found in downtown shops, or the vast supply of board shorts and other surfware with Seaside stamped on them.
"I think that the Oregon coast and outdoor tourism activities, like surfing, go hand-in-hand with each other," said Norvall. "This area is so majestic and the beaches are so pristine that it would be hard to not like the area as a surfer."
But how does a seasonal business like surf lessons operate all year?
"We have to rely on a lot of partnering," said Hallahan. "This includes using Seaside Bus Tours for transportation, Cleanline for wetsuits and gear, the Seaside International Hostel for lodging and the EVOO cooking school for meals. All of these partners have helped me run a successful seasonal business."
This allows her to keep her costs low while still providing customers with all the amenities they need. At the same time, these other businesses are exposed to new customers who might not use their services otherwise.
While surfing might only make up a small, niche portion of outdoor tourists, a trickle-down effect has helped spur and grow other industries, such as retail, food service and kitsch tourism gifts. At the same time, these businesses have made the North Coast a surfing destination with an economic cluster providing highly specialized equipment and gear specific to the region.
"Surfing is about being in a natural setting and taming the chaos of the ocean," said Hallahan. "And there is truly no other place that depicts this like the North coast."