IF YOU DON’T KNOW THE FEELING, DON’T F#@KING COME
So last week, you might have heard, the venture capital company who own Quiksilver went out and bought themselves Billabong as well, in the process creating the biggest surf company there ever was. In an industry however where bigger has rarely equated to better, the $380 million question is how these iconically iconic surf brands, old foes since the days of Greeny versus Greasy, are going to work under the one roof.
The merger, the acquisition, whatever you want to call it provided gleeful opportunity for commenters to finally use mash-up names like Quikbong and Bongsilver in a real-world scenario, after years of using them as a satirical jab at corporate surf culture, which, with this deal, has surely now peaked. The only way it could get any more absurd would be if, say for instance, Billabong looked to buy Rip Curl.
Oh, hang on, that actually happened last year.
This year is the tenth anniversary of the Global Financial Crisis that would, in time, prove very, very bad news for both Billabong and Quiksilver. They’ve both had to walk through the fire in the decade since, paid the price for chasing surfers in places surfers don’t live and been smacked around the chops by the money market, so the news to the guys in the trenches in marketing and design and the warehouse that they now had a new owner and a new boss might just feel like another day in the office… if it wasn’t so damn surreal. Billabong and Quiksilver, together. Say it again to yourself and imagine Occy wearing star trunks, or Kelly wearing an Iggy Pop collab tee. If you don’t know the feeling, don’t fucking come.
Both might now share an owner, but that might prove far more workable than having thousands of owners, which was previously case. Shareholders. What circle of hell would you be in, working for a surf company owned by perpetually cantankerous shareholders and professional moneymen who didn’t know Tom Curren from Tom Carroll? Privately, friends at both companies, lifelong surfers the lot, have been mortified to watch the company they genuinely love being torn apart by these sharks, efficiency experts calling shots, friends losing jobs, good ideas walking out the door, all at the whim of the market and the wholly incompatible concept of a publicly owned surf company. Having finally shaken the shareholders, and with surfers back in charge of the respective brands, what they do next will be interesting.
Having never run a billion dollar iconic surf brand myself, I can’t tell you how it’s going to play out on the great savannah of the surf marketplace, but there are a few hints as to how it might work culturally within the two brands. The only insight I can offer here is having once edited Tracks magazine with Waves magazine in the adjoining office. The competition between the titles was pretty hot; we kept the issue plans locked up tight, didn’t trust those blokes for a second, but both mags presented the surfing zeitgeist through a totally different lens and both mags were infinitely better for having the other one nearby. In fact, being in close proximity made each title more conscious of being less like the other. We were 20 feet apart and more distinct as a result. In all modesty – and considering the current editor of Surfing World was one of those competing editors at Waves – I’ll say they were golden eras for both titles.
The two things that united the magazines were a bloodthirsty desire to scoop the other, and a shared loathing of our English overlords. Both mags were owned by an English publishing company, who were unsurprisingly fucking clueless as to the vagaries of surf culture. One Glaswegian exec popped his shoulder riding his kid’s boogieboard, and the incident spooked the rest of them, they never went near the ocean again but mate, did they know surfing. Some neo-colonialist Limey in a bad suit would come down from the floor above and with news of yet another cut to the editorial budget, followed by a couple of big editorial ideas he’d dreamed up himself while reading a Pommy lads mag. We fought for the cultural integrity of the mags, and for the most part we won… but only because this was pre-GFC and the magazines were making good bank. We had leverage.
This will be the battle for the crew at Billabong and Quiksilver. If the numbers stack and the worm tracks up and everything stays in the black, the guys upstairs will leave them alone and they’ll be able to finally get some fresh air and creative pasture in which to roam. It’ll feel good. I did time with a bunch of crew from both companies in Hawaii recently, and with the deal an open secret at this point nobody seemed too stressed about it. On the contrary, they’d never seemed happier. Three-surfs-a-day happy. The easy part of this deal will be doing their own thing and staying distinct from the other. The deal only works that way. The challenge will be to keep the numbers headed north.
While they’ll never return to the golden days of the late eighties and early noughties – no surf company ever will, them days ain’t ever coming back – they can at least now get their mojo and that old swagger back. The irony here is that by becoming the biggest surf company in the world, they’ll be freer to act like the smaller companies they once were, back in another time, back when Occy and Tom Carroll were in very short pants.