Mike ties in while we debate if there's time for one more route before the storm front in the distance engulfs us. We made it off the slab with a few minutes to spare, thus avoiding a climbing epic tale by the skin of our teeth and trudging happily home with a soaking and wry smiles!.....
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.
What 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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
Neil Halstead has a new album out on November 5th called "Palindrome Hunches". Haunting, beautiful, melancholic and cementing his reputation as one of our finest singer songwriters. Really worth seeing him live if you can, he is superb!
On a seperate note, how annoying to have to wait for four failed courier attempts to find my house/ deliver something only to find it's smashed into 300 pieces when i finally get to open the box! grrrrrrr!
I'd completely forgotton sending Dan anything for the latest installment of Kook's palindromic surf smorgasbord so i was really excited to spot my little ode to summer evening stoke nestling in the corner of the first page.
Yet another reason to buy it and support independant, non corporate surf multi-national mouthpiece, grass roots, authentic surf culture
If only i could have got closer but there was a river in the way!
Well, we've had waves!!! Really quite good ones too. Yeah there may be greyness, drizzle and wind but at least it was wind in the right direction! SO nice to get into some small clean zippers even if it does feel like the water temperature has begun to drop a little! Finally feels like the surf stoke is creeping back.
Thumbs up for logs and long lunchbreaks!
Had some memorable waves on the Randall the last few days. The narrow nose and hips back locking in nicely on the pockets steepened by the strong offshores. Had a few fun ones on the borrowed Bing mini sim too, once again reinforcing how good these shapes are in our average waves!
Now the wind is coming back westerley you might want to check out Kook 3 while you look out at the rain with your steaming cup of joe.
If you missed the first two, it's a surf newspaper very much from the fringes steered by the very english hands of Dan Crockett and Alex Rowse. It's eclectic, intriguing and thoughtfully put together. Well worth supporting! Click here
BGA strikes his best catalogue pose while I lie panting on the grass after he lent me his spare bike then me cycle up a steep hill back in may. Jesting aside I owe Al big thank you's for lending me his old cannondale so i could find a new way of scaring myself/ having fun on those many crap surf days we seem to have suffered this summer! It's just about kept me sane and in some semblance of fitness.
It's wet and wild out there again today and it seems like we've gone straight to winter again. Almost seems like we've just had one season of grey wetness all year. I feel like i've hardly surfed over the last month or so and my stoke is at a low ebb from a surfing point of view. Thank goodness for alternative entertainment! There is some hope on the horizon, if the wind forecast holds and the logs might just get dusted off at the weekend.
In other news, the new iphone 5 is pretty cool and more importantly doesn't randomly crash at annoying moments like my old 3. Hopefully i can waste some time on it later watching the quik pro from france. Wow thats a heavy beachbreak. When a surfer of jeremy flores calibre is visibly shaken after a wipeout/hold down you know there's a lot of water moving around!