Today’s interview is with Steve Boehne of Infinity Surfboards. Infinity brings a unique perspective to 50 BUILT being a manufacturer, retailer and wholesaler of their products. Steve having been a shaper for 50 years now, and Infinity having been around since 1970, together bring an outlook that spans decades, economic times and technology.
How did you get your start in shaping surfboards and how was the surf industry different back then?
I would say that all American Surfboard makers started out as surfers in the first place, and that’s where the key to our success is, that we love the sport. With me, I started out surfing when I was 12 years old and that very same year I made my first surfboard. Within 10 years after that, by the time I was 20 years old, I was shaping professionally, at the same time I was going to college. That’s how you get into it. I’ve been doing it since 1960.
Fast forward 50 years, how have the challenges as a surfboard shaper/manufacturer changed?
In the old days, really, the business was almost the same, only now there are way more people making surfboards. It was a small industry in the beginning, surfing was only just getting popular in about 1960. Since that time, the number of manufacturers has increased. It’s funny, we’re still doing the same kinds of things. We’re still doing the team riders, we’re individuals who are making surfboards in a small factory and selling them in our stores. It’s the same now as it was then. What has changed, is that competition with ourselves is much greater. More people are making boards and every kid in high-school who loves surfing, would love to open their own surf shop and make surfboards. You have a very low threshold to get into the business. It doesn’t cost much money, and it’s pretty easy for a young guy to get into the business. Therefore, there’s a lot of competition. And so the markup is a little lower than what it really should be because of the competition. In addition, there is a lot of competition coming in from boards being made in China. There are different sides of that story. We’ll get to that.
On top of being a manufacturer, Infinity is also a retail shop. How much control do you do when buying goods for the shop? How much responsibility does a retail shop have in buying American?
You know, we sell a lot of surf accessories; everything from surfboard leashes, to wax, to surf clothing. These are name-brand clothes that are known and advertised. So we need to carry those name-brand products if we want them to sell. What we can’t control is where they make them and nearly everybody is making their products overseas, except for the small companies. When you get to a certain size, it is more efficient to make it in China. A small size company can make their goods in the USA because it makes sense logistically. The American worker is competing against labor all over the world and that wasn’t the case 30 years ago.
How have foreign imports effected Infinity’s business in the last decade?
Surfboards is a small, cottage industry, maybe like a custom car builder or custom motorcycles; it’s just a guy in his garage. If you want your car with a custom paint job, you would go to this guy to supe up your engine and paint it because that’s the guy who would know how to do it. Our advantage is that we are experts at making surfboards and we do them one at a time, for that customer, to his specifications and that can’t be done anywhere else. However, at the same time, if you get to a certain scale where you have a lot of dealers and a worldwide network, then we actually can’t make more boards than we currently are, we’re almost at our limit. If you want to expand your production and your reach to customers, you kind of need to go to a distributor and have them make your boards. Right now the big distributors only make their boards overseas. The customer knows the difference. They know when they’re US boards, and when they’re Chinese boards. Depending on the customer, they may prefer one or the other. You might say the American made boards are the very latest in design, they can be custom made for this guy to his weight and to his abilities. Whereas a board that comes out of a mold is a one-size-fits-all, they tend to be a little bit heavier, but a little bit stronger; so they’re better for the beginner. We’re finding that the better surfers want the custom board and the beginners are better off, really, on a molded board.
How has using these distributors effected Infinity’s wholesale business?
We have decreased our wholesale business because of the squeeze. By the time we discount and sell the board and sell it to the dealer, it’s barely worth the time to do it. We’re primarily 95% retail direct to the customer and that’s all been made possible by the internet. Now a surfer in New Jersey, Florida, Europe or France can go to the website and see our products. They can email us and can get a return to his email that same night, a personal reply about their needs that will allow them to just reply and order the board, then we ship the board directly from our retail shop to the customer. The internet has made a giant difference in the shape of our business.
Your reputation in the surf industry is that you make every kind of custom board imaginable from shortboards to longboards and stand-up paddleboards to waveskis. How important is that custom aspect to Infinity? Can that kind of customization be outsourced?
Well, when it comes to customization, you just have to do the board one at a time. And take waveskis for example. I have orders for about 10 waveskis right now and none of them are the same. Each customer is a different age, a different weight, he surfs on a different kind of wave. And each board is made entirely different from the other one for that particular guy. That just can’t be molded. It can’t be done somewhere else. It also needs an expert to do it, which just happens to be me because I enjoy waveski surfing. Different surf shop owners kind of lead their companies into a different directions depending on their interests. Some guys make only short boards, and they do a great job at it. Others only do long boards. It just so happens that, on a personal level, that I happen to enjoy surfing in a lot of different ways. Tandem, waveskis, stand up, and longboards, and then my sons do the short boards. So between all of us, we can, with authentic expertise, offer those products through our shop which is pretty unusual.
You recently signed a contract with a large distributor that makes their boards overseas to produce a few of your SUP boards. Even though the vast majority of your boards are still hand-shaped in the USA, can you give the 50 BUILT readers an idea as to why you felt you had to go that route?
First of all, you might say, it’s survival. I’m a retailer, it’s a recession, and I have got to make enough profit to pay my bills. Second thing is it’s a size choice with us. We’ve learned that we do best in a company with about 10 employees, at a certain size running our business. I don’t seem to be comfortable with having a larger business than that. That in itself limits how many boards we can make and limits our distribution. To become larger we would have to hire production managers, sales managers; we’d have to go the next step above where we want to be. So your option is to go with a company like Boardworks, who is our new distributor for those SUP boards. They make their boards in China, but they have a worldwide distribution that instantly gives us access to the world at a much higher volume than what we can produce. I’m not opposed to a product made in China. I think we have to compete against them. The way we compete is custom work and expertise. That being said, they’re doing excellent products, but it’s one size fits all. There’s not the custom aspect to it. We just have to realize that some customers want that and some customers want the other. Mostly, I just couldn’t make enough boards to supply what they’re able to supply for us.
A side note; I know you have a huge collection of Skil planers that are no longer being manufactured. They were made in the USA and you refurbish them, buy new bearings etc. just to keep them around. Why is that tool so important and sought after by the master shapers in the industry, like yourself?
These Skil Planers were being made in the early 50s and they quit making them in the late 70s. It was even a couple years after that that we found out that they had quit making them; maybe ’82 or ’83. All of a sudden you couldn’t buy one and I had bought 2 or 3 over the years. All the shapers found out and started to buy as many of them as they could. It turns out that they just have wonderful balance, kind of like a terrific violin. They just lend themself to hand-working foam. There have to be two-dozen other kinds of planers that are made, and none of them have the characteristics of adjustment and the feel that the Skils do. So every time one of them comes up, a used one comes up somewhere, I’ve usually bought it. I’ve probably bought about $20,000 worth of Skill planers. To keep your planers running, you have to take your parts off the old one and scavenge the parts and keep them running. There aren’t any new parts being made so you can’t just buy them. Except for bearings, but the basic parts, you can’t get anymore.
It’s interesting because the demand has slackened off a little bit and even the price for the old Skils has fallen. The reason is because very few shapers are shaping by hand anymore. I would say that even in America, 95% of the boards shaped are made on a shaping machine. They’re not made by hand and you don’t need a planer. It makes sense because you take a young guy who’s 16 or 18 years old, he wants to become a shaper and he wants to make surfboards. Well he’s already an expert on a computer, doing things I couldn’t possibly do. What’s he going to do? Is he going to find a planer and learn how to do something with his hands, something that’s going to take him five years? Or is he going to get the computer program, download it on his PC and in 2 or 3 days, learn how to program shapes on a computer? That’s why people aren’t learning to shape anymore. Guys like me die off. I say in ten years nobody will know how to make a surfboard by hand. They’ll actually have to make it on a computer. To me that’s really disappointing. Can you imagine if guitar players quit playing guitar because they found out it’s easier on their computer. In a sense, the creativity and the joy of doing something with your hands is lost and it’s unfortunately the direction we’re headed.
Your sons were taught how to hand-shape growing up, but use the computer now?
Both David and Daniel are experts on computer-designing surfboards now. So I’m the one in the family if something needs to be hand shaped. I do 10 hand-shaped boards a week and probably another 30 machine finished boards a week. But the boys, no, they’re doing computer designing.
How important is the Made in the USA message to the Infinity brand and the customers that buy boards?
With some customers it’s really an important thing. Most are aware of the job situation in America and that Made in America is important. It kind of has an ‘Americans supporting other Americans’ feel to it. We find that when we ship boards to France or Australia, or wherever, we always try to make sure we have that Made in America sticker on it, that’s very important to customers in other countries. When it comes to SUP boards, where we have a giant influx of competition, really 98% of all SUP boards sold in America are not Made in America, they’re made in China. So we really want to differentiate from them and really let people know that ours are made here. So we put the stickers for sure on the SUP boards.
What’s the biggest threat to companies like Infinity and allowing them to continue to make their goods in the USA?
The American worker is competing against the wages of workers around the world and in our glass shop we have laminators, glassers, sanders, polishers, glossers, airbrushers, these are all guys with families, kids, they have a mortgage and they need to make enough money to make a living. How long can they keep making surfboards? What’s happening is that their relative paycheck has been reduced over the last 30 years. I would, not factoring in inflation, that a surfboard maker in the 1970s could make $50-60,000 a year and now he’s making $30,000. His wages haven’t gone up the prices of cheap overseas goods have driven the board prices down. Like I said, keeping American-made surfboards is about whether or not the workers can afford to do it. It’s price competition.
Awesome, thank you so much Steve for your insight and perspective. Appreciate all you do.
Thanks a lot for your help, it’s been a lot of fun talking with you here.