Q

Passing the Torch: Progression Tales from Surf Shop Founders

Small business founders and owners need to determine who should take over when they’re ready to retire or exit the business.
Photo credit: olezzo - stock.adobe.com

As hard as it may be, every business owner has to think about the future. Specifically, what the future of their business looks like without them in it.

Small business founders and owners need to determine who should take over when they’re ready to retire or exit the business. In some cases, there’s a co-founder or business partner that is the perfect fit. But for many business owners, the next-in-command is a family member, specifically a child, to whom they can pass the torch.

Shop Eat Surf interviewed several surf shop founders to hear their stories, and how they prepared their families for the progression. What follows is a sampling of candid takeaways from their experiences, including how they successfully operate as independent, family-owned businesses.

17th Street Surf Shop

Locations: Four stores in Virginia and two in North Carolina.
The Family: Tom Brown, founder; Tyler Brown, president.
As told by Tom Brown. 

From Early Employee to Standout Executive

“Tyler was 5 years old when I came to 17th Street in 1992. He grew up skating, surfing, and wearing all the lifestyle clothing. Working in the stores through high school, he met many of the traveling icons in the sport. He attended a couple Surf Summits and met the owners and executives driving the trends in the action sports business. In college he spent a summer in California interning for Billabong. That gave him a better understanding of the wholesale side of the business.

“Upon graduating from college in 2009, he joined me full time at 17th Street. In 2011 he was promoted to men’s buyer. Due to his success, he was promoted to vice president in 2016. His job was managing the day-to-day operations of the business. I began living in Florida for six months a year and would come back to Virginia in May to help with long-term financial planning and strategic growth plans.

“The pandemic changed everything. His managing of the business through those two years really proved to me that I was not involved and had very little to offer in the way of how retail runs. Since 2021, I have limited time in the office now, offering to help out with special projects. He has, for the most part, been on his own since 2022.”

Taking Risks to Stand Out

“In corporate retail, we studied a lot of data to decide what direction to take in our inventory decisions. We relied on what sold last year, and what to repeat. New vendors had to be tested to get some data before we jumped in. I now call that Rear View Merchandising.

“Tyler is more of a trend guy and goes with his gut about what the next big thing will be. He wants to lead the community to the next great item. For example, he went big on Yeti when I questioned the price points, and he was on the front side of elastic shorts and swim when I would have spent time testing the waters. His success with new items is the reason I have not looked at a line with him in six years. I no longer have the same understanding of the customer.”

The Challenges and Opportunities of Working with Family

The biggest challenge is getting them to understand that as a mentor, you are the boss and no longer a parent. The day Tyler started in the central office, I was no longer dad; I was Tom. The expectations I put on my staff were no different for him as my son. He could bring his own methods to the table as long as they got the desired results. His success was his success and not an imitation of what I told him to do. My challenge was to be patient and not expect him to be immediately successful.

“The upside is he will continue a company that has been around since 1970. Many of our staff have been here for 15 to 30 years and will continue to work in the business they love. He has endless opportunities to write the next chapter for a company with a long history in the surf and skate culture.”

How to Best Bring Kids into the Business

“My accountant warned me early on about the amount of failure he had seen in companies transferring management to [the owners’] children. I believe it has worked for us because I started my kids early, while in high school. They worked in the stores and not directly with me. Their level of interest was documented by trusted managers who knew that they were not to get special treatment. The choices they made after college were theirs to follow in careers they would enjoy. They must show a passion for the business and a desire to lead people. That is the only way it will work.” 

Hansen Surfboards

Location: Encinitas, California.
The Family: Don Hansen, founder, along with his kids – CEO Josh Hansen, Floor Manager Christian Hansen, and Buyer Heidi Hansen.
As told by Josh Hansen.

Watering Deep Roots

“I started working at Hansen Surfboards in 2001. I went to business school and graduated from the University of Vermont. When I graduated, I came straight out here. It was right during the dotcom bust. I always had an interest in business in general – how they work and function, management, and leadership.”

“[But] inevitably, when you’re in the trenches, that’s where you do most of your learning. I was very blessed that my father had a long career running Hansen’s. He was also a co-founder of Ocean Pacific, so he had a lot of experience running businesses and always kept me going in the right direction. I always say he was the guardrail as I started to take on more responsibility. He was always there to make sure I didn’t make any major mistakes. But I would also tell you, through college and business school, there were things that I took from school and was able to apply to our family business.”

The Challenges and Opportunities of Working with Family

“When you work in a real family business, and I would say we’re the epitome of that, there are a lot of dynamics that are part of that whole relationship. All my siblings have different skill sets, so it was always very clear as to where everybody fit in the business. That can actually be uncomfortable at times because that’s not always what everybody feels are their capabilities, but my dad was always very transparent and candid about who was going to do what in the business. Admittedly, it’s not always easy and, at times, it can be messy.

“Everybody always asks, ‘How do you manage the family business?’ I always say it’s just a lot of patience. You’ve got to think and do what’s good for the family and not always necessarily what’s good for you.”

Maintaining Transparency and Integrity

“My dad has always taught us to be conservative. Some guys might read that and say, ‘You’re not finding your full potential,’ but we’ve been blessed with a sustainable, great family business in Encinitas. There’s a good thing going here, so let’s not reinvent the wheel.

“But the biggest thing my father taught me, my sister and my brother is to treat people right and do the right thing. I think your siblings always keep you honest. You learn to work with them and communicate with them. That’s something that’s not only a lesson from my siblings, but other employees in the business. I’ve had to personally grow a lot and learn to be a better communicator. I’m not a real big fan of meetings but inevitably they’re an important aspect of a business, especially as it’s growing and there are new employees and new departments.”

Val Surf

Locations: Valley Village, Woodland Hills, Thousand Oaks, and Valencia in California.
The Family: Founders Bill Richards, along with sons Mark, Kurt, and Eric; Mark’s sons Brandon Richards, president, and Blake Richards, vice president; and Kurt’s daughter Denise Richards, secretary/treasurer.
As told by Mark Richards.

Nurturing the Next Generation of Leaders

“Brandon, Blake and Denise, who’s my brother Kurt’s daughter, began working at Val Surf in their teens, with limited time during their college years. For some time now, they have been the president, vice president, and secretary/treasurer, respectively. In addition to the responsibilities that go along with those roles, they are also all very active in other areas, such as buying, scheduling, marketing, sales and HR.”

“They have contributed a lot [to the business] from their youthful vantage point about how they see and deal with the goings on of our business. This includes how to relate, respond and adjust to the current climate of the surf/skate/snow industry and, most importantly, to the constantly transitioning and changing character and interests of the customer base and employees.”

The Challenges and Opportunities of Working with Family

“Being a family business since our very inception back in 1962, we have been constantly hearing about how great the upsides must be. Well, yes, in large part that is true. However, we would be naïve to say that always means a smooth, profitable and successful business. We do have differences of opinions that surface occasionally and need to be addressed, whether led by family or a mix of employees from within.”

“I believe that it is essential [the kids have] the drive more than being active participants in the surf/skate/snow lifestyle, although that is most important as well. This drive was the driving force that brought out the concept of opening the first surf/skate inland shop back in the day with our family having little or no business background at the time. But of course, this is still a retail business, first and foremost, which means there will continue to be constant challenges and outside elements that we need to tackle and resolve.” 

Passing the Torch: Progression Tales from Surf Shop Founders

by | Aug 24, 2023

Small business founders and owners need to determine who should take over when they’re ready to retire or exit the business.

As hard as it may be, every business owner has to think about the future. Specifically, what the future of their business looks like without them in it.

Small business founders and owners need to determine who should take over when they’re ready to retire or exit the business. In some cases, there’s a co-founder or business partner that is the perfect fit. But for many business owners, the next-in-command is a family member, specifically a child, to whom they can pass the torch.

Shop Eat Surf interviewed several surf shop founders to hear their stories, and how they prepared their families for the progression. What follows is a sampling of candid takeaways from their experiences, including how they successfully operate as independent, family-owned businesses.

17th Street Surf Shop

Locations: Four stores in Virginia and two in North Carolina.
The Family: Tom Brown, founder; Tyler Brown, president.
As told by Tom Brown. 

From Early Employee to Standout Executive

“Tyler was 5 years old when I came to 17th Street in 1992. He grew up skating, surfing, and wearing all the lifestyle clothing. Working in the stores through high school, he met many of the traveling icons in the sport. He attended a couple Surf Summits and met the owners and executives driving the trends in the action sports business. In college he spent a summer in California interning for Billabong. That gave him a better understanding of the wholesale side of the business.

“Upon graduating from college in 2009, he joined me full time at 17th Street. In 2011 he was promoted to men’s buyer. Due to his success, he was promoted to vice president in 2016. His job was managing the day-to-day operations of the business. I began living in Florida for six months a year and would come back to Virginia in May to help with long-term financial planning and strategic growth plans.

“The pandemic changed everything. His managing of the business through those two years really proved to me that I was not involved and had very little to offer in the way of how retail runs. Since 2021, I have limited time in the office now, offering to help out with special projects. He has, for the most part, been on his own since 2022.”

Taking Risks to Stand Out

“In corporate retail, we studied a lot of data to decide what direction to take in our inventory decisions. We relied on what sold last year, and what to repeat. New vendors had to be tested to get some data before we jumped in. I now call that Rear View Merchandising.

“Tyler is more of a trend guy and goes with his gut about what the next big thing will be. He wants to lead the community to the next great item. For example, he went big on Yeti when I questioned the price points, and he was on the front side of elastic shorts and swim when I would have spent time testing the waters. His success with new items is the reason I have not looked at a line with him in six years. I no longer have the same understanding of the customer.”

The Challenges and Opportunities of Working with Family

The biggest challenge is getting them to understand that as a mentor, you are the boss and no longer a parent. The day Tyler started in the central office, I was no longer dad; I was Tom. The expectations I put on my staff were no different for him as my son. He could bring his own methods to the table as long as they got the desired results. His success was his success and not an imitation of what I told him to do. My challenge was to be patient and not expect him to be immediately successful.

“The upside is he will continue a company that has been around since 1970. Many of our staff have been here for 15 to 30 years and will continue to work in the business they love. He has endless opportunities to write the next chapter for a company with a long history in the surf and skate culture.”

How to Best Bring Kids into the Business

“My accountant warned me early on about the amount of failure he had seen in companies transferring management to [the owners’] children. I believe it has worked for us because I started my kids early, while in high school. They worked in the stores and not directly with me. Their level of interest was documented by trusted managers who knew that they were not to get special treatment. The choices they made after college were theirs to follow in careers they would enjoy. They must show a passion for the business and a desire to lead people. That is the only way it will work.” 

Hansen Surfboards

Location: Encinitas, California.
The Family: Don Hansen, founder, along with his kids – CEO Josh Hansen, Floor Manager Christian Hansen, and Buyer Heidi Hansen.
As told by Josh Hansen.

Watering Deep Roots

“I started working at Hansen Surfboards in 2001. I went to business school and graduated from the University of Vermont. When I graduated, I came straight out here. It was right during the dotcom bust. I always had an interest in business in general – how they work and function, management, and leadership.”

“[But] inevitably, when you’re in the trenches, that’s where you do most of your learning. I was very blessed that my father had a long career running Hansen’s. He was also a co-founder of Ocean Pacific, so he had a lot of experience running businesses and always kept me going in the right direction. I always say he was the guardrail as I started to take on more responsibility. He was always there to make sure I didn’t make any major mistakes. But I would also tell you, through college and business school, there were things that I took from school and was able to apply to our family business.”

The Challenges and Opportunities of Working with Family

“When you work in a real family business, and I would say we’re the epitome of that, there are a lot of dynamics that are part of that whole relationship. All my siblings have different skill sets, so it was always very clear as to where everybody fit in the business. That can actually be uncomfortable at times because that’s not always what everybody feels are their capabilities, but my dad was always very transparent and candid about who was going to do what in the business. Admittedly, it’s not always easy and, at times, it can be messy.

“Everybody always asks, ‘How do you manage the family business?’ I always say it’s just a lot of patience. You’ve got to think and do what’s good for the family and not always necessarily what’s good for you.”

Maintaining Transparency and Integrity

“My dad has always taught us to be conservative. Some guys might read that and say, ‘You’re not finding your full potential,’ but we’ve been blessed with a sustainable, great family business in Encinitas. There’s a good thing going here, so let’s not reinvent the wheel.

“But the biggest thing my father taught me, my sister and my brother is to treat people right and do the right thing. I think your siblings always keep you honest. You learn to work with them and communicate with them. That’s something that’s not only a lesson from my siblings, but other employees in the business. I’ve had to personally grow a lot and learn to be a better communicator. I’m not a real big fan of meetings but inevitably they’re an important aspect of a business, especially as it’s growing and there are new employees and new departments.”

Val Surf

Locations: Valley Village, Woodland Hills, Thousand Oaks, and Valencia in California.
The Family: Founders Bill Richards, along with sons Mark, Kurt, and Eric; Mark’s sons Brandon Richards, president, and Blake Richards, vice president; and Kurt’s daughter Denise Richards, secretary/treasurer.
As told by Mark Richards.

Nurturing the Next Generation of Leaders

“Brandon, Blake and Denise, who’s my brother Kurt’s daughter, began working at Val Surf in their teens, with limited time during their college years. For some time now, they have been the president, vice president, and secretary/treasurer, respectively. In addition to the responsibilities that go along with those roles, they are also all very active in other areas, such as buying, scheduling, marketing, sales and HR.”

“They have contributed a lot [to the business] from their youthful vantage point about how they see and deal with the goings on of our business. This includes how to relate, respond and adjust to the current climate of the surf/skate/snow industry and, most importantly, to the constantly transitioning and changing character and interests of the customer base and employees.”

The Challenges and Opportunities of Working with Family

“Being a family business since our very inception back in 1962, we have been constantly hearing about how great the upsides must be. Well, yes, in large part that is true. However, we would be naïve to say that always means a smooth, profitable and successful business. We do have differences of opinions that surface occasionally and need to be addressed, whether led by family or a mix of employees from within.”

“I believe that it is essential [the kids have] the drive more than being active participants in the surf/skate/snow lifestyle, although that is most important as well. This drive was the driving force that brought out the concept of opening the first surf/skate inland shop back in the day with our family having little or no business background at the time. But of course, this is still a retail business, first and foremost, which means there will continue to be constant challenges and outside elements that we need to tackle and resolve.”