Big Wig Nicholas Lartizien

Big Wig: Nicholas Lartizien, Head Of Surf Hardware Europe

From the Mediterranean to Hossegor, Nicholas Lartizien has experienced first-hand the birth and rise of the European surf industry. From the humble beginnings of Rip Curl Europe in 1985 to the growth of Billabong Europe at the dawn of the millennium, he carved his way forward, before moving on to become the head of Surf Hardware Europe in 2005. We spoke to Nicholas to discuss the growth of Surf Hardware, the difference between pre and post Covid markets and just what he’s learnt after an incredible 40 years in the surf industry.

You’ve been working in the industry since 1985, in the early days of Rip Curl Europe and then Billabong GSM (as the very first staff member): Please tell us about your background and what led you to your current position at Surf Hardware International Europe.
To be honest, it’s all been a question of good timing. I was a young windsurfer from the Mediterranean, so was my brother Vincent who was sponsored by Rip Curl. As I came back from a winter in Hawaii (Maui), windsurfing and discovering surfing, Rip Curl were planning to open a wetsuit manufacturing site in Hossegor and, for that, they needed to send two people to Australia for six months at the Rip Curl Headquarters in Torquay to learn how to make wetsuits. That started my career in the EU surf industry.

Then I arrived in Hossegor in the summer of 1986, fell in love with the place and never left. I worked 5 years at Rip Curl Europe: the company was very small; we were maybe 10 people at the beginning. Then Francois Payot, Rip Curl’s CEO, got the crazy idea to import Billabong for the French market under the Rip Curl company. He proposed that I handle the distribution in France. This was in 1991, I was the local rep and managing the agents in France. Derek O’Neill, based in UK, was supervising the Billabong distribution in Europe. In 1992, Derek convinced Billabong Australia to open a branch in Europe and took me. I was the first employee for GSM Europe and stayed there 13 years, as a Southwest Rep then Export Manager.

Then I got approached by FCS (Surf Hardware Europe) as their manager was leaving. I got interviewed by the Australian CEO and he hired me. It was the best move as FCS was a core company and I settled back into the roots and the pure surfing.

When you took the helm at Surf Hardware in 2005, the company was a 5 people staff, with a €1.5 million annual turnover What has been the growth curve since then and what successes are you most proud of?
I applied what I learned at Billabong and things went quite quickly. We grew rapidly, developed our distribution all over Europe, hired new staff, opened a shop and extended our brand portfolio to include FCS, Gorilla, Softech, Hydro and Kanulock. We reached over €10M in turnover with the post-Covid craziness. We now have 17 people working at Surf Hardware Europe.

Should I be proud? That’s not what I’m aiming for. I don’t have an ego. I’m proud personally to have been able to live that journey and enjoy it. I’ve been on the board of Eurosima for a long time and I work for a company that innovates a lot: FCS II, Freedom Leash, etc. We won 3 Eurosima Awards. I love that brand FCS! Big Wig Nicholas Lartizien, portrait

How does today’s surf market compare with the market before Covid?
In one word: headache! I’m not blaming anyone, but before Covid, things were pretty seamless. Reps and distributors were going on the road twice a year, presenting a new range, collecting orders for the following season. Shops and surf schools were backing us up and it was kind of a secure business for everyone. Then came the ‘Covid’ tsunami and everything got washed out.

From a secure and well-known way of trading, there came craziness, high demand from everyone, suppliers struggled to produce enough, late deliveries, overstocking and fear. Today there’s no more certainty, no one is sure, most of the distribution companies have a lot of stock and cashflow sitting in the warehouse. Shops don’t want to commit to prebook anymore, the pressure is on the supplier, and we are all using a crystal ball to purchase for the following season.

Last year we did lose money when compared to 2022 and the €10M high, we are now back at 2018/19 figures.

Which have been the best-selling product categories to date and what trends do you foresee for this summer?
Fins is by far our key category. That’s where we innovate the most, we sponsor the most, we collab the most with our key manufacturers. We are now challenged by sound competitors like Futures Fins. Within FCS, board bags, leashes and pads are the other key categories.

Then we have Softech which is a bit of a benchmark in the softboard business. We are doing very well with surf schools whereas the retail market is slowing down. The softboard trend is over.

Surf Hardware Int. was historically a (hard)core company associated with elite surfers. Did the advent of softboards with Softech leading the global market make you rethink the target positioning?
True, we started very core: CT riders, performance driven focus. It is still the case that it’s on the top of our pyramid. But what happened with Softech actually happened to the whole surf business. From an elite sport and way of living, it became a recognized ‘Sport’; wave pool to the Olympics even… Our ranges today are now broader: core, lifestyle, talking to women, kids, sustainability. We do innovate in all segments with the same idea: lead with a purpose, evolve with consciousness.

Softech has even helped us bring more surfers towards our FCS products, especially adding FCS II on softboards. Covering manufacturing (plugs), retail (all products) and surfs schools (softboards, leashes, wax) is making everything credible for us. The circle is complete. Big Wig Nicholas Lartizien, action

What are you doing regarding eco-design in the surf accessories segment?
Most of the eco conception came from insistent requests at Surf Hardware Europe. Today it is common in our brands, there are a lot of products made from natural materials, recycled and sustainable. Fins and leashes made with natural bio resin; pads made with sugar cane bio foam. We also pay for the Agec law (anti-waste decree) and recyclability of our products. And on top of that we are owned by Gowings Pacific Trader, who set up a whale trust, whilst FCS also donates 1% of total sales worldwide to support Ocean conservation charities, Sea Shepherd being one of them. I’m a huge fan of Paul Watson!

How key is the wholesale channel for Surf Hardware and how do you support your retailers?
While online is growing, and to be honest, this is a trend we can’t do much about, we do believe that our retailers are key and are our best partners. Wholesale (retailers, manufacturers, surf schools) is still 90% of our business, and believe me, we are doing all we can to support them. In France and the UK, we have our own sales force on the ground to maintain our partnerships. From sales policies, corner concepts and products, we try to offer the best to our retailers.

I think they appreciate this, and they know they can count of us in difficult times. Same thing for the rest of Europe, we are trying to hire distributors that offer that quality of service and responsibility.

Which are the biggest lessons you have learned after 40 years in the surf industry?
I wonder if I learned more from the surf industry or from the ocean! In both cases, humility would be the key word. You cannot play with the Ocean: Mother Nature brings you back to where you belong. Same in the work field, you need to remain straight, honest, and not consider any ego. I have been at the start of 3 major brands and have always considered this as an opportunity and a matter of good timing, not a given. Authenticity would be the other word. Staying close to the roots, the culture, the passion.

Finally, respect and protect Nature, Mother Earth offers us such an Ocean playground during our short life span, and we need to make sure we pass it on to our kids in the best way. As Antoine de Saint-Exupery wrote . “We do not inherit the Earth from our parents, we borrow it from our children.”

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