Big Wig Interview: Finisterre Founder Tom Kay

Finisterre Founder Tom Kay has nurtured the brand from a small outfit creating innovative fleeces above a surf shop in St Agnes, to a widely respected surf brand with four retail locations across England, employing 50 people. The company, based in the Cornish village of St Agnes, is now going toe to toe with the industry’s biggest surf brands and for this issue’s Big Wig interview, Tom explains how they’re managing to do so while remaining at the beck and call of the ocean. Read on for more on Tom’s background, lessons learnt, their #WetsuitsFromWetsuits initiative and exclusive news on a collaboration with Vans. By Harry Mitchell Thompson.

Tom Kay

Tom Kay

Tom, please could you explain your background and what led you to starting Finisterre.
I started the brand in 2003, born out a love of the sea, cold water surfing and where I felt there was a need for better product backed by a strong sustainability ethos. A love of the sea is something that my parents gave me from when I was young, and it’s played a big role my life ever since. After studying biology at University and a brief stint as a chartered surveyor in London, the brand began in a flat above a surf shop in St. Agnes with an innovative fleece, designed to keep out chill winds and warm up cold bodies. Finisterre is an old shipping forecast area and means end of the earth, so there is a certain romance to the brand, but in terms of what we do, we take a pioneering approach to making better and more sustainable product, innovating and seeking alternatives to what has gone before.

It’s been 15 years since these early days, and it’s exciting to see the places the brand and product goes. From our workshop here on the cliffs in St. Agnes, I’m really proud that we’ve stuck to our guns, designing functional and sustainable product with a strong sense of style.

How has Finisterre changed since the early years?
On the one hand, it has changed a lot; we push and innovate products and fabrics, evolve styles and develop as a group of individuals brought together by a real sense of purpose. On the other hand, in terms of why we started, it hasn’t changed and remains true to its founding pillars; committed to product, environment and people.

Is there anything in particular you would have done differently?
Yes, many things! The majority of them are around my learnings of how to run a business, develop products and teams, things like that. It’s been a pretty tough journey and tested us more than I ever imagined, but I think if you start something that is trying to be different, that’s to be expected.

What are the pros and cons of being based in St Agnes?
Positives are that you can walk out the door and jump in the sea anytime you feel like it and it’s a great inspiration and testing ground for the type of product we make. If you come into the workshop at Wheal Kitty, St Agnes, 200m from the sea, I think it feels like the place you’d expect it to. This is reflected in the culture too. Negatives are that with a degree of remoteness, I don’t want us to forget we’re up against some of the best brands in the world, so we have to be on our game.

How is business?
It’s an exciting time for us now, as people discover the brand and understand all that goes into our product. The direction of travel is very positive, although there are always curve balls that you cannot foresee – like June 23rd [Brexit date] last year, which was a major headache for our buying team!

You were early adopters of the ‘cold water surf’ terminology – how have you seen the market and people’s perception of the market change?
People have been ‘cold water surfing’ for years, and so as an activity it’s nothing new and we never claimed to have invented it, but if I think back to why the brand started, the product that I began to make and who it was for, it was for cold water surfers. Initially some people may have been a bit unsure, but you now see the term ‘cold water surf’ used a lot and I think in many ways it has opened a lot of opportunities for brands and retailers alike. It’s also really exciting to see people pushing boundaries and discovering waves in new (cold!) places.

What research have you conducted over recent years to better understand your consumer and how have you acted on it? Is it an ongoing process?
This is definitely an ongoing process, but we utilise an array of analytical tools and audience insights. Even when you know who your customer is, their habits, behaviours and preferences evolve. You need to keep on top of these. We’re fortunate enough to have quite close contact with a lot of our customers, and take their feedback and suggestions on board. This only helps us gets us better at what we do, and in turn, better serve them. It’s always good to meet them and hear what they have to say. On top of this, we carry out occasional surveys, which help us understand what’s important to them and what we could do to improve.

Noah Lane testing out new eco suit in Shetland

Noah Lane testing out new eco suit in Shetland

Your store count is at four now – they must also be great for the learning process. What have they taught you about your products, your consumer and the business in general?
Yes totally, if I look back at what we’ve learnt in that time, it’s astounding. Our first store was here in St. Agnes when the guys next door moved out and we literally knocked a hole through the wall and created a small shop. We really try to bring the brand and product to life in a physical space, which we first did (and still do) here in St. Agnes. From this we opened a store in London – a major step up in every way! We really went for it, three weeks before Christmas and a fellow lifeboat crewman did the fit out with his team from St. Agnes. It was a real baptism of fire, but somehow we pulled it off and opened when we were supposed to. The feedback on the London store has been great. We’ve been there for nearly three years now and our learnings have been around bringing the product stories to life, building tight retail teams and also meeting customers face to face, which is so important. As well as St. Agnes and London, we now have stores in Falmouth and Bristol too.

Could you talk us through your distribution network across Europe. Anything new to report?
We don’t have any distributors or agents right now, but we’re always on the lookout for key retailers and partners who share our ethos, across Europe. It’s important that they understand the brand and product.

Do you have an Amazon strategy?
Yes. Not interested.

You’ve got some exciting new collabs in the pipeline, please could you elaborate?
The RNLI + Finisterre collab that has just launched is one I’m really proud of. I’ve been part of the volunteer RNLI lifeboat crew here in St. Agnes for 15 years now and so to collaborate with the RNLI on a limited range was a big moment. The collaboration takes Finisterre’s fabric and design ethos and overlays it onto the unbelievable story of the RNLI. It’s a great fit and brings our shared love of the sea together in an exciting range.

We also have a very different collaboration coming up with Vans. It’s a great partnership with a brand with such a strong heritage in surfing, and one that’s supported surfers and the surf community since day one. We’ve had the opportunity to work on an entirely new silhouette with them, and a collection that’s truly born from the needs of adventurous surfers; out there, on the road and enduring the elements. In this sense we brought our knowledge of fabrics and functionality to the table and we’re looking forward to seeing the reaction to the shoes.

#WetsuitsFromWetsuits – please explain the rationale and why it’s important to Finisterre.
We’re now recruiting for a full time wetsuit recycler. This is a genuinely pioneering position and embodies our outlook of using innovation to achieve a more sustainable way of working. The rationale is that while there are some great alternatives to petroleum based suits (we are trialling an eco suit now), the main problem is what happens to a wetsuit at the end of its functional life – this is not really built into wetsuit design, and everyone has a pile of old suits in their shed or garage. UK surfers alone (around 500,000 of them) are buying a wetsuit at least every other year. This means there is an additional 350 tonnes of old neoprene laying around every year, probably on its way to a landfill. Whilst there have been some interesting down cycling projects (yoga mats, mouse mats) we want to see if we can make wetsuits from wetsuits, and introduce closed loop manufacturing to the watersports industry. The exciting thing is that we really don’t know where the initiative will lead, but the role is mentored by a professor from the materials re-engineering department of Exeter University and is supported by Innovate UK, so we’re going to a really scientific level of research and hope to find solution. Watch this space!

Could you also talk to us about your wetsuit program. How it’s faring, lessons learned from the early production stages and a little more about the introduction of women’s wetsuits.
We launched our wetsuit programme over three years ago with a pioneering field tester programme, where we engaged 300 regular surfers who tested a suit for a winter. At the end of the winter they gave us their feedback, which ultimately meant we built a better production suit the year after. A wetsuit is a very difficult product to make and so we felt it important to have a direct dialogue with the community. The brief with our first suit was to maximise time in the water and durability. Three years on, I feel we achieved this, but as with all products we continue to evolve and refine every year. We’re currently testing an eco suit – again this is something we are very keen to do, but don’t want to rush a product to market without full testing and making sure it does what it should. For AW17, we’ve also launched the women’s tester programme, looking to speak to the female surf community and build them a better wetsuit for AW18 and beyond. We’re all excited for this.

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