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35 YEARS AND STILL GOING STRONG

Brian Singer, Nat Young, Maurice Cole, Doug Warbrick, Wayne Lynch, Michael Anthony and Terry 'Speaky' Lyons
Brian Singer, Nat Young, Maurice Cole (standing below), Doug Warbrick (sitting above), Wayne Lynch, Michael Anthony and Terry "Speaky" Lyons

Way back in 1969 Terry “Speaky” Lyons opened his first surf shop in Geelong. Part of the Torquay crew which included Rip Curl founders Doug Warbrick and Brian Singer and Quiksilver founder Alan Green, Speaky went into the venture only looking a few years down the track - “I thought I’d do it until I was about 30 then move on to something else”.

It never entered his mind that he would still be in business 35 years later, with two surf shops in Geelong and a ski shop in Mount Buller.

Thirty-five years ago as his mates were kicking off Rip Curl and Quiksilver no one even imagined that the surf industry would ever grow into the multi-million dollar business it is today. Speaky’s motivation back then was the same as the others - he was interested in establishing a business that would allow him to live a life that revolved around surfing.

“When I started there weren’t really many surf shops around. You had Surf, Dive’n Ski in Melbourne and Tony Olsen’s Melbourne Surf Centre. Basically it was a new thing and there really wasn’t a lot of product to sell. Rip Curl made a few wetsuits and then Greeny started Quiksilver and made boardshorts, but that was all they made. I was selling things like Levis, Crest Knit jumpers as well, things you’d find in a menswear store. We sold boards, local brands and I dealt with Midget and Shane Stedman interstate and we sold wax. It was before legropes and a few years before Quiksilver and Rip Curl started making T-shirts which expanded our range.”

Having been there from the very beginning, Speaky has seen the growth of the surf industry first hand. He has had a close association with Rip Curl and Quiksilver and was sharing a house with Alan Green when Greeny was cutting out boardshorts on the kitchen table, but he never ventured into the manufacturing side.

“I guess I did have a couple of opportunities there and in hindsight I do wonder about my decision,” he says laughing. “I had the opportunities but I was too smart for that and thought I’d stay in retail. Hence 35 years later I’m still working in the shop on a Saturday morning. I’m still really good mates with them all and success hasn’t changed them. If you go down to Torquay and meet them you wouldn’t know if they’ve got ten million or ten bob in their pocket.”

Speaky's Surf Shop, Torquay
Speaky's Surf Shop, Torquay

Of course having his mates manufacturing boardies and wetsuits in his backyard made things easier for Speaky when it came to getting a hold of stock. “I think having the close relationship as worked both ways, I’ve been a good customer for them over the years.”

As the Australian surf market grew the dominance of Quiksilver, Billabong and Rip Curl quickly emerged and for Speaky they are still the bread and butter brands. “The three majors still dominate and the thing about them these days is the vast range of their products - clothes, wetsuits to foot wear to sunglasses to watches - if you stock those three brands alone it doesn’t leave a lot of room for any of your b-grade brands to get into your shop. We’ve sold skateboards all the way through, been strong on that, so some of the street wear brands have done well for us and then some of the fringe brands, like the Mambos, that do something a little different.

“We started off as a shop that sold a few surfboards and a few wetsuits and boardshorts and finished up being almost a footwear, sunglass and watch shop. Our core business used to be in those basic three products but now it’s a minor part of our business these days.”

Not surprisingly Speaky cites the growth of the women’s market as the major development in the industry in the past 15 years. When he opened he didn’t carry any women’s wear at all but now it is crucial to any surf shops success.

"The girls would walk into a surf shop in the early days and if they wanted to but something they’d have to buy an oversize men’s t-shirt, there was no other product for them to buy. I’d say now that well over 50% of any surf shop is made up of women’s wear. The fashion for a lot of young people is dominated by what is coming out of the Roxys, Billabong girls...in beach wear they are the fashion trend setters.”

The advent of the surf chain stores has seen a decline in the number of independent surf shops like Speakys, particularly in the big population centres, and he reckons there is a chance that in the long term shops like his won’t exist.

"The average surf shop will be dominated by chain stores and then you have the manufacturers going vertical as well with their own shops. It is making harder and harder for operators like myself to survive. The big companies still have a fair bit of integrity in the way they do things; they could have been a lot more ruthless. The type of people who are involved with running the three majors are still in touch with the grass roots. They’re not only in touch with the boys in the boardroom but also the boys in the packing room as well.

I suppose we’re almost like a dinosaur these days with the chain store type shops - the Jetty surfs, Surf dive and skis and City Beaches - but one thing that has enabled us to survive is old fashioned service and customer relationships. That is one thing that I thing those big stores lack. You walk in there and you are not treated like a regular customer, they’ve become a surfing supermarket. I’ve got people coming into my shop every day who came in as young kids and now they’re coming in with their own kids. You know them personally or know their face and say hello and they come up and have a chat. People like that personal touch rather than just being treated like another number.”

Thirty-five years is a long time for any retail business to succeed and besides sound management Speaky puts it down to two main reasons - position and customer service. A good location is imperative in retailing and in those days Torquay was a tiny holiday town while Geelong had a big population and therefore a solid potential market. It was also an easy stop off for Melbourne surfers on their way to Torquay. As Torquay has developed into surf central Speaky has looked at opening a store there but resisted the temptation, deciding he had a niche market in Geelong with a big and loyal clientele.

“Working and operating yourself, being on the floor keeps you in touch with what the customer wants and having good staff. We tend to keep our staff for a long, long time; some have been with us for years. You have to look after them and in return they have to do the right thing by you and look after the customer. It’s all interrelated. We have a lot of return customers, people who come from a long way.“

The business has developed into a family operation with Terry’s son Nathan heading into the business straight out of school and 16 years later manages the stores with Terry.


Terry and Nathan Lyons

“He’s got his ideas, I’ve got mine and sometimes we disagree with the buying. That’s probably a good thing. Sometimes he’ll prove me wrong and sometimes I’ll prove him wrong. With the buying it’s important to consult the staff...the surf companies don’t always produce a range, which you think is on the money. Every range has some crap amongst the good stuff and its experience, which allows you to go through a range and pick out what you think, will sell. We involve some of the girls who work for us but once again you do rely on the designers at the companies having done their homework and producing stuff, which the customers want...the right style, the right colours. Of course, they’re not always right and often what was hot last week can change over night. You just have to rely on experience.

”Ten years ago the Speaky and Nathan decided to expand into snow, opening a small shop in Mount Buller, which is open in winter. Speaky has had a long association with skiing and the mountains, working on the pro ski patrol in Buller for over 25 years, including many as the manager. Nathan is also a red-hot skier and when a retail outlet became available on the mountain they jumped in, their knowledge of the snow industry and their retail experience making the perfect combination.

“There wasn’t a shop like it up there and I knew Quiksilver and Rip Curl wanted an outlet up there. Alan Green and John Law who own Quiksilver and Doug Warbrick and Brian Singer with Rip Curl have been into skiing and Mount Buller for over 30 years and it seemed a logical thing to do. It worked out well as the three majors all produce good ski wear and we were already dealing with them in the surf shops. We don’t stock hardware, skis or snowboards, just the ski wear and accessories and it’s gone quite well. It’s a hard business as you’ve only got 12 to 16 weeks to make your money and it is so reliant on the snow. A few bad snow years can really hurt but the last couple of years have been fantastic for snow and it’s kicking along nicely.”

There aren’t many surf shops in Australia that have been owner/operated by the one person since 1969, but Speaky isn’t entertaining any thoughts of retirement.

“I still enjoy retailing, I enjoy coming to work and dealing with people. Unless that changes I’ll be here. Even if I did retire Nathan is quite happy in the business so the shop would continue...I really haven’t thought that far ahead.”

 

Words by Reggae Elliss

Courtesy of Australian Surf Business Magazine
December 2004 / January 2005

 

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