Month Of The Shaper: Mark Price

posted by / News / November 14, 2008

Editor’s Note: In conjunction with our annual Surfboards Issue (On newsstands Nov. 18), we will be posting one interview per day with a craftsman who contributed to the issue. Some are the biggest names in the bay; others are underground and want to keep it that way. But all of them share an equal passion for the crafts that move us forward. In these tough economic times, they all have a lot to say on where their craft is going. This time, it’s Firewire Surfboards CEO Mark Price, a huge part behind Firewire’s 2007 Shaper of the Year award.

SURFING: THE PAST YEAR HAS BEEN DIFFICULT WITH THE ECONOMIC ENVIRONMENT WE’RE IN, BUT YOU’RE PUSHING AHEAD WITH YOUR TECHNOLOGY AND IT SEEMS TO BE HOLDING ITS GROUND, IF NOT MOVING FORWARD WITH THE PEOPLE OUT THERE. HOW CHALLENGING HAS THE SURFBOARD INDUSTRY BEEN OVER THE LAST YEAR?

Mark Price: For us it’s been challenging on a number of fronts, in the sense that we had to set up our own supply chains. There was nobody who was willing to build these boards. In fact, we approached a couple of manufacturers to make them for us and they flat out refused due to the complexity. So we had the challenge of setting up our own factories from scratch and training staff just to make these boards, which has been an enormous challenge that has finally come to fruition. And now we have our own factory that builds Firewire boards exclusively. So that’s been a huge hurdle that we’ve overcome in the last six to eight months, and it’s been a two year process. As far as the market’s concerned, fortunately for us, coming from such a low base because we’re a new company, it’s not as if we had all these sales we had to maintain from previous years and a business structure built around that. But because we had a point of difference — we had a new technology and it worked — I think that gave us a leg up and we were able to make inroads in the market despite the economic conditions. Would we be further along if the economy was buoyant? Absolutely. So we’ve certainly been hurt in terms of realizing greater potential. So when I look back at what we’ve accomplished in the last two years, for a new brand in a new product category, I’m very proud of what we’ve done.

WHAT HAVE YOU DONE THIS PAST YEAR TO PROVE THIS NEW TECHNOLOGY TO THE CUSTOMERS?

There’s no doubt that Taj played a huge role in that. Having been on the tour for ten plus years and having his best year ever last year and he’s probably on track to have maybe not quite as good a year this year based on contest wins. But he’s a good bet to finish second again. He’s also surfing unbelievably well in the eyes of people watching, to both the discerning viewer and to the average Joe watching. I think he’s a huge part of validating the technology. We’ve also worked very closely with our retailers to help them in the business environment with the terms of trade that we offer and trying to create margins for our products and support their business. So that’s been a huge benefit to our business. When you look at the success of some of the bigger players in the surfboard market, that’s been one of the keys to their success as well. Surfboards are expensive and drive relatively low margins at retail, so helping retailers cover their floor space is important.

THERE’S A COUPLE OF THINGS COMING OUT IN ’09 LIKE NOT SELLING FINS WITH YOUR BOARDS AND YOUR NEW RAPIDFIRE MODEL. IT’S PRETTY REMARKABLE THAT YOU CAN OFFER A BOARD THAT CAN COMPETE PRICEWISE WITH A HIGH-END PU, CONSIDERING THE TECHNOLOGY THAT GOES INTO THESE BOARDS.

I think that’s an important point. When you stake your claim in the market on technology, and that’s what we’ve done, I mean we’re certainly very proud of the shape of our boards, but the primary focus for Firewire has been our technology. You have to live it every day and you have to push the envelope. You see it in the software business, you’re only as good as your last version of technology that you put out. In order to stay ahead of the competition, and also to challenge ourselves, we’re constantly pushing the envelope. And that’s where the benefit of having our own vertical factory comes into play, because we can attempt anything we can think of. We have the equipment, we have the CAD-CAM platform, we have the stock. So that’s been very exciting from an R and D perspective, to move quickly and cut through all the headaches you would have if you were outsourcing to third party manufacturers and trying to get them to understand what you’re trying to accomplish. I think that’s where RapidFire has evolved from, the future shapes technology, which is the balsa wood board platform and it incorporates many of the advantages of that technology. Now that we’ve built thousands of Future Shapes boards, we’ve been able to look at the construction and raw materials and performance and basically peel those apart and put them back together in a different way that has enabled us to lower costs and maintain the performance levels, or close to it. It’s exciting. And with the pricing, the bulk of the boards sold in the US market are between $500 and ${{{600}}}, maybe $625. So to come in at a retail price point of $590 with that type of technology, I think will be very effective.

COULD YOU EXPLAIN HOW YOU CAME TO THAT POINT FROM THE BALSA WOOD TECHNOLOGY AND ALL THE DIFFERENT LAYERS THAT GO INTO A TRADITIONAL FIREWIRE?

A lot of it came about through the original collaboration with Future Fins on the Direct Drive where we basically replaced the balsa wood component with carbon rods, which were there to create strength, which the balsa does, and also to control the flex and flex memory. It’s the rate of flex that is so critical. It’s not that difficult to build a board that flexes, bodyboards flex. It’s the exact rate of flex and rate of return and the lack of fatigue that’s critical to ensure that the performance is there over time. Basically with what we learnt from Direct Drive, combined with what we already knew from Future Shapes and a design process that was very collaborative with input coming from a wide range of people both within the organization and the crew at Future, RapidFire evolved. It really was an evolution. It’s taken us nine months. We started working on it almost a year ago to get the iteration that we’re now comfortable with bringing to market. In fact there were some very, very recent additions to the technology involving the bamboo that came about in the last 30 days that pushed it over the line.

DO YOU THINK IT WILL EVENTUALLY REPLACE THE CURRENT FIREWIRE MODEL?

It’s difficult to say. As you know, what you think of your surfboard and how it works for you is a very personal experience. I think there’s going to be supporters of all three technologies. RapidFire because of its price point will definitely have some benefits over Future Shapes and Direct Drive. As for the subtleties and performance difference, I think we’ll just put them out there and as the surfers vote with their choices we’ll adjust our model mix accordingly.

WHAT WAS THE THINKING BEHIND THE FIN SITUATION FIREWIRE INTRODUCED?

There are a number of thoughts. We’re not going to get on our environmental pedestal and claim that was the prime motivation. But it was certainly a big motivation. We firmly believe that the market is moving towards more environmentally friendly products. Most likely over the next five, ten or fifteen years sustainable manufacturing will become the norm and it will be something the consumers will demand. It may even become mandated at a governmental level. So we’re constantly looking at ways to improve our business from an environmental perspective. An equally important consideration is the fact that surf shops are the lifeblood of our industry and surfboards are a critical part of their business but not the most profitable. To the extent that we can improve that price to value equation for the retailer, that’s a huge advantage for us when we believe in industry. Thirdly, and not necessarily in order of importance, it just seems illogical to force consumers to buy something that they already own. Unless that product has a point of difference or they now require another one. Snowboards aren’t sold with bindings, skateboards don’t come with trucks and there’s a certain illogic to the whole equation. So we put all those things together and we thought if we can improve the margin to retailers, if we can lower the retail cost of our boards for surfers who already own fins and do something that’s right for the environment, how could we not do it? It was like, as we analyze this issue and check all these boxes, the genie just jumped out of the bottle. Although we were concerned about making this change and what the implications could be, because it is uncharted territory, we couldn’t stuff the genie back into the bottle. So we decided to go for it.

ARE YOU EXCITED ABOUT THE NEW PARTNERSHIP WITH …LOST?

Our goal is not to become a surfboard manufacturer. We’ve been very careful about branding Firewire as a surfboard company in its own right. At the same time, there are a lot of people sitting on the fence as to the new technologies and we felt that having a credible surfboard company like …Lost come out and say “we believe in this technology” would be important for us. So there was an obvious benefit for us in the collaboration. And I think from Matt’s perspective, he’s always looking to push the envelope, he’s always looking to embrace new technology and it worked for him. So I think it had different benefits for each of us but is an equal partnership.

DO YOU THINK THERE’S A LOT OF SURFERS OUT THERE WAITING TO TRY THE TECHNOLOGY?

I think there are certainly a lot of surfers out there who haven’t ridden Firewires. And we do a lot of demo’s and our conversion rates with demo’s are really high. So we believe that once people have experienced the board, there’s a high likelihood they’ll purchase one. But there’s also a very credible PU product on the market and I think that’s a battle we fight constantly. But that’s OK. I think in the long run, given the success we’ve had, if we extrapolate that going forward, I think we’re going to gain more and more converts. And we are in it for the long haul. We have to push hard but we also have to have a measure of patience and just realize that we’re trying to make a pretty sweeping change in the industry and it will take time.

YEAH, TWO OR THREE YEARS AGO THERE WERE A LOT OF NEW COMPANIES CLAIMING THEY WERE THE NEXT BEST THING, BUT THERE’S VERY FEW MAJOR BRANDS STILL STANDING. IS THAT ENCOURAGING THAT YOU’RE STILL MOVING ALONG?

It’s definitely encouraging. I wouldn’t say we’ve stood the test of time versus Channel Islands or …Lost or Rusty. Those companies have been in business fifteen, twenty years and are to be respected. As far as a startup with brand new technology, that’s now going into its third year, and has significant floor space at retail on a global basis and the number two surfer in the world winning events on our technology, that’s a lot to be proud of and it bodes well for the future of the company.

HOW IMPORTANT IS IT TO GET MORE OF THE TOP GUYS RIDING THE EQUIPMENT?

We’ve had mixed views on that. There’s a pod of us that feel that it’s sort of like the {{{Ferrari}}} racing team. If you’re a McLaren driver, you don’t get to drive the Ferrari cars. That’s the advantage the Ferrari driver has. We kind of like the fact that we feel that Taj has the psychological edge because of the equipment he rides. At the same time, putting our practical hat on, we do need to broaden our team. And our efforts now are going into the next generation of surfers who are coming up through the ranks. We’ve actually got some pretty exciting young surfers trying our boards and hopefully we’ll have some news to announce on that front shortly.

MONTH OF THE SHAPER:
DAY 1: William “Stretch” Riedel
DAY 2: Mark Price / Firewire Surfboards
DAY 3: Jeff Clark
DAY 4: Chris Gallagher
DAY 5: Matt Biolos
DAY 6: Geoff Rashe
DAY 7: Mark Wooster
DAY 8: Jeff Bushman
DAY 9: Rusty Preisendorfer
DAY 10: Rich Price
DAY 11: Shane Stoneman
DAY 12: Ricky Carroll
DAY 13: Xanadu
DAY 14: Chris Christenson
DAY 15: John Carper
DAY 16: Michael Walter
DAY 17: David Barr
DAY 18: Ben Aipa
DAY 19: Jeff “Doc” Lausch
DAY 20: Jesse Fernandez
DAY 21: Cole Simler

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