THE BIG CHAIR
By Jock Serong
Waterman’s Bay grom, competitor, heavy water charger, global wanderer and logistic savant, Brooke Farris has seen just about everything that surfing can throw at one person. Somehow, through it all, she’s managed to evade the limelight while she built careers for others, especially female surfers. But now she’s in the Big Chair at Rip Curl – its first female CEO – the focus of the surfing public is turning her way. She spoke exclusively to SW about growing up, crashing through and running a beloved brand in the strangest times of all.
Early last year, Brooke Farris lay on her back in the bush in northern Tasmania. She was in agony: she’d come off a mountain bike in the hills of Derby and compound-fractured her fibula. Her ankle was dislocated, her leg mangled, and although she had friends with her the rescue chopper was over four hours away.
When the ambos arrived, they rearranged the leg as best they could, medicated her and choppered her out of Burnie. But when the bird landed in Launceston, interstate relations soured. Brooke asked to have the necessary surgery in Melbourne, “so they pretty much kicked me out on the street. I had to book myself into a hotel in Melbourne with a backslab on the leg.”
The point of the story is what those four hours reveal about Brooke Farris. “I’m so all about my independence and being in control,” she told SW, “and this threw me into a spin.” Under the tender mercies of ketamine and the green whistle, patients usually drift off to their happy place. Brooke was calling out the names of her friends’ kids, because she was busy with visions of them riding their bikes around a Pacman screen: “a surreal experience, to say the least.”
Even in extreme pain and wrapped in the arms of Morpheus, Brooke Farris was organising things. Despite being a denizen of Torquay these days, Brooke is a Westerner to her bones. She was born in Perth, and her family moved to the beach at Waterman’s Bay in 1987, a result of her parents splitting up and reuniting. It’s a theme she returns to several times when we chat.
“I was seven when we moved,” she says. “The Waterman’s Bay move and my parents’ marriage obviously had a sad side to it but I was protected a lot by my brothers. My parents lived together for about a year there, then they broke up again and finally divorced when I was eight.”
The Farrises had always been a beachgoing family, and the move made the connection even stronger. “It was the big reason I got into surfing. I’ve got two older brothers, David and Tony, who were both surfers. Dad rode a wave-ski and Mum was a mad bodysurfer. She grew up in Scarborough: I’ve seen photos of her at the beach with her friends and they were right into it. Length of ride was Mum’s specialty – we still compete over it.” The Farrises are a very competitive family. “We’ve always wanted to be good at what we’re doing.”
It’s that classic genesis story for surfers: “there were always boards around the house, and I’d pick them up.” Brooke first stood up at Triggs, or Gravers, or perhaps Waterman’s Bay. The family’s move necessitated a change of primary schools, and young Brooke was surrounded by groms at the new school. “I connected with the boys as much as the girls, and some of the boys were surfers.” On reflection, she agrees that her ability to connect with the boys was a factor in her thriving in very male workplaces later on.
A high school surfing program led to a contest, and Brooke, in Year 8, won it on a 5’8” twinny that had long since gone yellow. “And as a competitive person I thought, ‘okay, that’s cool,’ and I gave up netball to become a competitive surfer.” There’s a photo somewhere of that fateful day at Trigg Point: Brooke Farris and Jess Richardson, the Year 11 girl who, she concedes “was a much better surfer than me and probably should have won the comp.”
For any relocated West Aussie, there is always the story of how you “came east.” Brooke’s is more involved than most. She’d just had her 21st birthday and was at uni doing an Arts degree with a journalism major. She thought she’d be a journalist, maybe a newsreader, travelling to surf comps overseas as she went.
On the first such trip, in 1999, Brooke stayed in Surfside, California. Her host, pro surfer Jodie Nelson, was a friend of Brooke’s friend Holly Monkman. “It was a bit chaotic at first, and I sort of found myself staying there. It turns out Layne Beachley was staying there too. At that stage she was women’s world champion, and here’s little me from West Oz, hanging out with her.” Sean Collins, the Surfline founder, lived nearby and came knocking with an idea for a Mexico trip. “I was sitting there quietly,” Brooke recalls, “because I did tend to go a bit quiet in such environments, and Layne and Jodie were like ‘Yeah!’ and then… ‘what do we do with her? Hey, wanna come?’”
Launching off the $1800 she had in the bank, Brooke found herself at a secret point wave in Mexico, living with Layne and Jodie in a palapa. Afterwards, she and Layne stayed in touch, and again, in Brooke’s telling, she somehow wound up staying with Layne and Ken Bradshaw in Hawaii, right in front of Kammies. (“Ken’s not really one for houseguests,” she drops, and does not elaborate.)
Layne’s profile was growing and she was struggling to manage the workload of being Layne. To earn her keep, Brooke helped her write articles for Australian media, and took care of her sponsor commitments, interview requests – whatever came in the door. “I had such a good time. I think Layne liked having someone to surf with and being from the west I was pretty comfortable in Hawaiian waves.”
Layne wanted Brooke to stay longer, but she still had a summer job with Star Surf in Perth and she didn’t want to abandon them. So she went home, worked the summer then returned to Hawaii, training with Layne ahead of her CT season and Brooke’s own QS events. “I treated them as though they were my gap years,” says Brooke of her own time on tour. “I never thought I had the talent to be world champ, and it’s perhaps reflective of my behaviour generally that if I can’t be the best at something then it’s not the path for me.” She did however win the Australian title in 2000.
In late 2000, as she travelled the east coast of Australia, Brooke got the email that would set the course of her career. It was from Layne. She needed an assistant and in classic Layne fashion, it was more directive than invitation. “You’re the woman for the job!”
So Brooke had come east in the most indirect way imaginable, and embarked upon five-and-a-half years in Layne’s world. “I love WA,” Brooke says, “and I never had any plan to leave it, but the Layne job grew and grew with her notoriety. She had goals and ambitions outside surfing: the Beachley Classic, the Foundation, the documentary. There were various managers to work with, and then This Is Your Life did a show on her in 2002 and I had to coordinate the whole thing without her knowing.”
The dream gig ended with an approach from the ASP to run the women’s world tour. How did Layne take it? Brooke smiles. She’d recently been reminiscing with Layne about exactly that. “She said to me, ‘I remember us sitting in the entranceway and you said you were leaving. I didn’t want you to go, but I knew there were bigger things in store for you.’ Layne’s still one of my best friends. We talk often. We provide each other with an ear and a shoulder. It’s something that I’m really proud of, that I have great friendships with all the people I’ve worked with, to balance the personal and the professional.”
Memory curls back to Perth for Brooke – often – despite the fact that she’s spent very little of her life there. She thinks hard about this. “I do come back to the idea of Perth as home all the time,” she concedes. Is it something to do with the perfection of being little? “I can easily see myself on the balcony of that house at Waterman’s Bay, the sun shining and the ocean blue. Even though there was turmoil in the family, there was a sense of being grounded. Mum still lives two streets down. It was a moment in time, that’s why it’s home. Thirty years ago it was a rundown beach shack – now the prices around there… whew! But even after all this travel, I can still take myself back there in the blink of an eye.”
Tyler Wright met Brooke when Tyler was fourteen, in 2008. It was the year that Tyler won Layne’s event at Manly. Her recollection was that in the aftermath, Brooke asked her, “What’s your ABN?” Brooke travelled with Tyler on tour for the next three years, and the two of them formed a strong bond. “I’ve got the utmost respect for her and her attention to detail,” Tyler says. “Everything is done, and done right, on time. And she’s quick on her feet: she learns and grows in all these different jobs. I don’t let many people in, but Brooke was there for both my world titles and she has always played a part when I’ve had title runs.”
The ASP job exposed Brooke to all corners of the industry, and her reputation as a cool head in a crisis was widely known. In 2010, Rip Curl came knocking. “Neil Ridgway is why,” she laughs. “He called me – there were people moving around within Rip Curl and an opportunity had opened up to run the Search events. I remember him sitting in my office at ASP headquarters in Coolangatta with his feet on my desk. He was very brash about it. ‘Are you coming or what?’ I think I said, ‘Can we please not discuss this in this building?’”
Again, the decision to leave was a hard one. “I’d only been three years at the ASP and I loved it. The job, the people, the female surfers. I wanted to help them to be the best people they could be. But you don’t get an opportunity to be in the business end of the industry very often. It was an opportunity to test my wares. And I had fond memories of Bells, of staying at the caravan park next door to head office.” So, as she puts it, “I dropped my bags off at Rip Curl.”
Her first job was a two-week trip to the Mentawais with Tyler, Steph, Alana and Bethany. It might have been the calm before the storm, in hindsight. What followed was Puerto Rico and California for three months, running the Search event… the Search event during which Andy Irons died.
“I remember hearing he was not well, and we sent the doctor to his home. He said ‘No, I’m leaving.’ The doctor had organised blood tests for him on the way to the airport, but he didn’t take them. I wrote a note to Sean Doherty in the commentary box that said something like, ‘Andy’s not going to surf his heat.’ And that was it, next thing we got the news.”
It was one of those times, she insists, that you realise the strength of the surfing community. “On site in Puerto Rico, I firmly believe we did everything we possibly could to support the family and the athletes.
I reflect now and then, the weight of what we had to navigate. Starting with Andy himself, the athletes, the staff. We paid everyone the respect they deserved, end to end. The postponement of the comp, grief days, a paddle-out, privacy for the surfers to be among themselves.” There was no time, she can now see, to think about herself. “It was so much bigger than me. By the time you get to any event you’re running on adrenaline. And this… you have to manage anything that comes your way, and to expect the unexpected. I was exhausted, I do remember that.”
She ploughed on, straight to Barbados to scope it for a potential event. She says she was able to do it because “I’m not self-questioning. If anything, it resolved me to keep going. You can’t control everything – but what can I control here?”
Running the Search events was in many ways was the toughest job in the company. “Incredibly stressful,” is how Rip Curl co-founder Claw Warbrick described it. “You get it from all sides. There are so many inside stories. The challenges are unbelievable – corrupt officials, criminals after money, serious intimidation.” Former CEO Michael Daly says it was “certainly a baptism of fire for Brooke, particularly keeping the events within budgets while dealing with extremely complicated logistics. There were some uncomfortable meetings back in those days, as I was the keeper of the company’s finances.”
As well as the private battles, the Search events have skirted public controversy on a few occasions. They are not without their critics, bringing a large, global event to quiet surfing backwaters. Brooke insists that Rip Curl have always been “conscious and careful” of the ethics around the events. “Claw and Brian were careful to protect locations and we always consider it a privilege to be there.” Her experience working in those remote, developing areas also led her to a seat on the Surf Aid board today.
So how does a company that built its modern image on the pleasures of travel deal with a world in stasis, with dead airports and forgotten dreams of the tropics? “It can be tough because sometimes the outside world looks more open than ours does but most of us are happy just to be able to surf. I do accept that it’s been incredibly tough for those who can’t get out, like Melbourne people.”
Brooke is perhaps the perfect embodiment of the conundrum: a lifelong surf traveller reduced to pacing the house. “This is the most time I’ve spent at home since I was a teenager. It’s been good for me. It’s allowed me to feel that Jan Juc and Torquay are my base. I’m better connected to my community. I got myself a dog, a cavoodle called Western. The name represents my family in dog form,” Brooke continues. “There you go – they’ll be happy with that.”
Claw Warbrick wasn’t a part of the original decision to bring Brooke to the company, but he recalls both Michael Daly and Neil Ridgway recognising her talent and looking for ways to deploy it. Brooke believes Daly saw her leadership potential before she saw it in herself. “He looked for opportunities for me in the business to prove myself, like the opportunity in digital in 2016. I distinctly remember him telling me, ‘It’ll be sink or swim.’” Brooke excelled in the role that had no template and no team. A few around her didn’t quite grasp it. “No-one knew what it was,” recalls Tyler Wright. “I called her the Queen of the Internet.” Brooke’s stocks within the company continued to rise.
When Kathmandu, the publicly-listed Kiwi giant, acquired Rip Curl in a $350M deal late in 2019, Rip Curl CEO Michael Daly was drawn deeper into Kathmandu as Group CEO, opening up the vacancy in the top job at Rip Curl. Brooke’s recruitment was done slowly and thoroughly: they turn over Popes more often than Rip Curl CEOs. “It took six weeks to finish and it was four weeks beyond that before I was told. I’d known for two weeks before the public announcement.” Brooke’s appointment broke ground; maybe less as a female CEO of a big surf brand, and more for the style in which she’s done it. She’s never crawled over anyone to get there, instead bringing along people with her.
Brooke’s appointment has been met with universal praise within surfing. “She’s especially highly regarded by the surfers,” says writer Tim Baker. “She’s a great combination of hardcore surfer and smart business operator. A CEO who can charge heavy Cloudbreak… not bad.” She’s even more highly regarded within Rip Curl itself. “It’s a really progressive decision, and she’ll do very well,” says Claw Warbrick. “She’s diligent, a hard worker with a deep knowledge of surfing – she knows it from the beach up. She doesn’t miss detail and she’s a great communicator.” In possibly the most Brooke Farris line ever spoken, the new CEO says, “People have been so great about it, but I just want to get in and do the job.”
Did Rip Curl’s change of ownership open up a window of opportunity for Brooke to become CEO? “It’s a good question,” she responds. “Part of me thinks this would have happened anyway. Brian and Claw were always balancing the evolution of the brand. I was very fortunate to see how they tried to navigate that. We’re talking about two men who owned and ran a very successful company for fifty years. To discount their thinking as old-school would be completely incorrect because of the longevity in the brand. There’s so much to learn from it.” Indeed, former female RC executive Shayne Patterson confirms that “Brian and Claw never held me back. There were not that many women in the surf business in the ‘80s, but gender was never a consideration for Brian and Claw. They were interested in quality people. It was the give-a-shit factor that mattered.”
Tyler looks at the sport as a whole. “Surfing’s a sausage fest,” she declares, “and that’s putting it nicely. When you get in those rooms you’re more than likely the only woman in there, and I have so much respect for women like Brooke and Jess Miley-Dyer, who are brilliant in those positions. It gives me hope for women like me: that’s what surfing holds.”
The question of what room is left over for surfing in Brooke’s life is complicated by two monolithic obstacles: the long, slow recovery from the broken leg, and of course, Covid. “The past 18 months of surfing have been hot and cold for me because of the ankle rehab. I had my first longboard surf at the five-month mark, and then it was a slow progression: to a soft-top, then to a Channel Islands single, and since then a focus on fun boards.”
Out of the accident, out of those dire hours in the bush, Brooke says she learned the need to take care of herself so that others would be okay. “I’m so thankful for it now because it taught me to let people in to help me. I believe there was a reason for it, to stop me in my tracks and adjust. My behaviour – pressing ahead, disregarding myself – has been rewarded over time and I needed something like this, and like the experience of living through the pandemic.”
It’s been a superhuman effort for Brooke to talk about herself for an hour-and-a-half. It’s not her way, and she makes sure she finishes by talking about everyone else. “I’m just really appreciative to everyone. I know that sounds lofty, but all these amazing people connected by a love for surfing and the outdoors… I’m so thankful for that.”