Thursday 25 October 2012

le chateau

I worked on this piece about Nineplus founder Richard Balding a couple of years ago before the plug got pulled on it. It seems a shame to let it languish on my hard drive for much longer so i'm going to publish it here, hopefully Richard still stands by what he said then! It might be a little rough around the edges since it was never properly readied for publication but hopefully it's interesting all the same!

Hasu no Hana.... 
Nineplus founder Richard Balding from the heart 

Richard Balding is something of an anomaly in UK surfing. In a scene that is
both insular yet heavily in thrall with the influence of the US and
Australia, his company Nine Plus is almost unique. While many of the
established UK brands dominate the domestic market yet fail to make an
impact abroad, Richard has steered Nine Plus into a truly global brand with
a higher profile overseas than at home. 

From humble but passionate beginnings, the journey has not been without it's
trials, it's small defeats and victories but through it all, Richard has
stayed true to the ideals he started with. At the heart of it he's just as
surf stoked as the rest of us, trying to turn his passion into a way of
putting food on the table. 

So Richard tell us a little bit of your own surfing history. 

I come from a small town called Wimbourne near Bournemouth.. I was really
into skateboarding but once I saw Surfing,aged 14, I fell in love with it
and just lived at the piers (Boscombe and Bournemouth).
I grew up surfing with people like Simon Firley, Dan Firley, Dale
Stergeous and i was the worst in my group for about a year, the one
most of the older guys took the mick out of!
I went to California at 15 with Minnow Green and met up with Joel Tudor and by 16 I was almost living at the beach catching the bus early in the morning trying to find a wave and riding anything. I used to borrow the rental boards from a shop under the pier called Waterways and
surf for hours until my Mum called me out or it was too dark to see!

What drew you to longboarding? 

Simon Firley, who was a couple of years older than me and
kinda a cool kat around town, had one. Then I saw a picture of Joel hanging
ten in the back of Surfing Magazine. That was the start
really, it looked different and I was drawn to that. I remember down at the
pier in Bournemouth, a guy hit me on his board and I ended up having like 14
stitches across my head. It was the first time Simon let me use his board as
I was so concussed and I was half like, "man I hurt" and the other half,
"man on a longboard – stoked!"

After that my Mum drove me down to Cornwall and we bought a longboard
off Minnow Green. He foolishly mentioned me coming back for a weekend to get
some pointers and I rocked up for 2 weeks, broke his board, the locks to his
van and spent 14 nights hanging out at the pub. Quite an education!

You were a pretty keen competitor back then?

I Started competing at 16 and went to the Worlds for 4 years running.  I did
all the European contests for six years while being supported by Oxbow and

When did Nineplus become part of your life? 
I started Nineplus at 19 and i resigned from my sponsors at 23 to do
Nineplus full time. Im now 33 and its been 14 years since the brand started.

Starting your own company at 19 is a bold move, how did it come about?

Actually I very nearly didn’t do it!
As time went on I noticed that competitive surfing for longboarding was a
love and not a money earner. It still is really! I saw that and i wanted to
enjoy the sport I love for the rest of my life so knew I had to do it
another way. I went to 'Toes on the Nose' to become their European person in
1997 but Richard Allred didn’t take my offer so I went the hard route on my
own, and here we are.
I just was like "I’m gonna do this" and had all these ideas in my head,
marketing ideas and would live, sleep and dream it and bore people with my
plans.  . I had met Fabrice Valerie, who part-owned Oxbow,  he sat with me
at Makaha and we talked it through. I  talked to Nat Young about it and
there were so many people who took an interest that I thought it "this could
work ". I kept going and slowly things started happening, like a ball was
starting to roll. 

makes nineplus unique?

At our core we are a surfing company for surfers, we don’t have attitude, or
a plan other than to make beautiful products for people and do our absolute
best to operate a company that is authentic, I still have that attitude and
would leave if it was lost. We do not operate for money, we operate for
stoke and many times I will sacrifice in order to help someone feel the
love. That said we are obviously a group of companies that makes a profit
but its important to me that we stay as an independent, true to the values
that i started with.

Building a company like NINEPLUS must have involved some growing pains? 
For sure,  I started a company with no idea how to make anything, handle
finance, market a product, manage shipments or any clue about anything
regarding to stocking shops. I think the term, "ignorance is bliss" comes to mind!

When we started, Emma Skinner and i would travel all
over the UK in a car full of gear through rain, sleet and snow. We kept
going, no money, no accommodation, no plan, just cash in the dash and a
trunk load of garments. 
We operated out
of a house in St Agnes  and  each shipment of 20
boards or so coming in from California was boom or bust!
Ben Skinner and his mates would come over when they were
about 10 years old and help pack fleeces and t-shirts. Once the Shipments got bigger I would actually
tie wire around the boards that had to sit in the garden and then bring the wire up through the window and tie it around my ankle so I would know if someone tried to steal them!

We had plenty of growing pains to get where we are now, doing our own global distribution and all the logistics and paperwork that goes with that.
The last 10 years have been a huge degree course using the world as a classroom. I was a high
school dropout so its like a reverse education and having to pay now for all
those days I used to surf as a teenager instead of learning.  I've made
many, many mistakes, some which should have stopped us but we got back up,
dusted off and kept going. That’s the difference between being successful or
not, having that commitment.

Starting the wetsuit line seems to have been a real pivotal point for you? 
Definately! It's what communicated the heart of the brand through a product
that sold an image of a soulful company. We started doing them back in 2002
and they were simply to make an understated black suit like I had picked up
from ‘Mitchs’ in La Jolla a few years before. People liked it though they
were never for sale. Soon we had a demand for a product we didn’t actually
make and then had to figure out a way to make the whole system work.

We started down the whole Sheico road ( the factory in Taiwan and Thailand
that manages every major wetsuit brand in the world) and somewhere along the
way we found Yamamoto and they found us and since that relationship
developed we have never looked back. There have been issues to work through
but we now have a partnership in a small but well managed factory inside
China that we built over the past 4 years and between us  we have a good
plan I think.

From the outside it seems the wetsuits really helped to establish you as a
label with it's own identity. Where is nineplus going now?

We are concentrating on the US market right now, in
both marketing and sales efforts. California has the history, nostalgia,
waves and people that understand the ideas behind the brand. I strongly
believe that it's only in California that you are either validated as a
surfing brand or not. It sets the industry standard and is the epicentre for
our market.
Behind that is Australia which is a market where surfing is a lifestyle
almost on proportion to what football is to the UK. Then you have Japan that
look at California to inspiration and next Europe. 

Europe is strange and in my opinion the hardest, its easy to go the route of a good product and
a surfing image but its hard to have the roots that make going the distance a
reality, longevity comes from originality and that comes from the nucleus of
the market. To get there you have to be relevant and to do that you need to
be at the epicentre which takes us back to California. 

Alongside Nineplus, we've recently launched HASU which is going to be the equivalent of
Nike 6.0 in the wetsuit business. We are coming out with new fashion lines
and shoes under the HASU and Nineplus brand which is really exciting. They
are made with an environmental approach but also using the leading materials
and workmanship in the business. 

It seems ironic that a European brand has to make it in America to have the
relevance to be successful in it's home market! 

You can have success here without that but if you want to lead in a market
you have to be relevant in the US because it’s the epicentre of the industry
like Italy is to Fashion. Other stuff goes on for sure but california is a
focal point. If you can get a footing there it gives you credibility. That
to me is the litmus of a true surfing brand.

Do you feel saddened at the comparative lack of growth at home 
compared to abroad? 

Um without sounding negative, the UK is a beginners and
intermediate market as far as sales go. We have some great surfing but the
average market is quite a way behind that lead. It
operates like an island and is, to be honest, quite far behind what is going
on out there. 

The UK surf market follows, to a majority, what the consumer
buys or feels is comfortable. You can actually get quite far here in the UK
with simply a good product. That’s not possible in a market that actually
follows the lifestyle. Take 'Kangaroo Poo' for example - in the UK they
became a multi-million dollar operation with pretty much no overseas market,

They did that with a good product which hit the target audience, the British
public that wants to buy into an image. You put that in a core market like
the US and it wouldn't stand a chance. 

That's why getting a brand to
work from the UK is so hard, we are not built from the lifestyle but rather
instead try to sell from it using a perceived image. It will work well to a
non-core audience but for a true surfing brand, an authentic brand, it takes
actually getting to
the nucleus. That takes either a lot of money, being owned by an established
company with kudos or just slogging it out the
hard way.

Why do you think the UK is so far behind? 
If you have seen the Truman show then it sums it up. You work in a local
environment, see the local environment every day, take your money from the
local environment, promote yourself in the local environment and generally
exist in the local environment. In return you judge everything by the local
environment. Then someone shows you another land and tells you there are
lots of different lands but to each of them the people behave the same -

It takes being shown what exists and then becoming local to each
environment to do the same in every place.
With surfing it’s the same, the best guy in the UK is noted and in his
environment is important, this is relevant to a brand or competitive surfer
or whatever. Once you start to
realise that the UK is maybe the 10th most important market to branded
surfing goods and you venture out into the wider world, you see why
certain countries run the game.

I personally think this is part of the reason why the UK scene does not
impact outside
of its borders too much whereas other countries do. It takes something
different to export it, be it a person or a brand and that is very seldom
come by. If you are going to be another Kelly, beat Kelly or else carve your

own path -  no matter how much money you make its not success, it can bring
prosperity but true success is about being relevant, and being
relevant means your existence is warranted and if you left there would be a
gap - that’s hard to do,

What's exciting you in surfing at the moment? where do you see things going?

Everything excites me and I think surfing is in a great place. When you
travel you see people are switched on to everything and that’s good. Its
about having an open mind and people like Rob, Kelly, Donavan, and Rasta are
that.  Joel Tudor is owed a lot of respect for starting that trend,
probably 15 years ago and he is still doing it, he will continue to lead to
an extent as he's the real deal and feels what he does, He is truly
authentic, then gets copied for
The media controls so much of our perceived image of what surfing is but I
we will see more people doing their own thing in the future. Companies have
to try to remain
relevant as this approach grows and that will be hard for many
of them unless they truly feel what they do.With the internet, people are
more intelligent
than ever and to get someone to buy into a brand now takes much
more than marketing, it takes walking the walk and that is something that
cannot be bought.

Who are your influences?

Okay, well firstly and as surprising as this may sound its Jesus Christ! I
read the Bible about 5 years ago right through. I was interested in how long
it had survived in a world that disregards everything in due course. I
was staggered how great the influence of Jesus Christ still is on
everything in our age from courts to
governments to the monarchy, its overwhelming and its worldwide. People
disregard it but if you were to equate that influence in a commercial or
industrial sense it would be and is unmatched by anything else, ever -
thousands of years
later, its bigger than when it was started and if you stop and consider that
then you can learn allot. That influences me, I think there's is untold
wisdom behind
that success, When I read it, it was like, okay so I never picked this thing

up before and I know most other people don’t either but i was dumbfounded
at the advice it gave and knowledge it contained.
Adding to that and my biggest influence is passion, I love passion, it is
what changes things  It’s the passion that I see in people that shows
me they live their dream and that inspires me. Business people like Richard
Branson, missionaries like Billy Graham, from Surfers like JT and designers
Paul Smith . They draw their own lines
and carve their owns routes and that is what I value as success.
If you follow the heart, there are no regrets !!

You have travelled a lot, where are your favorite places? 

Um, well when I focused on the brand about 10 years ago I thought my travels

were over and now its like i'm constantly travelling.  I feel fully blessed
to be able to
see both sides of the coin. One week I'm in the depths of
China living at a factory and the next sitting in a café in Laguna beach
with famous people,
after waking with views over Trestles. I often fly through a place in only a
days but I always try to get immersed in the culture so on that level
favourite places
are Hong Kong, Shanghai and throughout India.
Surfing wise its gonna be Malibu on a south swell, Rincon on a North Swell,
Hossegor on a West Swell and Rainbow Bay on an East!.

What else do you enjoy outside surfing? 
I enjoy charity work, poetry, reading, travelling, designing, sales, music,
business, investment, history, culture & learning more about the work of
Jesus and spending time with
Sarah, my girlfriend.

What are you most proud of with NINEPLUS?

Linking everything into a career that actually puts food on my
table, friends in my heart and a spring in my step. 

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